Wearables Business

Don’t be an idiot

Don’t be an idiot – polos selling better than ever


My buddy Irv usually irritates me with his parochial views of our industry.

“I only sell what I like,” he whines at a recent East Coast show. “That explains why you don’t sell too much,” I reply. He makes a suggestive hand gesture and I grin. We’ve been trading insults and helpful hints for more than 20 years and I am convinced that most of what he says is just to make me angry or to get a reaction. However, he really does only sell what he likes most of the time and it can be a problem for him. Sure, he always learns his lesson but it is usually a very expensive education.

One year he decided not to sell bobblehead dolls because he thought they were stupid. His opinion cost him a mid six-figure order from a New York banking firm that went to a distributor who wasn’t so nearsighted. Last year he sold six orders of bobblehead dolls that netted him enough to pay for his daughter’s first year at Columbia. In 1999 he decided he didn’t like T-shirts and missed out on the largest commercial banking T-shirt order ever given in the East Coast. This year, he has sold over 20,000 T-shirts to his biggest customers.

The latest argument centered on the venerable polo shirt. “I’m done selling golf shirts for the rest of my career,” Irv said, just before I tried to slap him on the side of his head. I asked him why he’d given up on the golf shirt and the answer surprised me.

“Do you know how many golf shirts I’ve sold in my lifetime?” he asked. “I think I’ve sold the entire golf shirt output of Bangladesh! There just isn’t any more business in golf shirts to be had in this market. Besides, my customers are not doing golf tournaments anymore.”

Irv said this in front of Danny, who is even more outspoken than I am. “Irv, you’re an idiot,” Danny said. “There is more business in polo shirts now than at any other time in history. I’m selling them in places where I’ve never sold garments of any kind before. The only thing that has changed is the number of products I can offer my customer. It seems that there are announcements every day from every clothing supplier offering a new and exciting product line. Polo shirts are great!”

Lots of people feel the same way as Danny. Marty Lott, the president of wholesale giant SanMar, thinks the golf shirt market is great, too. His company is offering more style and fabric choices today and plans to offer more in the future. “Next year we plan to introduce more styles of polo shirts under our house brand names,” he says. That is a vote of confidence in the strength he feels the polo shirt market can support. Larry Stadtmiller, MAS, president of Red Oak Advertising says, “Polos represent 70 percent of my wearable sales. That is more than any previous year.”

When I talk to suppliers and distributors anywhere in the nation, they all tell me their polo shirt market is growing. There are new places to sell them and new products to sell. Most agree that the best way to expand the polo shirt market is to get a little education about them and that education comes freely from suppliers and sales reps.

Both Lott and Stadtmiller feel that an education in what is available in the polo shirt market is vital to continued success with the product. Larry points to SanMar’s sales reps, and the reps of other supplier companies as the best way to gain that knowledge. “It is important to know what is available. You can never have too much product knowledge,” he says.

Irv’s biggest problem is that he doesn’t understand enough about the product. He was raised in a 50/50 era and specialized in $12 shirts. He sees the polo shirt market as a closed sales path. If the customer doesn’t want 144 shirts for a golf tournament, then he is ill-equipped to sell much else, except for the occasional corporate customer who uses the product for other things. Most everyone else, however, sees that there are new and more exciting areas to explore for sales growth.

Danny, for example, is starting to place newer, high-end shirts into the corporate boardroom. “My sales path is through the executive office,” he says. “I drop off samples of really nice shirts to any vice president I can identify. I leave two shirts, one for him and one for the secretary. I sell fewer pieces on these sales but I get much more money for a mercerized cotton shirt and there is less price resistance.”

While this concept is not new, it is new to Danny and many of his customers. Irv can’t imagine this sales path because he is uncomfortable in the executive wing. He does, however, have other options.

Marty Lott has a terrific place for Irv to try selling more polos. “There is tremendous potential in selling polo shirts into the uniform market,” Lott says. Danny said that he is having success in precisely this area because he has learned that the heavier poly/cotton blend shirts bring durability to the sale. They are aimed right at the high-use, high-wash uniform business. These new shirts hold their shape and color better and last much longer than before.

“O.K., maybe I’ll take another look at the product before I make a decision,” Irv says. “Maybe I’ll show some new shirts to my customers before I drop the product.”

I hope that Irv takes the lesson to heart. When he thinks about things for a while, he usually makes the appropriate choice. If we can find him some nice, durable polos that will stand up to 50 machine washings, he just might make enough money to send his daughter to another year at Columbia. His attitude will improve and I won’t have to remind him that we’re here because we all like to sell. That is a good lesson for us all!

Happy Selling!

Nowell C. Wisch, CAS, is Editor-at-Large for Wearables Business.

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