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Wearables Business

Be a blanket booster!

Be a blanket booster!

Byline: Brian Anderson

As a promotional product, blankets are booming. Just read on as supplier after supplier raves about the reasons why blankets are the perfect promotional product.

From Lori Anderson of Lakeside Mills: “Blankets make such a great promotional product because they are functional and not gender-, size- or age-specific. They can be used for most any program or event and they hit the perfect price point: not too high and not too cheap or cheesy. With this item you really get a great practical item for a great price.”

From John Meis of MV Sport/Weatherproof: “They are a great promotional product because they are multipurpose, very useful and an item that is universally accepted by all consumers. Some promotional products that people receive get the silent treatment with their subconscious saying, ‘I’ll never use or wear this product.’ This doesn’t happen with blankets. People say, This is cool, I can really use this.'”

From Pete Laumeyer of Spectrum Imports/Mega Mat: “It catches the eye, and curiosity of people, and that is main reason for corporate recognition. It’s also something that people can share.”

From Tina Schmitt of Colorado Trading & Clothing Co.: “It’s non-sized, one SKU, so it is an easy gift to purchase, and is loved by all ages, female and male, and is something everyone uses at some point in the year. It’s easy to embellish and is a nice gift with a personal touch, without getting too personal.”

From David Stacks of Augusta Sportswear: “Blankets are great promotional products because they’re so ‘feel good.’ A blanket reminds you of home where you grew up and lived as a kid. It doesn’t matter if you grew up in Montana or Louisiana – or in the city or in the country. A blanket reminds you of mom, apple pie and cool fall evenings in the stadium at the high school football game.”

Hold on – John Meis from MV Sport/Weatherproof wasn’t done yet: “The blanket customer is universal. They are so useful that they really can be in every program that is put together. They should be in every corporate catalog, they should be presented in every corporate gift giveaway and they are well accepted for events. I can’t think of one promotional use that does not warrant having a blanket in the offering. People love them.”

Based on all those enthusiastic blanket statements of support, these and any other industry suppliers who offer blankets are obviously big blanket boosters. If you like showing your clients a win-win promotional product, you should be a blanket booster, too.

As if you need more testimonials about the benefits of blankets, how about this: They are often less expensive today than they were three years ago.

“Our blanket prices have dropped, which means they’re a real bargain for PPDs,” says David Stacks, marketing director at Augusta, Ga.-based Augusta Sportswear. “Our first-column price on Style 5060 in 2000 was $10.95. Since then, we’ve cut the price a couple of times – as our manufacturing efficiencies improved – and now we sell the Chill Fleece Blanket for $5.85. That’s about 40 percent less than three years ago.”

Lori Anderson of Duluth, Minn.-based supplier Lakeside Mills, says lower prices are a primary reason that blankets sales are booming.

“A blanket may have retailed in the ASI Industry for $25 to $30 three or four years ago. Today a blanket could retail in the same industry for as low as $10 to $12, possibly less,” Anderson says. “I believe the growth in blanket sales is mostly due to the fierce competition forcing down the prices, thus increasing viability.”

Who’s buying blankets

Plenty of reasons why blankets are perfect promotional products have already been mentioned. Now it’s time to cover how they are being used. While suppliers are saying they can be sold to nearly any type of customer for any type of program, there are plenty of obvious uses (listed on page 50).

Some of the uses Lori Anderson at Lakeside Mills has encountered include: safety programs, where the blanket is included in an emergency kit in the trunk of a car; real estate companies have given blankets as housewarming gifts upon closing on a house; hospitals have given them to dialysis patients; Air Force One has them on board; pharmaceutical companies have given them away at new drug introduction conventions; they have been given away at inaugurations; or, they can be used for something as uneventful as lounging at home.

“Truly the list goes on. There are just so many possibilities,” Anderson adds.

John Meis, national sales manager for the corporate division at MV Sport/Weatherproof of Bay Shore, N.Y., mentions a recent project where MV Sport supplied its popular Sweatshirt Blanket via a distributor for a pharmaceutical company.

