There was a time when the textiles industry represented big business in America. Powering both the domestic economy and U.S. influence abroad, textiles influenced social change and even the land rush at a time when cotton was king and a growing population needed to be clothed. Today, by contrast, just two percent of clothing bought in this country is manufactured on U.S. soil. Some 98 percent of the clothing now purchased in the United States is imported from abroad, with the vast majority made in China. While mainstream retailers cite rising manufacturing and material costs and the increasing consumer demand for cheap clothing as a mitigating factor to favor imports, Barnes & Noble College sees things differently.
Made in America as a consumer preference is right on trend with Barnes & Noble College’s target audience of students, but it also makes good business sense as Lisa Loughan, Buyer – School Spirit Clothing for Barnes & Noble College, explains. “Although it’s a growing global trend and is currently being talked about in the news, it’s something one of our suppliers has been doing for over 20 years,” she says. “We definitely want to provide the products students want, but we also need them at the right price.”
To cater to her customers and still maintain control over prices, Loughan buys from companies who have made domestically produced clothing cost-effective. “Competing on price with a basic t-shirt would be difficult,” admits Tom Shoemaker, Inventory Manager at Minnesota-based producer, Blue 24, “but we’re fortunate to be able to focus on the fashion market, offering products that might be more exciting and unique,” he says. Greg Davis, Owner of UTrau, a company specializing in U.S. manufactured apparel, agrees. “We’ve never strayed from our format of making it in America – and we know there are things we’re never going to compete on – but our customers are looking for fashion forward, and we can be competitive that way,” he says.
The fashion element is an important differentiator when it comes to domestic sourcing. Loughan points out that the college apparel lines she carries from both vendors are primarily aimed at women, and therefore represent faster moving merchandise and styles that can command a stronger price point. While not all product categories are available in the collegiate world, buying American can offer other substantial marketing advantages and Loughan works in close collaboration with her suppliers to keep on trend and shorten lead times. “When neon became particularly big on our campuses, we obtained a burn-out tank – from the day we decided to do it, to delivery from the manufacturer in LA took just eight weeks – that’s something we could never accomplish with many other vendors,” she recalls.
Davis also sees many advantages from the supplier standpoint. “We don’t have to take a substantial inventory risk,” he says, “and that means we can stay closer to trends in the industry.” Most retailers who buy from abroad maintain long supply lines, which are unavoidable in the fashion business, but in this segment, companies sourcing domestically maintain another key advantage. Blue 84’s Art, Marketing and Licensing Director, Julie Bommersbach, explains. “It means a customer can place an order on Monday, and we’ll be able to produce it and ship it out in anything from 24 to 48 hours,” she says.
Made keenly aware of trends and themes that are important to students through Barnes & Noble College’s GenNext panel research, USA-made apparel takes its place in campus stores alongside Alta Gracia living wage products and Redshirt, Barnes & Noble College private-label apparel brand. ‘Made in America’ and other social concerns deeply resonate with today’s college students – a trend that Denver-based UTrau believes will continue to be important in the future. “We’re promoting our fall 2014 lines heavily that way, because it is more than just a passing trend to us,” Davis says. “I think as students leave college and start to look for jobs, they are becoming more aware of fewer opportunities in the workforce,” he adds, “and that’s going to have a big impact on their awareness for what’s really being made here in the USA.”