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‘brief’ cases NOW ANYTHING BUT

‘brief’ cases NOW ANYTHING BUT

Byline: Rock Neelly

James Brown said it best: “Poppa’s got a brand new bag!”

Badadadada Dada ding!

If the Godfather of Soul was writing that song today, he might ask, “What rhymes with value-added extras? Awwwwouuu!”

The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business might sing the praises of extreme price-value relationship, “Oooahhh!”

And my man, James Brown, would be right because the name of the tune for the promotional business bag market in 2004 is value-added extras to the extreme.

The business bag category in promotional products went to the top of the charts for many promotional product dealers in 2003. In 2004, the New Year promises many new hits and record sales across all product types of bags, including soft-sided briefcases, computer bags, messenger bags, totes, shoulder bags, and commuter backpacks.

Whereas some apparel lines saw consolidation during the recession of 2001-2 and the slow-rolling recovery, promotional bags were mostly immune to sluggish sales. Business was marginally up across traditional soft briefcases, totes, computer bags, commuter backpacks and messenger bags throughout the turndown, and now in 2004, the categories are poised for huge growth.

Line expansion rampant

2004 finds the industry bursting at the seams with new styles. Most of the companies interviewed for this article were adding not just a few styles, but in some cases, dozens of styles! Ogio and High Sierra have added completely new lines to their already extensive offerings; industry mainstay Leeds’s has included the new Werks collection; and Toppers is adding a whopping 46 new styles in its 2004 catalog.

Why the rapid expansion of product in promotional business bags?

“Retail, retail, retail,” explains Russ Rowan, Director of Product Development for Toppers, a New Jersey-based manufacturer of bags and other promotional items. “PPDs want all the bells and whistles found in retail, but at promotional prices.”

Kathleen Gillespie, vice president of Irvine, Calif.-based Logotec offers additional insight. “We’ve seen a generational shift in how purchasers look at promotional items. With apparel, the end user only wears the garment on occasion; however, with bags, the buyer can actually get everyday use. We see a usage shift taking place. New buyers are looking for everyday use, in addition to the add-on bells and whistles.”

Allison Johnston, product line manager at Leed’s, a Pittsburgh-based provider of many promotional items, concurs: “Our customer is in it for the long haul. What product can they purchase that provides everyday usage? Our new Werks collection meets the more sophisticated look for the 25-40 year-old urbanite, and because it meets their self image, they carry the bag every day.”

Nick Wright, National Sales Manager of Ogio, based in Utah, agrees. “Businesses definitely realize the advantage of outfitting their employees and/or customers with a nice business bag.”

The mobile office

Outfitting? Could this be the secret new trend in promotional apparel? Has the decorated promotional business bag become a true apparel accessory? Is the business bag now part of the daily business uniform?

Wright assured us that day has already arrived, and it’s no secret. “Business people nowadays are mobile and ‘take the office’ with them. Their bag must be functional and accommodate their needs. People want functionality and quality, but also want to make a statement; they want to be cool. You don’t see the square brown briefcase that locks anymore.”

“The basic briefcase has evolved into the traveling office,” echoes Toppers’ Rowan. “We’ve added lots of additional features. Water bottle pockets, phone pockets, and PDA pockets are just some of the features that are expected today.”

So what is Toppers’ best-selling item?

“Easy,” says Rowan. “Our 6815 is the ultimate office on wheels. It has padded computer and PDA compartments. The rear compartments double as file folder and clothes compartments. It’s the perfect case for the seasoned traveler.”

The portable “office-in-a-bag” is definitely a hot-selling new category.

Jamie Cimino, President of New Ulm, Minn.-based Canyon Outback Leather Goods has two bags that are contenders in this category. “Our B101 briefcase is our best seller because it has a terrific unisex look, but can hold up to two laptop computers if need be. It also has a flap design that continues to stay in style, as well as being best suited for security.”

Cimino’s Canyon Outback also carries a crossover version of the “office in a bag” – the B110.

