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‘Suits’ envy their business casual counterparts

‘Suits’ envy their business casual counterparts

Nowell C. Wisch

Byline: NOWELL C. WISCH, CAS

I’m getting off a plane after an uneventful flight and an eventful lesson in the value of promotional wearables. I was on a travel day and, as usual, was dressed in sweat pants and a Hawaiian print shirt. My jaunty Jack-In-The-Box cap (that I received as a sample from KC Caps) was perched on my head to hide a 5 a.m. bad hair day. I was really comfortable. My attitude was terrific, too, but who can be depressed in a Hawaiian print shirt?

After a few minutes, I had to use the lav. Since the drink cart was blocking the aisle, I went to use the one in first class. I had to stand in the aisle between two groups, who I call “The Suits” and “The Shirts.” It was quite an education.

It is unusual to have an opportunity to watch people behaving in their natural habitat when it has something to do with our industry. We get to watch people at shows deciding if they want to learn about our company or products and we get to watch them take their share, or more than their share, of our samples. How often do we get to observe people at work in embroidered clothing and contrast their performance with their business-attired brethren? Rarely, I’d submit, but that was exactly what I had an opportunity to do on that flight. I watched two groups of four people working in vastly different clothing, each on their way to a conference.

“The Shirts,” three men and a woman, were wearing embroidered polo shirts, (green with contrasting beige collar and trim) and casual slacks. “The Suits,” two men and two women, were wearing basic formal business dress. The men were in navy blue or gray suits with white shirts and ties. The women were in similar attire, one in a navy blue skirted suit and the other in a navy skirt and mauve blouse and sweater.

For them, sitting in First Class meant that they could work unencumbered. I had the impression that they were in their native element and the only thing different from a normal workday was that they were holding their meeting at 33,000 feet.

Being curious and fearless, but mostly curious, I took a peek at the documents they were perusing. They all looked like Excel spreadsheets titled “1st Quarter Projections” or “Jan-Mar 2003 Projections.” I presumed they were different versions of the same data and I inferred that they were sales or marketing people.

Their conversations indicated that they were traveling to conferences in different cities. The casual group was going for three days and the suits were going for four. Other than those differences, the groups were almost the same. In behavior, however, there was a substantial difference between them.

Attitude adjustments

The shirts were animated and excited and looked very comfortable. All were drinking juice or soda pop. They were not loud but they were cheerful. The suits, in contrast, were reserved and subdued. The men were drinking out of highball glasses while the women stuck with juice and coffee.

“The Suits” somberly passed papers back and forth and the shirts gabbed and pointed to figures and statistics. Both made copious notes on yellow lined pads and referred to day planners and calendars.

Overall, there was stark contrast between the groups. Perhaps it was a difference in corporate culture but since it was becoming a research project, I conclude it was the dress that determined behavior. I knew that both groups were in the medical or pharmaceutical products business so only the difference in dress might account for the difference in their working style.

While waiting for the lav, I struck up a conversation with Miss Navy and Mauve and Mr. Green and Khaki. Mr. Green commented on my shirt du jour, a blue Guy Thayer done up in dolphins, yellowtails, mackerel and ocean spray that I bought on an NSA trip to Miami with my friend Joe Huston from Kokomo Marketing. It’s a great shirt that my wife hates but I love.

I remarked to “Mr. Green” that his shirt looked really sharp. The beige contrasting embroidery and his company logo, a stylized pair of “O’s” done in two different shades of beige thread, really made a strong statement. His collar was not wavy wrinkled and the shirt looked well cared for. He said that they’d been given the shirts for a meeting last year and that his group decided to wear them to their conference to show group unity. He stressed that it was a group decision, not a corporate decision.

“Miss Navy and Mauve” threw an envious glance toward “Mr. Green’s” woman colleague. As I followed her gaze, I noticed that “Ms. Green” was wearing a shirt that was a women’s polo, not a small man’s size. It was a superbly tailored shirt and looked ringspun and mercerized. (I can tell these things… I’m “In The Business.”) The slacks she was wearing came from Nordstrom, not from an industry supplier, and carried the mark of quality tailoring, too. I asked if they were company issue and she laughed and said, “Absolutely not!” While her company gave out good shirts, they left bottom decisions to the employee as long as they kept the color code. With humor she said, “I prefer a silk blend to cotton, thank you very much.”

“Miss Navy and Mauve” asked me if I was on vacation and I laughed and said that I was on a travel day and there would be no company car to greet me at the airport. Again, she looked envious and just a little bit wistful in her tailored outfit. To ease her mind, I said that I’d be in business clothing the next morning, but I didn’t say I’d look like “Mr. Green,” not “Mr. Navy” or “Mr. Grey.”

Casual conclusions

Back in my seat in row six I watched the rest of the meetings. “Ms. Navy and Mauve” and “Ms. Green” got their heads back in the game and pretty soon it was business as usual. The “Mr. Greens” vs. the “Mr. Navy” and “Mr. Grey” went on as before.

Later that week at our trade show, I discussed the fate of our business with a few distributors. The general mood was cautious optimism laced with fear. Certainly our mood was affected by the worry of war but we all agreed that wearables would continue to survive, especially after I related my tale of travel the plane flight on the previous Sunday.

These distributors disputed the theory that corporations were returning to formal dress simply because they observed, as I did, that ties seemed to cut off the circulation to the head and made it more difficult to manage sales and make money. We decided to sell the story of “Mr. And Ms. Green” to our clients and infer, if not directly state that casual dress increases enthusiasm and therefore productivity and results.

Anyway, that’s our story and we’re stickin’ to it!

You can, too! Happy Selling!

Nowell C. Wisch is Editor-at-Large for Wearables Business and a long-time veteran of the promotional products selling scene.

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