ACCORDING TO STATISTICS from the National Center for Education Statistics and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, there are 4,388 colleges and universities in the United States. For distributors looking to successfully sell imprinted apparel to this market, there is certainly no shortage of opportunities. The top schools and most recognized names probably have long-standing deals, but what about the 3,500 other schools of which most people have never heard? Each institution has proud students willing to promote their school and school teams on T-shirts, pants, sweatshirts and even underwear. “Students will spend money on anything that has [their school logo] on it,” said Jason Neve, graphic designer and sales associate at Boardroom Custom Clothing, Vancouver, Canada. “It doesn’t take much ... they’re loyal to their school.”
When trying to sell to a large school that has name recognition, distributors will likely face significant competition, said Byron Reed, director of marketing at MV Sport, Bay Shore, N.Y. He said the trick is to find apparel that is new and stylistically different. If that isn’t possible, he recommends finding schools that people might not visit and that aren’t heavily trafficked.
A distributor’s job is far from finished once he or she finds a school willing to hear the pitch.
Today’s college students have different concerns than students of previous generations. The term “global warming” first appeared in the late 1970s. For those who came of age before this time the concept seemed far-fetched, but for a generation that has grown up facing the realities and the science, it is often a pressing concern.
The same goes for global labor practices. Corporate accountability and social responsibility have shaped a generation. Sure, they watch reality television and don’t remember that the “M” in MTV stands for music, but such is the call of their culture.
Neve said “students are very conscious about environmental issues and issues surrounding fair trade and labor practices.” As a result, he said many schools have responded by mandating the businesses they work with abide by safe and fair practices. To address these market concerns, Boardroom Custom Clothing has converted about 20 percent of its materials to environmentally friendly alternatives and been audited for social standard compliance. The company also participates in 1% For The Planet, a group of businesses that donate one percent of sales to natural environmental protection and restoration.
Schools must “consider a different bottom line,” said Neve. Accountability to the students is “a major part of the equation.” Neve said trying to avoid the subject of labor and environmental issues is not a solution. “[Students] know how to use the Internet and they will figure it out,” he said. He described this as a new paradigm of factors driving purchasing decisions. “[Students are] more interested in saving the planet than your company or your corporation saving money,” he explained.
The current college consumer is also a more savvy shopper than his or her predecessors. “I think the student buyer is more sophisticated,” Reed said. “They want quality.” Reed attributes this demand on products to the promotional industry catching up to retail trends. As the gap closes, people are holding promotional products to the same standards as retail products. Students are “shopping at The Gap, Abercrombie and Hollister,” Reed said, and they enter the college bookstore “looking as if it were the same quality.”
Neve agreed. “Traditionally, you could just get away with putting a logo on some cheap shirt,” he said, “but you get what you pay for and 98 cents doesn’t really buy you a terrific shirt, in terms of quality and styling.” Neve said when students are shopping, they know “they can go into another store and find something else that’s much, much more stylish [and] better quality.” He also said the prices tend to be similar
in college bookstores and retail shops, adding further to the comparisons and increased expectations.
The good news for distributors is that style trends in this market are still relatively easy to follow. “The hoody, the hooded sweatshirt is number one,” explained Reed. “It’s a basic item, but hoods are everywhere.” Though colors have been branching out in recent years, the style has not. According to Reed, the most significant change in collegiate apparel is a “big push” for items contoured to females. “It used to be that collegiate was very unisex,” he said. Though the female items are still variations of the basic styles, women are “getting their own set of things and it’s a little more fashion-forward,” he concluded.
Retro looks and stylings are also popular on college campuses, noted Reed. These include vintage cuts and worn, faded colors. Beyond that, he suggests distributors watch for the most popular thematic elements in a given year. He said movies often influence style and pointed out the success of shirts with pirate-themed decorations, such as a skull and cross bones. Reed said not all college buyers will be interested in such edgy imprints, though. “Usually, you can tell as soon as you walk into a place,” he said. A school’s willingness to try fashion “depends on the size of the school,” he continued. “If they’re a small bookstore and they don’t have a huge run-through of kids,” then they tend to be more conservative.
Neve also said, generally, private schools tend to more conservative than public schools.
If selling to a big school doesn’t work out, Reed offered encouraging words. “There’s always the Greek organizations,” he said. “It takes a little bit of digging sometimes, but they’re all there.” Fraternities and sororities are great sales opportunities because they have their own events and logos and this has “nothing to do with the school,” said Reed. The organizations “take care of themselves,” and have treasurers who coordinate the purchasing of apparel and don’t have to worry about licensing and bureaucracy. Reed said this market is largely “untapped.”
There’s no doubt that when it comes to colleges and universities, the students are running the show. Distributors need to keep this in mind when targeting this market. It also helps to visit some campuses to get a good sense of what styles and colors are popular.
With all the time students are investing in education, it seems only fitting that distributors should invest in their own education in order to better serve this market.