Will face masks be a lifeline for apparel retail?

Source: Blade + Blue
May 20, 2020
Matthew Stern

Apparel continues to struggle amid the uncertainty of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but one brand has made the best out of the situation, pivoting to use materials already in its pipeline to create a pandemic-appropriate product.

Facing sales declines of 60 percent at the onset of the novel coronavirus outbreak, San Francisco menswear brand Blade + Blue began working with its manufacturing partner to use remnants from last season’s shirts as well as the upcoming summer season’s shirts to make masks, CNN Business reported. The brand’s founder, Peter Papas, said that the move not only saved the business, it also attracted new customers. Blade + Blue has donated some masks to healthcare workers and first responders in addition to selling them to the general public.

In addition to slowing sales and supply chain disruptions, backlogged inventory has been one of the biggest problems faced by apparel brands and retailers throughout the duration of the pandemic. Retailers with highly-seasonal stock are having to choose between holding over unreleased seasonal merchandise into the following year or selling at huge markdowns as stores slowly reopen.

In an attempt to weather the storm while helping out with the cause of protecting healthcare workers from COVID-19, Blade + Blue is not the only apparel brand to get in on the mask making game.

Both Banana Republic and Old Navy are among those that have been donating and selling non-medical cloth face masks and, according to USA Today, the ones from Old Navy are being made from the brand’s leftover fabric.

Earlier on in the pandemic, retailers like Joann Stores and Neiman Marcus started making masks for frontline medical personnel in light of a nationwide PPE shortage, even though at the time there was conflicting data as to the effectiveness of cloth masks in particular situations.

While some luxury brands had been making face masks preceding the pandemic, they have pared down their availability, according to Glossy, over fears that selling such products in the price range of hundreds of dollars would be considered gouging during the pandemic and promote a backlash.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Should apparel brands and retailers consider repurposing their existing or leftover materials into masks? What do you think they can do to differentiate in this respect?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"I don’t think masks will be a lifeline for apparel retailers but they are an important accessory in the 'now normal.'"
"It’s a potentially fun, new category that manufacturers and retailers should capitalize upon and ride the wave as long as it lasts."
"Helping people stay safe and being opportunistic may not be the lifeline that so many brands and retailers need, but it’s a smart move."

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19 Comments on "Will face masks be a lifeline for apparel retail?"

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Bob Phibbs

I expect to see every brand create a branded mask for the near-term. Social cachet would be reason alone to have them available for people to show off on their personal stories but a branded mask could also be used in a brand’s own stores and outlets. It won’t contribute much to income but will contribute to marketing.

Oliver Guy

This is so cool. I have read about the potential impact of face masks on items like lipsticks so the potential for a face mask to become a contrasting/matching item of clothing could be really interesting – filling the gap. Shirt makers attempt to sell ties alongside shirts, so why not sell a matching or contrasting face mask?

Jeff Sward

Re-purpose leftover material to sell or give away? Sure, absolutely. Lifeline? No. I applaud the nimbleness of the factories and retailers that pivoted to PPE during the heights of the crisis. It was both benevolent AND business saving. But we are now living on shifting sands of demand over time. Masks will seek their own level demand over time, and the nature of the product means that demand can be responded to very quickly. Masks are a new and welcome accessory, but not a lifeline.

Richard Hernandez

I saw this early on and it was one of the smartest and most innovative ideas I had seen to help the apparel business. As noted, it will not be the entire salvation of a company but it has attracted customers to brands that they may not have necessarily known about.

Suresh Chaganti

There is a reason why it is hard to invest in and make money out of masks. As a product category, non-medical masks have few months of life at best. Cashing in on the demand is a high risk strategy that can damage a brand. Making masks into a cool accessory requires marketing investments and can come across tone deaf. They are not even seasonal. Purely from a business point of view, masks are not going to save the day for apparel brands. The challenges run deeper than that.

Neil Saunders

This is a great idea but it’s no lifeline. The decline in apparel sales is precipitous and the whole market is shifting dramatically away from certain segments like workwear and occasionwear. Stores, which are the mainstay of many impulse purchases are only just reopening and traffic is very light. Masks may be creative and worthy, but they will do diddly squat to help clothing retailers.

Stephen Rector

Manufacturers are all over this – retail buyers are being bombarded with options as many suppliers saw an opportunity both as a category to capitalize on but also to offset the cancellations they were absorbing in apparel. The main issue is you have to sell a lot more masks versus a shirt from a wholesale perspective, so I don’t see this as a lifesaver for many unfortunately.

Georganne Bender

Face masks are the new underwear, we all need them.

