Who doesn’t dream of their brand going mainstream and getting into large retail stores? How cool is it to imagine your design selling at Urban Outfitters, Macy’s, TopShop or Nordstrom? I was selling at a trade show years ago and was approached by a few big box stores and although at the time, my gut said that I wasn’t financially in a place to do it, I did approach Urban Outfitters a few years later to test it out. As Mark Brickey from the Adventures in Design podcast said in our interview, “if the biggest guy in town becomes your worst customer, then why is that the goal we strive for?” I’m paraphrasing, but this statement is something to consider. Below is my experience selling with Urban. I have seen it work for a few people, but for me, it helped me change my path.
I found a contact at UO and hustled my way into sending samples to that person and pushing to get picked up. You can read about how I did that in the cold calling article. Once he had the samples, months went by as they were pitched in meetings to try and get something picked up. Regardless of my suggestion for which designs would be best, they chose one that had a very narrow audience and then tried to push it as a tiger design and not Life of Pi or anything relating to it. Instant fail out of the gate. I suggested they pick up my Moby Dick design which has proven to be a top seller in general public selling situations and that was of course ignored, so the test order for Life of Pi was submitted. If you are looking for a contact, try searching LinkedIn for a buyer in the department you need, find their name and cold call the home office and just try to get them on the horn or send samples to them and follow up.
Big box retail companies each have their own system in place for handling an order. UO’s is called Urbnvendor(if I recall) and you need to do all things related to the order through that system, including accepting the PO(purchase order) to ordering UPC labels, printing shipping labels, submitting your invoice, etc. The software is incredibly complicated and not very user friendly. Navigating just accepting the PO had me on the phone with them to even do that.
Pricing They offered me $6.30 for a 100% cotton tee. It didn’t matter that I use a nice quality blank or print with higher quality discharge inks. That’s the price they offered. I negotiated a price of $7 for the test order, but the agreement was that if they picked it up for all of the stores, they wanted $6.30. It’s a take it or leave it approach. I’m sure you are already thinking, crap, there’s barely any profit at that price, even if you are making 500 shirts. You are correct. I print my own shirts, so I was able to skim a little higher margins, but it’s still barely anything to begin with. The way people get away with orders to big box is by either producing overseas or by going to shops that often print for retail. They never touch the goods, the shop handles all aspects of printing, packaging, etc and you just pay them and choose to make small margins for being hands off.
Packaging Big box stores have strict ways of labeling your packages. Each item needs to be individually bagged and tagged with the labels you ordered through their vendor. For t-shirts they need to be in a choke hazard warning poly bag as well. If you mislabel a box or item, you will be fined and they will deduct it out of your payment. It’s pretty nerve racking to work through that first time.
Payment If I recall, UO was on either net 60 or net 90 from when I submitted the invoice. The invoice gets submitted after everything has shipped, so all costs incurred in production fall on you. They did pay on time when it was due, so I will give them that. From time of my investment into production to when I got paid was about 120 days total. This is how big box retailers work, so if you are interested in working with them, expect this kind of timeline for payments.
Sometimes there are perks to being the wallflower that stays out of major retail. For the bulk of us, it’s an entirely different world of production and functionality than what we are used to. I can’t say I regret doing the test with Urban, because it quickly taught me that it was not the avenue I wanted to pursue with my brand and led me to start targeting the right stores that understood my product better. When I look back at what I thought was decent volume and a nice paycheck at the time, all I see now is a lot of work and really no profit after factoring in labor and headaches. My normal accounts pay 2x what they offered and although my experience was to pursue UO, the offers I got from other major retailers all have fallen into a similar pricing scheme and scheduling. If a product does well and you can ramp up production to still have some skin in the game, than it may be worth it for you. I’ve known people who did runs with Urban, it sold great and they not only were selling thousands of shirts, but their items ended up all over the place, including tv shows, movies, etc. Selling to a retail outlet that is mass market does open the possibility of your product getting into the hands of people who can bring attention.
My goal with this article was to outline some things to expect from major retail so you can decide if it fits your vision of your brand. If you can factor in the amount of advertising that comes into play by having your product in front of a lot of people, than it could be worth going after. Your shirt on a celebrity or tv show can bring great exposure that would easily make up for the low margins via increased direct sales. It’s a value proposition that should be considered when approaching or deciding about working with a major retailer. For me, it sent me on a more direct path towards my exact target market, so I am thankful that I went through the process. If they pick you up nationwide, you are looking at possibly thousands of shirts a month and that can expose your brand to new people very quickly. It simply just wasn’t my bag or the direction for miles to go to persue.
*Please do not email me asking who my contact is/was at UO. If you read this article and couldn't pick up that you need to search it out on your own and an easy way to try it, I definitely can't help you.