While fashion apparel is notoriously fickle, there are some niche apparel categories that drive sales full steam ahead, regardless of the direction of hemlines or the overall economy. Underwear, scrubs, and T-shirts, one of the most enduring niches ever, are among them.
Maintaining inventories in these apparel categories can help retailers ride the ever changing waves of fashion and seasonal ups and downs. Stores that spice apparel sections with some unusual fashion items that are not carried by competitors can also gain an edge. Sportswear that carries licensed logos of favorite home teams represents another niche that performs year round and brings customers into stores more often.
T-shirts are not only always in demand, but also popular among consumers all along the broadest of market spectrums, according to Bilal Talib, a principal of Topstar USA, based in Long Island City, NY. He's been supplying tees to retailers for the past 25 years, "and they are always popular among people of all ages and lifestyles," he says. Sales continue to increase, he adds, "as the world moves to more and more casual dressing."
Basic blanks always sell well, whether or not the retailer embellishes them with imprints. But beyond the basics, there are fashion shifts and seasonal sales variations even in this category, says Talib.
Topstar USA will customize a sample pack for individual retailers, taking into account the client's geography and target market. Right now, the huge, size 6X, hip hop style that emerged in cities is migrating to the South, Talib reports. These oversize shirts not only sell well to teen boys, but also to women, who wear them as night shirts, he says.
His company typically sells these large size units for $26 a dozen, and retailers can gain a hefty margin by retailing them for about $5 a unit. Smaller sizes wholesale for between $18 and $20 a dozen, and also gain maximum sell through at the $5 per unit retail price point.
T-shirts are not Topstar's only offering. It also carries boxer shorts, jeans (another enduring category) and underwear, sportswear and, "onezies," which are cotton body suits for babies. In markets with young families, onezies are top sellers, according to Talib.
Nines (USA) Corp., headquartered in New York City, specializes in underwear, both fashion and basic, primarily for women. Mickey Lin, president, says, "Business is good and getting better."
Boy's shorts for women are among his company's most popular items, he reports. They come in a range of prints and in all sizes. They have become a fashion for casual wear.
Like Topstar USA, Nines will configure custom sample packs for retailers, after discussing a particular retail market. A wholesale order for about $500, Lin says, will contain an assortment of approximately 70 dozen items, including boy's shorts and popular bra styles, which currently include padded under wire units.
Underwear sections do well on their own. Equally important, they become easy add ons to apparel sales, Lin says, when they are displayed within or near other apparel categories.
Scrubs are rapidly rising to take their place alongside T-shirts and jeans as consumers' casual favorites. No longer limited to hospital workers, these have become "uniforms" to college students, "and all kinds of people," says Lam Phan, marketing director of Spectrum Uniforms, which is based in Houston and supplies all kinds of medical attire and accessories.
The company carries approximately 25 different solid color scrubs and 25 to 30 different prints. While it carries both all cotton units and ones made of a 65/35 blend of polyester and cotton, Phan says the blend fabric units are the better sellers, "Because they don't wrinkle."
Retailers can order by the piece or by the set, which includes V neck tops and a choice of either drawstring or elastic waist pants. Spectrum will provide a sample kit containing two scrub sets, including both pant styles.
A typical top wholesales for $4.75 a unit, and pants wholesale for between $5.30 and $6 a unit. Retail prices are generally in a range between $10 and $14 a unit.
The company also offers a sample kit containing white, short and long lab coats. These wholesale for approximately $9 or $10 a unit, and the typical retail price is $25 a unit or more. For a premium, Spectrum will provide units with embroidered names on them.
When it comes to licensed sportswear, everybody is a fan, according to Mike Rossman of Pittsburgh Souvenir and Novelties. He offers T-shirts, caps, sweat shirts and jerseys that are either embroidered or screen printed with licensed logos of all major professional and college and university sports teams.
"There are about seven or eight NFL teams that are popular everywhere," Rossman says. Among them are the Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys. "The NFL market is where it's at," he says.
Beyond the NFL come regional favorites in both pro and college teams, and this supplier will advise retailers on a mix of regional favorites in any part of the country. "Sales of licensed sportswear do well in all markets, to people of all ages and all walks of life," he reports, adding, "Women are now wearing caps as often as men do."
Although Pittsburgh Souvenir and Novelties requires no minimum and prices items by the piece, Rossman advises, "The flash gets the cash." In carrying a limited assortment, he says, "customers just stumble on these products."
"Stores that want to do it right should make an initial investment of $2,000 to $3,000, so customers know they can count on finding what they want and send in additional customers." His company's wholesale pricing, Rossman adds, is designed to allow retailers to, "keystone and add another 10 percent to retail prices."
Splash With Flash
Supplementing these enduring top sellers with products unique to individual markets also helps retailers compete. Two companies, Itasca Moccasin, based in Lake George, MN, and The Guayabera LLC, located in Seattle, offer help with this strategy.
In addition to Latino style Guayabera shirts, the company that takes its name from this style also offers Havana, Cuba Vera and Hawaiian shirts. The Guayabera line includes more than 30 different styles of these shirts, which feature pin tucks, embroidery and the traditional four pockets, which are designed to be worn over pants, not tucked in.
They come in a range of solid colors, and some of the fabrics have designs woven into the fabric, says Kevin Baldwin, president of the company. Units are offered in men's, women's and children's sizes and styles.
The company offers a five unit starter pack of shirts in one style and one color for a wholesale price of $79.99. Baldwin says the shirts typically retail for between $30 and $59.95 a unit. Other package deals include one containing 20 shirts for $299, or $14.95 a unit, and another of 50 shirts for $725, or $14.50 a unit. The regular minimum order is two dozen units, and it can include a mixed assortment of Guayabera and Havana styles.
This year, the company is adding an upscale, linen collection, beginning with five styles. "These will retail for between $90 and $100 a unit, Baldwin says. Expansion of the company's mix is the result of increased demand for these Latino styles, he says. "They have become fashion, not just among Latinos, but among many people who are embracing the flair of Latin cultures," he says.
Moccasins represent another ethnic related style that is gaining widespread favor, reports Mardel Bents, owner of Itasca Moccasin. "People are discovering how soft and comfortable moccasins are," she says, "but our distinction is that we provide the styles in bright colors, and people love them. The addition of color has made them a fashion," she reports.
Another distinction is that the company offers a wide range of styles, all handmade, in a full spectrum of sizes, from infants' to men's size 13. It includes 12 inch high and 14 inch high boots with zippers up the back. They are made of two layer leather, which Bents says, "will last nearly forever."
Wholesale prices begin at $8 for a pair of baby's moccasins, and in all cases, the retail price is double or more than wholesale. The company will offer advice on a mix for different markets, which vary primarily by age groups.
The following people at these companies were interviewed for this article:
Mardel Bents, owner
P.O. Box 228
37144 US Highway 71 North
Lake George, MN 56458
Mickey Lin, president
Nines (USA) Corporation
158 West 27th Street
New York, NY 10001
Mike Rossman, owner
Pittsburgh Souvenir Apparel
Toll Free: 800-321-8797
Lam Phan, marketing director
38 Juniper Street
Houston, TX 77058
Toll Free: 800-235-4701
Kevin Baldwin, president
The Guayabera LLC
4546 34th Avenue South
Seattle, WA 98118
Toll Free: 877-374-3299
Bilal Talib, principal
47-32 32nd Place
Long Island City, NY 11101
Toll Free: 800-361-8337
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