The gift of garb

Jan. 1, 2020
We always hear about the loyalty and passion of those in the auto industry — from the next-door neighbors who argue over buying Ford vs. Chevy products to the race fan who'll only buy the soft drink that quenches Jeff Gordon's thirst.

If done correctly, selling apparel could be a fresh revenue stream for your parts store.

We always hear about the loyalty and passion of those in the auto industry — from the next-door neighbors who argue over buying Ford vs. Chevy products to the race fan who'll only buy the soft drink that quenches Jeff Gordon's thirst.

For car guys and gals, the excitement for all things car-related often means more in a consumer's off-road (or off-track) lifestyle. It's about supporting the make, model and driver they like in all aspects of their lives, and that could mean a profitable revenue source for an auto parts store willing to carry logo'd shirts, jackets and hats.

Although apparel isn't a traditional item found in automotive retail outlets, some believe it can be successful if embraced correctly.

"Selling apparel is very viable," says Jody McAllister, vice president of Unlimited T-Shirts, which has screen-printed and embroidered various products, including wearable items, for multiple markets and industries for 30 years.

"You can look into other markets to see how the success has come on," he continues. "A good example is John Deere. Lots of people have John Deere equipment, and the John Deere apparel is incredible. The same concept I think would be very effective in (the automotive industry). It's a good opportunity, but I think the graphic has to be relational to the type of store it is."

For example, McAllister notes that a national auto chain would have different opportunities than a mom and pop store. "I think the local stores have to be more general," such as offering simple Ford or Chevy T-shirts.

Dressed for the races

Paul Sparrow, director of retail development and apparel licensing with NASCAR, says apparel is pretty steady business for those who are in it, and the best sales seem to come out of Ford, Chevy and Dodge racing merchandise, which NASCAR co-brands with the automakers.

"That tends to be what works best in the automotive aftermarket just given the nature of the stores themselves," he says. "It's like bread and butter in a grocery store. Ford and Chevy don't change much," for example, offering a new Ford hat in the spring and fall. The popularity of this merchandise is also steady in that it doesn't change based on the popularity of a driver, as can happen with other race-related merchandise.

McAllister also suggests delving into racing, which is an ever-growing industry, and related apparel.

"The more you relate it to the aspect of racing, the better," he offers, adding that for distributors and retailers that sponsor racing, selling race-related clothing is definitely a good add-on. "The race fan is a very loyal person. They are very dedicated to a particular driver or car they like. They don't necessarily have to have a graphic with Jeff Gordon on it, but if they can buy a Pepsi shirt with a racing theme, they will."

Unlimited T-Shirts has been creating racing apparel for about 20 years. "The consumer we target is wearing a lot of T-shirts, and they don't want to wear the same thing every day. They're looking for new stuff, not necessarily the high impact items we do for a track or an event, but something related to a type of sponsor," McAllister says.

Ride Revolution's General Manager Michael Wilder says one of the reasons their company sells apparel both online and in their store is to get their name out to the public. The company sells and installs mobile electronics, performance products and vehicle styling.

"We hope that it perks some curiosity or that they go online and see what it is and what we can do," he says. "We're honestly trying our best to educate the customers on what we can do."

And selling clothing with the Ride Revolution insignia is one plan of action. They sell sunglasses, hats, T-shirts and have looked into race gear. "The apparel is helpful to get people to realize who we are," Wilder continues. "A good-looking shirt goes a long way."

Wilder states Ride Revolution uses apparel as an add-on to other merchandise and service. "We're in the 18- to 25-percent mark-up range. We're not trying to get rich off it."

Vintage clothing

Turtle Wax has launched a line of branded apparel, which includes men's, women's and kid's T-shirts, in retail stores.

"What's very popular right now is using corporate brands that are retro or vintage in nature and putting them on men's, women's and kid's T-shirts," says Kristin Edstrom, licensing manager with Turtle Wax.

Turtle Wax's partner/licensee All Access Apparel will offer girls and junior vintage Turtle Wax T-shirts as a co-branded effort with Self Esteem brand. The Self Esteem brand is sold at mid-tier retailers and department stores nationwide. Turtle Wax is in the process of signing licensees for Turtle Wax wearables for both menswear and women's wear — both of these licensees sell to upscale retail channels such as Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom and Federated Department Stores, as well as to mid-tier retailers.

Edstrom, who believes apparel is a good add-on for retailers, says these lines are available for distribution in the auto retail channels as well.

"I think (selling apparel) allows the Turtle Wax brand to enter new consumer product categories that will help enhance the brand within automotive chemicals," she notes. "It will further enhance consumer loyalty to our brand. Plus, we have a really fun heritage of unique graphics that have been used (for years)."

In addition, selling apparel gives them a chance to work with new retail partners.

"Our strategy is that we really want to make Turtle Wax branded goods available at every retail level, from the young, new user to the established consumer who's been using our products for 20 years," explains Edstrom. "The brand is really multi-generational."

If a retailer/jobber wants to sell Turtle Wax apparel, visit or contact Kristin Edstrom at (708) 563-3531. The company is also working to expand their apparel line to include hats, footwear and other accessories.

Stitching a spot in the industry

To get started, select your market and stay within that niche. For instance, if you sponsor a NASCAR event in your area, consider bringing NASCAR clothing and hats into your store so customers can wear the items to the races.

Sparrow suggests contacting NASCAR to find out opportunities for selling their branded apparel. Factors such as a store's size and replenishment cycle determine whether they can work directly with NASCAR or through one of their distributors, he says.

If you're looking to build your company's name within your community, consult with designers and printers on logo'd company shirts that are eye-catching to the consumer.

As far as getting items printed, McAllister of Unlimited T-Shirts notes that many printers are looking for volume when creating apparel, so if you're a smaller retailer, you might increase your merchandise volume by partnering with other stores in your area, or by asking your WD to get involved.

Once apparel has been added, the next step is making sure it sells. Jennifer Robison, western retail environment specialist for Tucker Rocky Distributing, advises powersports dealers on which displays and floor layouts result in the most profitable apparel sales. Tucker Rocky is one of the largest distributors of parts and accessories for powersports in the United States.

"There's always an opportunity to add profit centers to your stores," she says. "There's money in (apparel), but you have to have good displays, good lighting (and) you need the staff to keep displays full.

"You have to be committed to it," Robison continues. "You can't just get it, throw it in the store and expect it to sell. It never works. If you're going to sell apparel, you have to take the appropriate steps."

Robison offers retailers the following tips:

1. Know your market.

2. Create a fantastic, inspirational display.

3. Promote the merchandise within your staff — it has to be sold; it can't just sit there and expect customers to pick it up.

4. Rotate it. For example, change apparel to reflect the seasons. "Apparel has a shelf life like milk — you can only put it out there for so long, then it spoils," she says.

5. Wall space is the best location.

6. Have POP displays and end caps made for logo'd merchandise. "It has to look professional and not like it's an afterthought," notes Robison.

So if you're looking to add some new inventory to your store, selling the duds that likely make up your weekend attire could be the answer.