Promotional Hats and Headwear: Product Trends, COVID-19 Impacts and Opportunities
Since the start of business closures in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people have faced no shortage of challenges. One of them may not have been as obvious at first, but it became more pressing as time went on: How do you get a haircut?! People have resorted to homemade cuts and testing out new styles, which will be sure to give hair stylists nightmares once folks are back in the salon seats.
The flip side of this, of course, is that all those salons were closed, and many remain closed, losing out on business. But one of them came up with a clever way to keep in touch with customers, with the goal of getting them back in their doors once business could resume. Supercuts ran a promotional hats giveaway where it sent “I’m waiting for SUPERCUTS” hats to end-users who are patiently waiting for salons to reopen. The hats ran out in under 40 minutes. And what better way to cover your questionable hairstyle than with a free hat? This was just one example of a brand using promotional headwear for a successful promotion or giveaway.
To explore some other ways, we connected with top experts in the caps and headwear space on styles that are trending, COVID-19 impacts on business, selling challenges and opportunities, and more. Here’s what Joey Knight, director of sales and marketing for Paramount Apparel International Inc., Bourbon, Mo.; Ben Roberts, senior vice president of marketing, Outdoor Cap Company Inc., Bentonville, Ark.; and Chuck Freeman, director of Panther Vision, West Dundee, Ill., told us.
Caps and headwear trends were pretty spread out among the experts, but some aspects that stuck out are the demand for more unique styles, embellishments and designs.
“The trend towards structured and mesh back caps continues, though we are seeing interest in niche camper shapes and five-panel designs,” said Roberts. “People want something that represents them and the brand, product or service they offer. So, as the interest in being differentiated gets more pervasive, we’re seeing a broader range of designs and physical shapes in headwear. Great design is always trending, so we’re seeing customers most interested in things they see from retail. Patch caps, throwback designs and custom embellishments are very popular right now.”
For Paramount Apparel, popular styles like the Dad Cap and Mesh Trucker continue to top the list. “While there haven’t been many significant innovations in headwear, we are seeing a need for more unique, custom embellishments,” said Knight. “The traditional Dad Cap and the Mesh Trucker cap continue to be leaders in the category. So, we are always looking to enhance and update these styles.”
Freeman explained that Panther Vision is starting to see some comeback styles such as licensed camo pattern caps and beanies, which he said were now seeing an uptick in demand after previously declining the last few years.
No one could have predicted what was going to happen in March 2020. As entire sectors of the economy closed during the pandemic, some promotional headwear supplies jumped into action to adapt to changes in demand.
“Prior to COVID-19, our headwear business was growing,” Knight said about Paramount Apparel. “Obviously, that began to change in March as COVID-19 began to take effect. While we continued to have a lot of activity around headwear throughout March and April, the need and the demand for PPE started to take hold. As the market shifted, with the support of ownership, we began producing face masks in our factory in Missouri.
“Both 100 percent cotton and custom dye-sublimated face masks became the new norm for many of our factory workers,” she continued. “In an effort to meet the high demand, we also [began] sourcing masks from overseas. We certainly see the need for face masks in the foreseeable future, even as the headwear business is starting to open back up.”
Roberts and Freeman both noticed the same dip in headwear during this time, but noted that business is slowly picking back up. “We have weathered this storm well considering our diverse supply chain as well as our diversified business model,” said Roberts. “But our promotional business demand has been hit similarly to other suppliers. We are seeing steady increases back to normal levels as customers find new markets for business or [as] businesses reopen.”
“Our sales tanked in March and April, but we are seeing an uptick in orders and quoting in May,” said Freeman.
Aside from COVID-19’s impact on supplier businesses, we also wanted to know how traditional headwear buyers’ businesses have—or haven’t—changed as a result of the pandemic, and what that means for the hats category.
Freeman said that because Panther Vision’s headwear items use hand-free lighting, the company sees a lot of business from service workers, trucking and outdoor recreation. Since the pandemic, outdoor recreation has declined, he said, and the company had orders canceled for charity walks. But the service workers market has remained relatively steady.
Knight believes there will be more opportunities for headwear sales as businesses reopen. “As a top-five seller in the promotional industry, headwear has a very broad appeal throughout almost every industry in our space,” she said. “And, while overall growth of the headwear category has slowed, there are definitely opportunities to expand our reach. Corporate continues to lead the way, with growth also coming from other categories like quick-serve restaurants, transportation and licensing.”
Concerns and Opportunities
Business is slowly beginning to pick up in some areas, but there’s still concern surrounding the pandemic and new regulations as states move toward green phases. The biggest question is around trade shows. Will they still happen? How many people will attend? What will they look like?
“My biggest concern going forward is what happens with trade shows, as this is where we attract most of our business,” Freeman said. “Our lighted products do not translate well to print or even video. Distributors need to experience the brightness and functionality of our products to become believers and pass that along to their clients.”
On the other side, changes brought on by the pandemic could lead to new opportunities popping up. “Businesses are working hard to make sure their employees feel important and cared for, so branded merchandise is a great way to do that,” said Roberts. “Giving employees a great cap creates a personal touch that’s needed right now. Companies and brands are shifting their money out of intangible marketing (digital advertising) to more tangible and useful goods. This gives us all a great opportunity to sell headwear and other promotional products.”
In addition, Roberts mentioned that Outdoor Cap Company, like other headwear suppliers, was able to add new products to its lineup. “We have made some new offerings based on customer feedback and demand around face masks, and being able to attach them to hats to provide ear relief,” he said. “It’s now an option through our Overseas Express Program.”
Knight said that during the pandemic, everyone’s main focus was on the health and safety of others—families, friends, coworkers, etc. “Our concern for their well-being has really taken the lead on what is most important in our lives,” she said. “We feel for the challenges and difficulties that so many have endured these past few months. Everyone is working through what things will look like when businesses open back up, [and] looking at what the new normal might be. We are all going to come out of this stronger and with a new perspective.”
Her advice for overcoming these challenges is to be ready to adapt quickly and embrace change. “Our motto even before COVID-19 has been, ‘Just because we have always done it that way doesn’t mean we have to keep doing it that way,’” Knight said. “It holds true now more than ever with the uncertainty of how our industry will transform over the coming months. The challenges we will all face will no doubt be something most of us have not experienced in our lifetime, but that is what is great about what we do. We support each other, evolve and many [will] come out stronger on the other side.”
Roberts, too, had some final advice: Don’t call to sell. “We’ve spoken to a lot of customers and much of it early on was around the feeling that a sales call was insensitive or rude,” he said. “Customers just weren’t sure what to actually do. Was it appropriate to reach out about an order that was about to [come up on an] anniversary? Should they cold-call small businesses?
“Take an empathy-based selling approach. Don’t call to sell, call to connect,” he added. “Find out how people are doing, if there’s anything you can do or any way you can creatively help them with their business. Be a branding and marketing expert and project confidence in a time when very few people are sure of anything. You’ll be rewarded with new business.”