“The B110 sells great for us because it’s what we call a slim narrow design. It’s a briefcase, but with hidden backpack straps so it can be carried as a brief or as a backpack.”

Going vertical

Minneapolis-based PremiumWear’s Director of Marketing, Doree Wendling, explains this “transportable office” trend regarding the Page & Tuttle brand for 2004.

“Our new bags are form following function. Our style 8420, the Extreme Vertical Brief, has many features found in much more expensive retail bags. The bag has a padded laptop compartment, zippered pocket dividers, office organizers, a water bottle holder, a PDA holder, sure-gripped handles, plus the whole Extreme Vertical Brief is more ergonomically designed, even to the point of converting to a backpack.

Dolly Duffy, CEO of Atchison Products based in Atchison, Kansas, notes that its vertical briefcase, the style AP5285, is soaring with sales as well. “A vertical briefcase, in case you don’t know the terminology, is not like the old horizontal briefcase laid flat on a desk. Vertical briefcases run up and down with specially designed compartments and sleeves where items and files can be stored.”

Atchison’s AP5285 has a laptop compartment, cell phone pocket, a pocket designed for a Palm Pilot, Blackberry or for the low-tech among us, a pad and paper. The bag also has file folder dividers, and a water bottle holder.

“The separate laptop compartment is key,” notes Duffy. “When the business traveler must tackle the security at the nation’s airports, it is really nice if he or she doesn’t have to open up and empty the whole briefcase. Sliding the laptop out is a breeze.”

Made to decorate

Duffy also asserts, lest we forget, that this is all about promotion. “You have to design your bags with an optimum decorating location, and Atchison Products does a great job decorating, both embroidering and screenprinting, on bags. The promotional products business often comes down to turn times, and we are skilled, accurate and fast.”

Ogio recognizes the increased need for promotional decoration on its business bags. The company has actually introduced a new line called Ogio Corporate, which now has less Ogio branding and larger imprint areas to maximize customer logos. Besides screenprinting, Ogio also offers embroidery, FiberLok application, and even microinjection logos.

Canyon Outback is introducing a new line of leather and canvas bags this year with a unique, new decorating idea – laser-burned wood emblems. Cimino tells us, “Debossing is still our No. 1 decorating method, but embroidery has dropped to third behind pewter emblems. Now with our decorated pewter and by offering laser-burned logos on wood, Canyon Outback has two very cool looks that PPDs won’t really find available at our competitors.”

High Sierra offers a new decorating process for bags. Matt Kentner, High Sierra’s national sales manager, offers, “Embroidery is still the preferred method of embellishment for our customer, although we’re doing more with custom rubber patches. The rubber patches have a very high perceived value. Customers really like the look.”

Kentner knows his upscale line well. “Screenprinting is a very small percentage of our business. As I tell my distributors, ‘you don’t want to screenprint a High Sierra bag. It’s like putting a bumper sticker on a Lexus.'”

High Sierra’s bags are indeed loaded with extras. The 5454 Sonic Pack is just one example of the firm’s unique designs. The Sonic Pack is a crossover bag that functions as a daypack, and as a business case. It has hidden backpack straps, as well as a padded laptop compartment and an incredible amount of organization pockets.

Several other brands are seeking that upscale retail bag look.

Logotec is only in its fifth year of operation, but already the company is known for its innovative approach to the upscale bag.

Gillespie says, “Our goal is to make the customer’s logo look perfect on our bags.”

Logotec has a new bag decorating process that is patent-pending called image-bonding. “We originated the process to eliminate potential registration errors on our best seller, our roller cooler bag, style 47700. Coolers, by definition, have waterproof liners, which eliminates embroidery, and ordinary screenprinting was hard to align for multiple color jobs,” Gillespie says.

Thus, with necessity as the mother of invention, Logotec created image-bonding.

“The process,” Gillespie explains, “allows us ‘detail on paper’ quality decoration on the side of a 54-can rolling cooler bag.”

Leed’s also has cutting edge technology to give the customer decoration that high-definition look.

