Woolrich Ramps Up Direct Selling

Woolrich Inc., the nation's oldest apparel maker, plans to make the Internet and the catalog the centerpieces of its brand-building strategy next year.

In first quarter 2001, the company will introduce features that add stickiness to its site, open a store on another site, hire more customer service representatives for online live chats and ramp up its affiliate program, which kicked in earlier this month.

“Our whole focus for Woolrich.com is to build our Woolrich brand,” said Bruce Heggenstaller, vice president of operations at the privately held, family-run company, which sells traditional outdoor wear for weekend enthusiasts, backpackers and hikers.

As a wholesaler, Woolrich sells to more than 3,000 regional and specialty retailers, such as Gander Mountain, REI, Basspro, Nordstrom, The Sports Authority and Peoples' Department Store. It also has 27 company-owned outlet stores nationwide, including stores in California, New Hampshire, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.

But increased competition from younger rival outdoor brands has forced Woolrich, Woolrich, PA, to be more creative. It quietly launched its site, www.woolrich.com, in August 1999, followed this fall by its first consumer catalog.

“With the shrinking square footage we were allowed in retail, we have determined that we wanted to make sure that our brand continues to grow and expand,” Heggenstaller said. “We decided to put the catalog and the Internet out to improve our brand awareness with consumers.”

Tactics to snag traffic and business for Woolrich.com seem to be working.

Since it started using LivePerson Inc.'s technology in April, Woolrich claims that online sales have shot up. LivePerson software connects the consumer with Woolrich's customer service representatives, allowing for real-time chats from inquirers.

“Really the busiest months we've had right now are November and December,” Heggenstaller said. “We have about 600 chats a week. Eighty percent of these chats are turned into a sale.”

E-mail marketing is another tactic that has perked consumer curiosity. Woolrich has run three e-mail campaigns with yesmail, though Heggenstaller did not disclose the results. Names were rented and will be until Woolrich builds its own house list.

“We think e-mail campaigns have been extremely successful for us, and we'll be looking at some other possible vendors,” Heggenstaller said.

Woolrich will continue its traffic-driving measures through an affiliate program that went live Dec. 1. The company has signed on with Dynamic Trade, Chicago, linking with 77 affiliates, mostly apparel retailers.

The quest to gain acreage on the Internet will get another shot in the arm when Woolrich products appear on CBS' StoreRunner.com site in the first quarter.

In the same vein, Woolrich has an outlet store on Yahoo's shopping area. Offering just 50 items, the sub-site links to Woolrich.com as well.

The firm has also entered into a pay-for-performance deal with software company Yobox to introduce extra stickiness to Woolrich.com in next year's first quarter.

“We're suggesting a product at checkout based on information about the customer,” Heggenstaller said.

Woolrich, however, is aware that a mere online and retail store presence is not enough. That led to a holiday catalog, with names rented from outside lists. Its first drop in September was to 157,000 prospects, followed by mailings of 300,000 and 500,000 in October and November, respectively. Fulfillment is handled inhouse.

Targeting buyers with Woolrich's customer profile — men in their late 30s, educated, with annual household incomes of $55,000 to $75,000 — the catalog is set to become a biannual feature. Heggenstaller said 3 million copies of the spring and fall catalogs will drop next year.

Millard Group Inc., Peterborough, NH, is the manager and broker on the Woolrich account.

Though it is too early to gauge customer response to Woolrich overtures via the Internet and catalog, Heggenstaller still hopes to convert more eyeballs into paying customers.

“We'd like to improve our online conversion rate,” he said. “We're looking at a conversion rate of 4 percent. We'd like to get up as we build our own house list. We'd like to be 7 [percent] or 8 percent.”

On the whole, direct-to-consumer commerce seems to be working for Woolrich.

“We think the Internet and catalog could next year amount to as much as 10 percent of our total volume,” Heggenstaller said, declining to supply raw numbers. “Right now it is 3.5 percent.”

And yet, such overt efforts to sell directly may be a high-wire act for Woolrich. The company still is primarily a wholesaler of Woolrich-branded apparel to other retailers, which may not appreciate direct competition from a supplier.

Woolrich's site has a store-finder function that allows consumers to search for dealers stocking Woolrich wear in their vicinity. The company also has a six-page insert in its consumer catalog listing preferred retailers.

“Our purpose is not to compete with our retailers,” Heggenstaller said. “We're at full suggested retail with all of our products and pricing. What we're trying to do is to build our own brand. Whether it be the Internet, store, catalog or direct retailer, it's brand, it's brand, it's brand.”

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