Out of Context

Online Opens the Door for Trusted Textiles

Challenges Facing Brick-and-Mortar Shops Provide Branded Fabrics New Opportunities.

It comes as no surprise that the list of recent store closures is populated with apparel retailers. These stalwart merchants have satisfied thousands of customers who throughout the year perused their racks, used their dressing rooms, and showed up at their sales events. They were “regulars” who got used to paying XYZ for a tee shirt and shorts or whatever sewn goods necessity they were searching for.

Those consumers paid a price for their goods that included (at least) a keystone margin; 50 points of margin set aside for the merchant was the price du jour for the selection, service and convenience.

Former walk-in customers are turning to the Internet with its endless warehouses and eager websites offering unlimited selection, little or no service and a heavily discounted price. The latter mostly a function of the lower gross margin needed to be profitable in a virtual space compared to a real one. All the transactions that took place in well lighted, comfortably heated, and fully staffed spaces are now moving to the digital world.

As customers transit to the Internet, where will the difference price expectation go? Will some of the difference in be absorbed by extended service such as same day delivery? Maybe it goes to selection, i.e., stocking every style, in every color, every day. In the case of sewn goods, some of that price differential could go to better fabric.

When the Internet sells sewn goods there isn’t an opportunity for the customer to touch and judge the fabrics. Without a physical, in-the-hand point of reference, most consumers are lost when it comes to textiles. They read reviews and search the product information with little or no idea how to describe fabric and they don’t understand a technical description when available. The one thing they consistently look for however, are brand names. Branded fabric, while historically expensive to use, provides a positive point of difference for consumers when they are evaluating a purchase across different Internet vendors.

All merchants, be they mighty e-tailers or tiny mom-and-pop shops, know that customers bring their buying prejudices with them. Be it color or fiber or brand, every customer views consumption through a personal lens. Branded fabrics stick with people because they easily contribute to a recipe of self-definition. We are what we wear.

There will be increasing competition for sewn goods business on the Internet and more opportunity for trusted textiles to be an important part of that equation. Whether it is a house-branded effort like Outdoor Research’s cult favorite, Ferrosi Fabric (a stellar, not quite lightweight and not quite softshell material) or the phalanx of technical products coming from W.L. Gore, now is the time to cement a textile’s reputation in a growing market hungry for product differentiation, and then let a long list of satisfied consumer reviews sell the brand into the future.

Disclaimer: Mr. Gray’s retail apocalypse took place when his shop was picketed for having a bondage themed Santa display in its Christmas window. Unfortunately, photos made the paper. Textile Insight’s Publisher may not share in his opinions and most certainly wants distance from any kinky Saint Nicholas controversy.