Leed’s Johnston remarks, “Epoxy domes for decoration are extremely popular. This method allows four-color process that is less expensive than four-color transfers. It provides a true representation of the customer’s logo and a more sophisticated presentation.”

Bag prospects everywhere

Of course, decoration is what the promotional market is about, but isn’t Ogio’s Nick Wright correct? Don’t people want to look cool?

Atchison Product’s Duffy says, “Of course they do. “We’ve discovered over the last 11 years that briefcases are so much more personal than most other promotional items. End users identify with them. They carry all their stuff in them.”

She also sees a difference in usage that is somewhat determined by age. “Younger buyers lean more toward laptop crossover bags while older buyers still often choose a more traditional soft-sided briefcase.”

Duffy stresses that the rise in popularity in business bags is widespread, across all segments of the population. “75-piece orders are the backbone of the bag industry. Every PPD in business should be showing business bags as part of its product mix.”

Ogio’s Wright emphasizes, “Pharmaceutical companies, and, of course, most high-tech companies are big users, but really every business is a potential end user for this product category.”

Leed’s Johnston wanted to clear up an old issue. “For a long time, this industry was taking a hit due to all the dot-com failures. This isn’t true, anymore. Companies that specialize in consulting, and all financial institutions and insurance companies are very viable target markets for well-designed and constructed business and computer bags.”

Atchison Product’s Duffy includes, “California’s Silicon Valley is still filled with major end users. There are many other high-tech audiences for this product, including every company out there that has a large sales force.”

PremiumWear’s Wendling adds two other categories: “Media outlets are good markets and so are magazine publishing houses.”

Keep up to date

How have bags changed to meet the demands of these high-tech customers?

Canyon Outback’s Cimino notes one way. “What’s important to understand here is that laptop screens are getting larger and larger every day. Hey, most manufacturers only make computer bags so large, but right now PPDs should be showing a bag that will protect a 16″ laptop screen. If you don’t offer one, you are not keeping up with the future.”

“Technology,” Johnston maintains, “is becoming more and more a focus of everyday life. Not only are we still transporting paper, but we’re also transporting laptops, PDAs, IPODs, MP3 players, and other memory devices. Until general paper and documents become obsolete nearly everyone will continue to have a large need for business bags.”

Ogio has gone for style in 2004. The company has added a second new line called Ogio Work. This is luxurious fashion at the extreme. Nick Wright knows a winner when he sees it, “I can’t wait to show these bags at the show in Vegas!”

Topper’s Rowan assures us, “Even with more than 40 new styles, with Toppers, the workmanship is always top-notch, no matter what the price point. What makes for good quality are the materials, the hardware (zippers, pulls), and all our value-added features.”

PremiumWear’s Wendling echoes the assurance of quality in its Page & Tuttle line, but also wants to inform PPDs that the Field & Stream brand also stocks bags. “Camouflage has been very strong for us, no doubt about it.”

High Sierra combines looks and quality for its image. Kentner said, “High Sierra does well with distributors who understand that cheaper isn’t always better. For instance, there isn’t a customer out there who would hand out range balls at a company golf outing, so why would they hand out the equivalent of a range ball in bags?”

But not every company avoids the low-end market. There is still a sizable buying audience out there for entry-level styles, especially in totes.

Atchison Product offers three amazingly high-quality styles that retail to end users at under $5 on a “C”. The selection includes a backpack, a duffle, and a briefcase. All are constructed of 300-denier nylon and include lots of value-added features.

Page & Tuttle offers its style 8420, a contrast tote, available at roughly the same bargain price.

Logotec again has taken the market a different direction. It offers an all-in-one tote, style 4250BK, that multi-functions as tote bag, seatcushion, and when unzipped includes a flannel blanket on the inside.

A bag that doubles as a blanket? As my main man would say, “Awwwwouhhhh!”

Rock Neelly is a North Carolina-based promotional apparel industry expert who has worked on the supplier side for many years and has been an occasional contributor to Wearables Business.

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