I don’t think masks will be a lifeline for apparel retailers but they are an important accessory in the “now normal.” Donating and repurposing materials to make them is an act of good will that consumers will reward.

Steve Montgomery

Use or toss – is that a real question? There is a need for masks and these, and other companies, have material they have paid for and can’t use for its original purpose so using it for making masks is the logical and right thing to do. Will masks save the companies? Likely not, but it may make people aware of their brand and perhaps let them acquire new customers.

Peter Charness

It’s a boredom breaker — but hardly a lifeline. Now how about a mask with some interchangeable Velcro stick-ons that allow you to smile, frown, look puzzled, etc. Masks sure do hide your emotions…

Ralph Jacobson

It’s a potentially fun, new category that manufacturers and retailers should capitalize upon and ride the wave as long as it lasts.

Kathy Kimple

We have seen many apparel brands large and small add face masks to their product mix, and have seen fashion-forward consumers begin to think about masks as accessories. Masks are likely to be a daily staple for the near future, and I expect to see brands beyond fashion players (e.g., restaurants, airlines) begin to “brand” their masks for differentiation and awareness.

Mel Kleiman
4 months 21 hours ago

It could help to move some material, get some people in the store, get some visits to their website, and create a good corporate image. But overall I don’t see it adding a lot of profit to the bottom line.

Shikha Jain
Waste not, want not. First, don’t waste perfectly good materials. Repurposing unsold fabrics is a move toward sustainability that resonates with consumer values and in turn creates brand loyalty. Second, as Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” This is about meeting consumer needs in a unique way and in no way about price gouging. Retailers find four opportunities in this emerging market for a necessity-turned-accessory: Branding: We’re already seeing the rise a whole new category that will run the full spectrum, from pop culture-inspired masks from entertainment houses to luxury masks from high-end designers. It’s an excellent branding opportunity. Personalization: Consumers will want their masks to match their style and even to bear some kind of personal branding that is unique to them. Range: The more they have to wear masks, the more consumers will demand options. This is a chance for retailers to provide the assortment of face masks that people didn’t know they needed, and even to distinguish themselves with special features, like “breathable” or “adjustable.” A Greater Cause:… Read more »
4 months 18 hours ago

And in a few months they’ll have so many masks they’ll be giving them away at 90%+ off.

Masks are simple to make and take little fabric. A great margin opportunity for what would be otherwise wasted raw materials. Price the mask for $15 or $20 and you will get much better margin out of a mask than you would out of a shirt or pants.

Also the small size of masks makes them easy to ship.

Oh, and the point of these cloth or fabric masks that air goes right through is…? These are not medical PPE and they do not accomplish much, if anything.

George Anderson

You’re right that these are not surgical masks. It does look as though Blade + Blue is selling the masks at a price where this is not simply an act of altruism. The masks also include filters that presumably offer at least a little more protection from wearers infecting others if they have COVID-19, which is the primary reason medical authorities recommend that we wear masks.

Phil Rubin
4 months 18 hours ago

Masks are likely around so it’s a good item to inventory if you’re a retailer. It’s especially important if you’re a retailer and want customers to wear masks in your store and beyond and better, be advocates for your brand or look in other places.

It’s worth nothing that Brooks Brothers was among the first merchants to repurpose a domestic factory to produce masks when there was a critical shortage earlier in the crisis.

Helping people stay safe and being opportunistic may not be the lifeline that so many brands and retailers need, but it’s a smart move.

Mike Osorio

It is absolutely an important addition to most apparel brands, particularly those with a strong emotional connection with their audience. Once the CDC announced the need for all of us to wear cloth masks to protect others, our small Hawaii-based resort apparel brand provided over 30,000 free masks to families throughout the US. From that, the customer response from both brands was a keen desire to purchase masks. So we went back to work and are now producing and selling 5 packs of exclusive fabric masks for $58. Our second brand is selling a 4 pack for $34. Both at prices well below the averages out there. We feel strongly that we should not seek higher than normal margins for this accessory product.

Brian Numainville

Almost everyone that has a brand identity is making a mask. While it is certainly good marketing and a way to get visibility for a brand, not likely that it will be a huge revenue driver for most. But kudos to those who were nimble enough to make the adjustment and keep things going, along with donating masks for frontline workers.

"I don’t think masks will be a lifeline for apparel retailers but they are an important accessory in the 'now normal.'"
"It’s a potentially fun, new category that manufacturers and retailers should capitalize upon and ride the wave as long as it lasts."
"Helping people stay safe and being opportunistic may not be the lifeline that so many brands and retailers need, but it’s a smart move."

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