“We had a drug company that introduced a new cancer drug. They wanted a comfort theme for a giveaway at a medical trade show – the blanket was perfect. They ordered them with the custom hangtag saying, ‘for the comfort of your patients.’ It was a huge brand launch for the product and very memorable for the doctors. This year they are going to give them a pillow (made out of sweatshirt material) as a year-two follow-up.”

Merchandising and packaging the products are a big part of the program at MV Sport/Weatherproof, Meis says. “All of our styles possess unique packaging concepts that enhance an already great product and make them even more appealing. As an example, we roll and tie our sweatshirt blanket and put a custom hangtag on it to show what the logo looks like so that the end user does not have to open it up to see what the logo is.” Meis says.

Fixturing is another option distributors can take advantage of from MV Sport/Weatherproof, either for their own showrooms or for the client.

“Certain size orders will get a blanket cart fixture almost for free. This has created many ideas for our distributors,” Meis says.

For example, one distributor sold blankets to a car dealership, had the cart fixture on the dealer’s showroom floor and advertised, “Come in for a test drive and get a free blanket.” The event was a huge success, Meis says. The same thing happened with a bank:’Open up a checking account and get a free blanket.’ Also enhanced with a bank lobby cart, this program worked well too.

“Like I say, we at MV Sport and Weatherproof make sure (with merchandising) that our blankets remain popular because we really make our total package so different,” Meis says.

Fleece blankets the workhorse

The staple blanket offered by numerous suppliers is the standard 100% polar fleece blanket, often with edges stitched in black (called a whipstitch) or matching colors. The average size is 50″ x 60″ and they frequently come with web carrying handles or nylon barrel straps.

Fleece blankets have surged in popularity in recent years because they are much less expensive than wool blankets or woven afghans, they are easy to wash, and dry exceptionally fast where cotton or wool will soak up water and can retain odors. But price is often the key factor, reiterates David Stacks of Augusta.

“Most end-users shop their PPDs based on price. The end-user calls his PPD and says, ‘I need 500 pieces of something good to give my employees for their best safety record ever. What do you have for less than $12 per piece?’ With Augusta Sportswear’s Chill Fleece Blanket, the PPD’s options just got a lot broader. The PPD can sell his customer 500 undecorated blankets with a 100% gross margin. And for a few dollars more, it’s easy to decorate each blanket with the end-user’s preferred design,” Stacks says.

Augusta introduced its Chill Fleece Blanket in 2000 with five basic colors, and Stacks says it has sold so well that new colors have been added each year. Gold, maroon and purple are being added for 2004, bringing the total to nine colors.

At Lakeside Mills, a basic 50″ x 58″ 100% polyester polar fleece blanket with serged edges is the most popular blanket.

“We also make the basic blanket to order so customers can choose their own color and size if they prefer,” Anderson says.

The Classic Fleece Throw, style CT00500 from Colorado Trading, is a 50″ x 60″ 100% polyester fleece with a contrast black whipstitch and a removable black carry strap.

“We have been making the throw for 9 years now, and designed the fleece throw at the same time we designed the jacket and our entire fleece line,” Schmitt says. “Other companies who do not specialize in fleece outerwear like ourselves brought in the fleece throw as an afterthought after seeing how successful the fleece throw was for fleece companies and jumped in to it because of the volume done in these fleece throws. We do well over a million units a year in this style even with all the competition.”

Lori Anderson says Lakeside Mills has seen a number of suppliers get into basic fleece blankets even though their core product line has absolutely nothing to do with jackets, polar fleece, blankets or even soft goods.

“It is high-velocity item that can be easily stocked, requires little or no equipment to get into, little or no production talent and has potential to increase one’s sales and add to the bottom line for comparatively little effort or risk,” Anderson says. “The fact that anybody can, and does, do polar fleece blankets has increased the availability, lowering the price allowing for an easier sell to the end user.”

Two-sided blanket boom

While basic fleece blankets are far and away the volume leaders, suppliers have come up with several variations in materials and sizes to accommodate more specific uses.

