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Kathy Vass, Marketing Editor

Surviving And Thriving In A Niche Market

Kathy Vass, Marketing Editor

N iche marketing has been the battle cry among US textile and apparel makers in recent years, as manufacturers have overhauled business strategies and searched for markets in which they can better compete. By moving away from traditional commodity markets and focusing on more specialized ones, many US producers are finding a way not only to survive, but also to avoid heavy competition and earn higher profit margins.

Push Or Pull

Niche marketing can take a push or pull approach, depending on whether the marketer focuses on a niche market or on a niche product.

Push marketing considers the product first. A company develops a specialized item it believes is substantially different from any other in the marketplace and begins marketing that product to a select group of consumers, thereby pushing it on this highly targeted group.

Pull marketing considers the market first. A company focuses on a select group of consumers, such as first-time parents, and then develops a product related to that group.

Researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of Alabama released a study in the fall of 2004 that concluded upstream textile and apparel manufacturers such as fiber and yarn producers are more likely to use the push approach, while downstream companies like sewn goods producers lean more toward the pull approach.

One reason for this trend, researchers have found, is fiber and yarn producers invest more in research and development and new machinery, creating niche products prior to market identification. Conversely, downstream companies are closer to the consumer and are more easily able to monitor trends and preferences among buyers in their target markets. As a result, this segment of the supply chain identifies potential buying segments prior to product development.

For a niche product, success is based on differentiation, quality, branding and a good understanding of the four P’s of marketing — product, price, placement and promotion. For the niche market, success is more a matter of customer service, market share and a loyal customer base. In both cases, knowledge of the consumer is critical.

By focusing on a smaller group, you can know precisely what customers want and how to serve them better than any of your competitors.

Guidelines

Most marketing professionals agree successful niche marketers adhere to three basic rules of thumb.

First, offer a product or service that is compelling and substantially different from those currently in the marketplace. Identify the unique needs of your target audience and look for ways to tailor your product or service to meet those needs. Look for consumers who form clusters, or groups with identifiable demographic, psychographic or other characteristics. Start by considering product variations you might offer.

When it comes to marketing women’s skirts, for example, styles and fabrics change, but women still are forced to conform to standard sizes — 10, 12, 14 and so on. What if you offered made-to-measure skirts made from unique fabrics that would make your skirt a one-of-a-kind rather than a one-size-fits-all?

Remember that best customers often can lead to niche markets. Who are your favorite customers and what do you like about them? Suppose they pay quickly, don’t quibble about price, appreciate your efforts for better service, and are frequent purchasers. Determine what these customers have in common. Where do they live? What do they earn? After looking for common links, determine if there are enough people like them in your proposed trading area to provide a viable niche market.

Next, speak the language when approaching a new market niche. In other words, communicate with the target group as an understanding member, not as an outsider. What are their hot buttons and expectations? Are they Internet-savvy, and if so, what websites do they visit? Where do they get their news — from television, newspaper or radio?

For example, suppose a business that markets leather goods primarily to men via a website decides to target women also. Working women, like men, appreciate the convenience of shopping on the Web; however, research shows women in the on-line world don’t whip out their credit cards as quickly as men do There first needs to be a level of trust. Women will connect better if there is female representation such as images depicting women in powerful roles — in business and as domestic decision-makers.

Marketing statements that offer solutions and benefits, without overdoing the hype, work well. To successfully increase sales from the new niche, the Web marketer will need to revise its website’s marketing message both graphically and with expanded copy.

Finally, before moving ahead, determine the direct competitors that exist in the new market niche and how you will position against them. Your competitive analysis should include a review of competitors’ advertisements, brochures, websites and other marketing materials. Look for key selling points, pricing, delivery and service.

Remember, it is not always a good sign to find no competition in a niche market. It may mean that other companies haven’t found the key to providing a product or service this niche will want to buy, but it’s also possible that many companies have tried and failed to penetrate this group. It’s always a good idea to test-market carefully to gauge the market’s receptiveness to your product, service and message.

Made-To-Measure In The United States

Made-to-measure (MTM) typically conjures up thoughts of tailored suits or dresses fashioned by a local tailor or seamstress. As the US textile and apparel industry continues to suffer at the hands of offshore competitors, entrepreneurs in towns where the mighty mills once reigned are hoping to make a nice living with Made-in-the-USA apparel in non-commodity markets.

A desire for individuality and a better fit is driving many in the less-than-perfect-figure crowd to MTM markets for shirts, skirts and other apparel. The Internet has helped facilitate many of these non-commodity marketers, allowing smaller manufacturers to offer their products and services to segmented markets around the world.

At Clemson Apparel Research Center (CAR), Clemson, S.C., researchers automated the complete system for producing MTM garments for all branches of the US military. Now, CAR is sharing that knowledge across the Southeast with entrepreneurs who are anxious to perfect their manufacturing processes and expand their market shares.

CAR runs the Department of Defense server for all MTM garment orders, manufacturing military dress shirts for those who can’t be fitted properly in standard sizes. Using CAR’s website, customers can type in their measurements in the morning and have the custom-fit shirts shipped the next day.

Utilizing quick-turnaround methods, CAR produces more than 1,200 military and civilian shirts per week with a three-day production lead-time, in contrast to the industry standard of four to six weeks. In addition, CAR uses this production to learn about the problems associated with manufacturing and supply chain management to develop better solutions for commercial manufacturers.

CAR was the perfect fit for Susan Porter, owner of Charleston, S.C.-based Les Jupes. An artist with a passion for textiles and fashion design, Porter had become increasingly frustrated with ready-to-wear selections from retailers. A skirt she fashioned for herself out of that frustration caught the eye of friends and others, and an idea was born.

“I have a good eye for design and the fabrics that translate well into skirts, but I don’t sew,” Porter said. That’s where CAR came in. Using photos and sketches supplied by Porter, CAR has developed patterns for no-waistband skirts in A-line, tulip, straight and tiered styles. Using an array of European and Indian fabrics handpicked by Porter, CAR manufactures hundreds of the MTM skirts under the Les Jupes label each year.

Les Jupes customers can choose from an average of 50 organic fabrics including velvet, damask, silk, and even upholstery fabrics, which “are often so much more beautiful and interesting than strictly apparel fabrics,” Porter said.

“Les Jupes skirts definitely are an upper-end product, but the customer is part of the creative process and [she’s] willing to pay a premium for that,” she added.

July/August 2005




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