Survival of the Fittest
It is September. Repeat that to yourself a few times, because it is hard to believe. The months of barbecues, beach days and hair-frizzing humidity are over. You've already sent out your back-to-school promotions and now you're focusing on the shiver-inducing task of selling outerwear. The jackets are not bothersome, but what they mean (below zero weather, snowstorms and black ice) is unwelcome.
Once you take the time to really explore the outer garments for this winter, you might cheer up. They have well-constructed shells to combat the weather and extra lining to trap body heat. They even include stylish additions like elbow pleats and ribbed cuffs to appeal to the outdoorsman and sartorialist in everyone. Two industry experts broke down the most important elements of outerwear sales: shells, linings, styles, fits and trends. After you read their advice, you might even find yourself enjoying the cooler temperatures as you gather more clients to buy these fashionably durable coats.
The Outer Layer
Nicole Parker, director of sales and marketing for Dri Duck Traders, Overland Park, Kan., noted that outerwear buyers are often active outdoorsmen and women. "In my experience, the industries that are most likely to purchase outerwear include transportation, automotive, agricultural, manufacturing and energy," she said. These winter-weather workers need outerwear that keeps them warm without limiting their movement. Parker suggested cotton canvas with high-twist yarns and anti-abrasion/waterproof soft shell as sturdy materials for outerwear. She also stressed the durability of the new material flex fleece. "Flex fleece has a three-layer construction that combines a flexible and breathable membrane with two layers of anti-pill fleece for wind resistance and maximum durability," Parker explained.
Florence Wong, public relations and marketing associate for Tonix, Fremont, Calif. mentioned poly-microfiber as another leading jacket material. "Poly-microfiber is a new generation, soft shell fabric that is supple and smooth to the touch and is also extremely quiet (no crinkly, 'swishy' noise associated with nylon)," she explained.
The shell of a jacket needs to withstand the elements, while the inside needs to keep the wearer warm without making them overheat. Wong noted a few materials ideal for inside lining, such as bonded microfleece because of its moisture-management properties, mesh lining for breathability and jersey lining for comfort. "We often pair the jersey lining with taffeta sleeves so the arms can easily slide in and out of the jacket," Wong added.
The lining is dictated by the material of the shell. According to Parker, cotton is not a great insulator, so the lining chosen for a cotton coat is particularly important. "In our cotton jackets, we often use either a nylon or brushed tricot lining backed with polyfill that is diamond quilted to prevent the filler from shifting," she said. "This helps to ensure all-over insulation for the life of the jacket." For performance wear that is not cotton, Parker suggested bonding linings to shells to make the jackets wind-resistant. "Bonded fabrics are lightweight and highly functional, protecting the wearer from the elements," she explained.
Warming Up in Style
After addressing strength and warmth, outerwear suppliers need to make sure their styles are aesthetically pleasing. "There is a fine balance between fashion and function that exists in coat design," said Parker. "The right formula starts with understanding how the jacket is going to be used." For active end-users, range of motion is integral to a functional and fashionable coat. "Through four-way stretch fabrics, functioning bi-swing backs and/or articulated elbow pleats, our customers look great while they experience easy and natural wear whether swinging a hammer … or skiing a black diamond run," said Parker. Wong added stand-alone collars and ribbed cuffs and waists as good examples of stylish additions.
Coloring the Coats
The fashionable amendments to coats are largely dictated by who is purchasing them. With this in mind, Wong offered ideas for coat wearers of all ages. For adults, she suggested a classic look. "A reputable company with many years in the business might prefer a classic style in a work-appropriate color," she said. "The neutral colors and understated design of [a classic] jacket paired with a logo decorated on the left chest will appeal to this market." Newer, youth-oriented companies are likely to choose more flashy styles. "A start-up company geared towards younger end-users might lean towards … a hooded pullover constructed of 100 percent SoftCool," said Wong. Brightly colored hoodies with features like a quarter zip, drawstring and cord locks and a kangaroo pocket in front are good for young end-users. "A logo can be placed across the front of the chest, or for a bit of an edge, on the back between the shoulder blades, right underneath the hood for a surprise, peek-a-boo effect," added Wong.
Male vs. Female
Though most outerwear sales go to seemingly male-dominated industries like agriculture, female fits are still important. "As women comprise nearly half of the workforce, gender-specific specs have become the expectation," said Parker. Separate male and female styles may seem like more trouble and expense than the unisex styles of the past, but Wong argues end-users appreciate gender-specific styles. "Women and men alike do not want the garment to compromise on performance abilities while achieving style, so it is important for both genders to have modern and fashionable outerwear they can depend on," she said.
Companion styles are still available just with slight alterations for each gender. "Another consideration when designing for both men and women is styling that can be differentiated with subtleties like top stitching, seam widths, branding and trims," said Parker. These subtleties can be length, waist cinching and other form-flattering aspects as well. Wong noted that the most popular style for women is longer length. She gave two reasons. "Number one, it keeps them covered up when reaching for items or for playing sports, and number two, a longer length elongates the torso and is simply more flattering," she explained.
Cold Weather Trends
Wong and Parker named a few trends for the late 2011 and early 2012 outerwear season. "I predict that 'less is more' for this upcoming season," Wong stated. She mentioned a trend of piping over the usually popular color blocking. "Piping is safer and can satisfy a variety of end-users. Color blocking is still favored, but nothing too flashy or geometrical (too reminiscent of the 80's and 90's)," she explained. As for what that color blocking and piping will go on, Parker says soft shells. "Soft shells will continue to be the forerunner for the upcoming cold weather season," she said. "Soft shells are now available with varying degrees of performance for every kind of user." Parker added that soft shells are preferred because they have the look of a performance jacket without the higher price point.
Wong also mentioned a perennial trend to be mindful of: electronic additions. "Outerwear with a media pocket (a pocket with holes for the ear pieces to go through so the wearer can easily access their device) is also on the rise due to the gaining majority of people owning smart phones and MP3 players," she said.
In addition to capitalizing on trends, getting the most out of your jacket orders involves bundling. "To maximize any jacket sale, it is important to suggest a cap or knit hat," said Parker. "Hats are a smaller investment, but have maximum marketing punch in terms of corporate identity and number of brand impressions." Ultimately, it is about showing your clients and their end-users why those jackets, hats, gloves, etc. are necessary to improve their professional and personal lives. "Selling any kind of apparel to the promotional products market, it is important to convey lifestyle, to paint an image of how the item can be used in everyday life," said Parker. "Make it relatable to the customer's goals and the sale will come."