One of the hotter styles right now are two-sided blankets with fleece on one side and water-resistant or even waterproof nylon on the other, which offers some distinct benefits over a basic fleece blanket. They are particularly good options for stadium blankets and picnic blankets. A two-sided picnic blanket, for example, allows the end user to put the nylon side on the ground. In addition to preventing any moisture from the ground seeping through, it will stay cleaner, as the nylon side will not pick up grass and dirt like the fleece side would. A two-sided stadium blanket allows the end user to stay warm and dry with the nylon side facing out, keeping wind, snow and rain at bay.

Colorado Trading & Clothing Company’s new Rec Pak fits into this category, with poly fleece on one side and waterproof, breathable nylon on the other. It rolls into a bungee cord or can be folded into a seat cushion with carry straps.

Lakeside Mills is introducing its Weather Barrier blanket, a 50″x58″ style with a nylon shell and 100% polyester polar fleece lining. It has two functional pockets and its own built-in carry handle.

Weatherproof offers the Performance Blanket, with its soft and warm 100% polyester Therma fleece and a durable, water-repellent 100% nylon backing. It folds conveniently into a seat cushion complete with storage pockets and carrying handles.

Spectrum Imports’ Mega Mat isn’t a fleece/nylon two-sided blanket. It has a 100% waterproof PVC backing and an acrylic top that is lined with a layer of dense foam padding. It is machine washable, stain- and soil-resistant, and has a hidden storage pocket for items like wallets, keys, and snacks. They fold up into a carry size with a handle and a coordinating acrylic or PVC flap (secured by Velcro) that can be decorated with embroidery, screenprinting, decals or patches. Mega Mats come in various sizes, colors and price points.

“Solid colors are always in stock, but most decision makers are going with coordinating plaids that bring out the school colors,” says Peter Laumeyer of Overland Park, Kan.-based Spectrum Imports.

Sweatshirt blankets another trend

Like two-sided blankets, sweatshirt fleece blankets have become another popular alternative to basic polarfleece blankets.

“The up-and-coming blanket style, I believe, is the Jersey Fleece Blanket,” says Lakeside Mills’ Anderson. Lakeside style 68533JE is a jersey sweatshirt fleece with serged edging.

MV Sport has done amazingly well with its Sweatshirt Blanket, style 3300, and Sweatshirt Throw Blanket, style 3350, which is smaller at 40″x52″ than the best-selling 3300.

“Our best seller is also big enough to fit on a single bed as a throw. It is 7′ x 41/2′ (54″x84″). It weighs a full three pounds. Believe me, when you give that to an employee as a gift for the company picnic, they really think you love them,” says MV Sport’s Meis.

For 2004, MV Sport is adding the color pink to its sweatshirt blanket, which will expand the color offerings to 18. That includes three tie-dye colors that were introduced this year.

“We have had great success with our tie-dye colors, Meis says. “It is really fun to see who is ordering them. They seem to trend toward the younger type companies, but that is not always the case. Take the color sandstorm – it is a tan-colored tie-dye and almost looks like leather. We have had companies screenprint this with brown ink and it looks like a million dollars – and not necessarily for a younger customer. We think that the tie-dye popularity will continue. Some distributors have requested special order tie-dyes in specific corporate colors from us as well – how creative and we applaud the distributors that think this creatively.”

More blanket variations

For ultra-soft feel in a blanket, it’s hard to beat the Micro Chenille “Luxury Knits” collection throw, from Colorado Trading & Clothing Company’s “Colorado Comforts” label.

This is one of those fabrics where a sample practically makes the sale – let a client touch it and they have to have it. Colorado Trading also makes robes out of the fabric, which is 100% polyester so it washes easily and is “still a great price,” according to the Denver-based supplier’s Tina Schmitt.

Lakeside Mills offers “Pocket Blankets” in premium and promotional versions. These polar fleece blankets have nylon pockets and removable shoulder straps.

“This style is popular because it has multiple uses. It can be a blanket, a stadium cushion or it can be used as a carry bag with a shoulder strap,” says Lakeside Mills’ Anderson.

Decorating advice

Suppliers agree that embroidery looks best on polar fleece blankets, as screenprinting on them is difficult at best. The designs are usually fairly small, and typically placed in a location that shows when the blanket is folded or rolled up, as it is when the end user first takes possession.

