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Realistic rags.

Checked markups on clothing lately? The retail "rag trade" looks like a good way to beat the slim margins on ammo and such. Maybe so, maybe not. Only after a good look at your customers, your shop, and your budget should you even think about stocking soft goods. If you've checked a Cabela's catalog lately you know why. Pages of camo clothing, boots and other gear show how mail order firms have jumped on clothing. Look at L.L. Bean and other traditional outdoor suppliers. Their catalogs now sell more clothing than outdoor gear. That, and volume sellers like K-Mart that buy carloads of clothing at a time, are the competition. What can you do to win on this tough playing field?

Start small, bootstrap inventory with sales profits, clear out season end stock at cost to free up your investment funds and, above all, focus on the customer's real needs to score. Many gun and general outdoor shops profit more from soft goods than guns and other gear. After all, clothing is a 365 day need.

Head, hand and foot coverings that come in a limited number of sizes reduce your financial exposure to start. A peg-board with a small assortment of green, tan and forest camo mesh, cloth and insulated hats and an assortment of gloves can sell. Invest time in some questions, make customers feel important, and watch sales rise.

It's quite certain that customers have had cold hands, feet and heads sometime during the last season. Did you know that most body heat loss is from the head and upper chest. Do you know why hands and feet get cold? Customers may not, unless you let them know.

A poster with "When your feet are cold, put on a hat" can lead to questions and headgear sales. Once customers realize hands and feet get cold when body core temperature drops and the body reduces the circulation to extremities, they may buy IF they think you have quality gear at a fair price.

A major problem here is the discounter down the street. Good gloves, for example, may not look much different than cheap knock-offs. As a rule, good gloves, decent socks and fine hats work better. One way to show this is with direct comparisons. Own a cooler or freezer? Set up a test to get customers involved. Put out a cheap glove from the local shop. Set out a quality glove. Have customers put one on each hand and set their hands on the side of a freezer or, with waterproof gloves into a cooler filled with ice water. Turn gloves inside out to show the customer the difference too.

Once the customer recognizes quality as reflected in better performance, he's hot. Close with something like, "Okay, these gloves should last a couple of seasons. They cost $10 (or whatever) more. How much is it worth to avoid frigid hands on a per trip basis?"

This "Cost per use" is a hot button anytime, but it's particularly strong in softwear. We have all shivered out a day in a blind. If the difference between a quality quad parka and a "so-so" model is $100, and you can expect 100 days in the field, that's only $1 a day for comfort. Most will pay that.

The tough sell is underwear and "skin contact" items such as poly socks, wicking underwear and the like. It takes a bit of extra effort to educate customers here. It's worth it because you know the competition down the street isn't spending time selling underwear and you need stock fewer "unisex" sizes. Don't overlook the women's market. Women suffer cold feet and hands too.

Explain that "skin contact" clothing needs to wick off moisture in cold conditions so you feel dry. Mention the difference between mesh and poly. In most cases, cold weather underwear is the easy sale. However, you can add bonus hot buttons, like the fact mesh tops are cooler in hot sun than going bare. Or, "Mesh keeps tightly woven pants and shirts off your skin so mosquitos don't bite through." Nuggets like these show your expertise. They sell IF phrased in a "Did you know that'?" manner so the customer does not feel put down.

It's pretty easy to demo socks if you take a little time. For example, I know one dealer who sells "half pairs" of poly socks for $1.50 each to customers who sign up for "field testing." They wear these thin wicking socks on one foot under their usual wool, and just the wool sock on the other under boots or waders. Most return to buy the matching sock after they enjoy one dry foot.

Once customers understand poly, you can sell inexpensive wicking glove liners and watch caps, or move them to poly underwear. It's a matter of education, really.

A big bin of "one of" samples next to a chair sells socks too. When customers come in let them try on different types. Ask them which they like best. Most of us let socks go until they hole out. New socks almost always feel better. Point out the advantages of Ragg wool, 15 percent or so nylon for wear and 2 percent lycra for fit. An more expensive quality sock on one foot and a discounter's special on the other always sells quality.

Other clothing, like pants, shirts and the like, which must be stocked in more sizes, must also compete with the discounter and mail order supplier. If you stock a few items with special features - shell loops on shirts or faced pants for bird hunting that the discounter lacks - you can move inventory. However, the problem here is the number of different sizes needed, and the likelihood of a season end sale to clear inventory at cost.

This is even more acute with big ticket seasonal items like multi-layered parka systems. Few can afford to sell several complete lines. Separate out the layers of insulation - Thinsulate[R] shells, sweaters, polypiles - and weatherproofing - Gore-Tex[R], waxed cotton etc., and you do two things. First, you reduce the unit cost to the buyer. Second you help the buyer add only the function they need.

Let's see how this works in practice. Someone comes in to buy an insulated jacket. Ask about their needs. Do they need a rain jacket when it's wet, but warm? Do they have good insulation already? If, as is usually the case, you find the buyer owns decent insulation layers, you might suggest they invest in a "top quality" parka that will keep them dry and be useful on days when insulated parkas are left in the closet.

Other speciality items not available down the street can also sell. Skeet, trap and the new sporting clays vests move well. The former are, of course, more seasonal. The latter move better year-round.

The bottom line isn't unique. Knowledge, planning and good personnel still sell best. It's easy to bring in a few garments and discount them out at the end of the season when they don't sell. It's better to start a careful plan. For example:

How much can you invest in inventory? Do you want to get into inventory-intensive "sized" gear? Can you move merchandise in time to take advantage of discounts? What kind of advertising program do you plan? What can you offer that the discounter down the road cannot?

What about suppliers? Who sells quality merchandize at the best possible price? Do you need more help to start? Can reps help train staff with sales seminars and help plan displays? Do manufacturers have sales videos? If you sell fast, can you restock before the end of the season? What, if any, is the return policy. Are offshore items really available in two weeks?

How much space can you invest? Do you want to put clothing in the back, or up front near the register? Have you got space for free standing racks, or do you need a wall?

What about staff? Do they know enough about clothing to justify stocking soft goods? If not, what kind of training program do you need?

Finally, and most important, what about your customer? Do they know clothing? If not, can you help them meet their need with a careful selection of quality merchandize AND a helpful attitude. Retailing is, after all, "listening to the customer."

So, while there is no question that soft goods are profitable for savvy retailers in the gun and outdoor field, it's equally clear that a casual approach won't cut it in the rag trade. The choice is yours.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Publishers' Development Corporation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:hunting clothing
Author:Bignami, Louis
Publication:Shooting Industry
Date:Feb 1, 1991
Words:1436
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