Cutter & Buck tries again with organic cotton line
The Seattle-based sportswear company hopes the second time's the charm for a new line of men's and women's shirts made of organic cotton.
Seattle Times business reporters
What a difference three years makes.
In 2005, Seattle sportswear company Cutter & Buck introduced organic cotton shirts with a hang tag detailing its commitment to environmental sustainability — and a retail price $4 to $5 above regular cotton shirts.
The market's response? "Disappointing," says Cutter CEO Ernie Johnson. "We probably were a little ahead of market demand at the time."
Now, Cutter is giving organic cotton another chance in the firm belief that consumer interest has come a long way since 2005.
The company's sales force began showing a new line of organic cotton shirts last month to retailers throughout the U.S., and this time, says vice president of sales Brian Thompson, the reaction has been "very positive."
The new line includes several styles of shirts for men and women in colors ranging from a reddish orange, called "alarm," to "score" blue.
The shirts are made in India with organic cotton, meaning the crop was grown without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. They're expected to hit stores in late November at prices slightly above those for conventional cotton shirts.
But for all the environmental awareness these days, a more expensive offering could be a tough sale if the economy continues to deteriorate and consumers don't get some relief from rising food and gas costs.
Johnson acknowledges that Cutter will "have to be very patient and basically work a little harder."
"Will this be the top seller? I think it will take some time," he says. "But I think there will be a wider audience than three years ago."
Thompson says there's another reason the new shirts could be more successful: They're more fashion-forward than the basic polo-style shirts of three years ago.
"I'll sell a lot of this to people who don't care that it's organic," he says, pointing to a display of shirts featuring accent stitching, striped patterns and three-quarter-length sleeves. "The fact that it's organic could be the deciding factor for some. For others, it will just be a nice attribute."
Founded in 1990, Cutter was bought last year by New Wave Group AB, a European sportswear distributor, for $156.5 million.
A leader in the U.S. corporate promotional-apparel market, Cutter sells sportswear to distributors that brand it for companies.
It also designs and markets upscale sportswear under the labels Cutter & Buck, Annika and CBUK. It employs about 380 at its headquarters in Fremont and at a Renton distribution center.
For now, organic cotton represents a small portion of its business, but Thompson says he's hopeful it will become a bigger part, especially as supplies increase and costs come down.
"I think the concept is here to stay because it's a sound business practice," he says. "It's just that we're in a transition period where it's more expensive."
— Amy MartinezTidbits
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Retail Report appears Fridays. Melissa Allison covers the food and beverage industry. She can be reached at 206-464-3312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Amy Martinez covers goods, services and online retail. She can be reached at 206-464-2923 or email@example.com.
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