“Logo placement on the standard blanket is usually in the lower right-hand corner on a diagonal and has been generally accepted by our customers because it works on poly bagged, zipper bagged and bulk packed goods,” Anderson says. “If the blanket will be rolled and strapped, it can be folded in such as way as to expose the embroidery between the straps. The drawback is that the blanket has to be folded inside out. While inside out isn’t terrible, it just isn’t the preferred method of displaying the blanket.

“Another option is to move the embroidery so that it lines up with the strap when rolled. The drawback with this option is that when the blanket is unrolled to be used, the embroidery appears to be in an odd location. This has been sort of a dilemma from the beginning. I always leave the choice up to the customer, which has been somewhat divided,” Anderson says.

On the sweatshirt fleece blankets, embroidery and screenprinting are both viable options. Anderson says it works both ways.

“I have always thought that embroidery has a higher perceived value. For us, crest size embroidery really isn’t any more expensive than the screenprint, so I usually encourage the embroidery,” Anderson says. “With screenprinting, however, the logo could be much larger if desired without a lot of extra cost.”

Screenprinting is the decoration of choice for MV Sport’s sweatshirt blankets, Meis says.

“We’ve got a winner with our fleece blanket presentation. The way we roll it and tie it, the best location is near the center. We can screen it as big as 15″ x 21″. We do logo it wherever the customer wants, though, and we get all kinds of requests. The majority is center though and we think that makes the most sense. This holds true with the two-sided blanket as well,” Meis says.

At Colorado Trading, a pocket is the preferred logo location for two-sided blankets, and embroidery is the usual choice.

“We provide a pocket to embroider on the two-sided throw that shows when the throw is folded up,” Schmitt says. “This way the logo is always showing when the throw is folded. We will logo the throw anywhere the client wants, but 90% of the time it is in the corner. Packaging can also be customized if the logo is not placed directly on the throw.”

Pockets also offer a decorating solution at Lakeside Mills.

“This year we are importing our weather barrier blanket that features two pockets on the nylon side that can be embroidered on. This is a nice-looking and practical way to hide the wrong side of the embroidery,” Anderson says. Making two-sided blankets to order usually solves the decorating dilemma when there are no pockets, Anderson adds. “We usually make our two-sided goods to order, so we embroider on one panel, then sew them together so the wrong side of the embroidery doesn’t show.”

Spectrum’s Peter Laumeyer says most clients tend to embroider on the fold-over flap of the large Mega Mat, and they recommend screenprinting the PVC flap on the smaller 48″ x 60″ size.

“We like to center it on the flap, below the carrying handle,” says Laumeyer. All Mega Mats come packaged in heavy-duty, clear PVC re-closeable bags that show the logo.

Blanket statements

While this feature has, er, covered the ins and outs of blankets, we offer some final bits of advice from suppliers.

From Colorado Trading’s Tina Schmitt: “There are so many companies out there now manufacturing the fleece throws that are terrible quality just to hit certain price points. My recommendation is to always compare throws when buying large quantities because you could be getting a much higher quality throw for close or the same price from an established fleece manufacturer who has made these blankets for many years versus a company who has jumped into this business and is importing low-quality fleece throws and really no other fleece products.”

And finally, the last word – really – from MV Sport’s John Meis: “The blanket should be presented at every customer presentation!”

Brian Anderson is the Senior Managing Editor of Wearables Business.

Blanket opportunities

Here’s a list of some of the ways blankets can be utilized by end users

*Blankets as part of emergency kits for cars

*Company picnic giveaways, or picnics in general

*Company store items

*Giveaways as housewarming gifts for home buyers

*Giveaways for test-driving cars at dealerships

*Giveaways for opening a checking account at banks

*Giveaways for opening a credit card account

*Giveaways for starting a magazine subscription

*Giveaways from pharmaceutical companies

*Holiday gifts for employees or vendors

*Hospitals giving baby blankets for newborns

*Hospitals giving them to dialysis patients

*Incentive gifts in safety programs

*Lounging at home blankets

*School group fund-raiser items

*Stadium blankets for outdoor sporting events

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