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As the 2014 end-of-year data tumbled in, Ramblers Way Farm CEO Tom Chappell saw an opportunity to shift both the distribution strategy for his high-end sustainable clothing business this year and hone in on a growing customer base reachable through social media.
“The best way to describe our distribution strategy for 2015 is we are doing more multiple-channel marketing,” said Chappell, who is the founder and former head of iconic Tom’s of Maine. “It will consist of our current strategy of specialty clothing for women’s boutiques and men’s clothiers. And we will be adding independent, more boutique-like outdoor recreation stores that have decided to look for more sophisticated, higher quality clothing that is styled and not just utilitarian, as most of the brands are.”
Such high-end outdoors stores don’t sell boots and skis, he said, but instead purvey more stylish items than everyday outdoor garments, he says, pointing to stores like Concord Outfitters in West Concord, Mass., and Adventure Apparel in Carmel, Calif.
“That’s going to mean a lot of new retail stores. A lot. I think we’ll be in at least 1,000 retail stores in five years,” he said. Ramblers Way is based in Kennebunk.
Also new in 2015: the company has hired a social media expert, expected to start work in mid-February with Tom’s son Chris Chappell, who is director of communications. Both will work from California to build Ramblers Way’s online sales.
“They’ll work together for all of our messaging to bloggers, on website copy and on video,” Chappell said. “When it comes to third-party messages, in today’s world the priority is social media. It’s not traditional media. You’ve got to have an active, interactive and outgoing service to interested consumer groups, to bloggers and just keep up-to-date with people who want to follow you.’
He continued, “That’s very different from a public relations firm that is working the magazines or newspapers. We’re reprioritizing. We’re putting it [social media] first.”
Chappell said the website already accounts for one-third of the nearly $1 million in sales the company posted in 2014.
“I think our business will explode this year. And I think the website will become our primary [means of] distribution, because consumers are showing that preference,” he said. He wants to make the website more dynamic so consumers can easily access products.
But Chappell also wants to protect the company’s local independent retailers with programs that are still attractive and profitable for them.
“We’re keeping all the options open. We’re also increasing the means by which the retailer can do business with us, so we make it attractive for them to buy from us,” he said. “We’re … letting the consumer decide. The price will be the same wherever you are. Ramblers Way will be the same online versus in David Wood Clothiers [on Commercial Street] in Portland.”
Another thing Chappell learned when reassessing the company’s performance at the end of 2014 is that Ramblers Way needs to help its wholesalers more, to make it easier for them to display and sell the company’s products. That will entail doing a better job of branding the Ramblers Way products in the store with consumer information.
Also, the company plans to take on more of the financial risk of displaying its products in stores. “So it will be less, ‘Here’s our pitch to you, here’s the price,’ and more, ‘How do we work as partners?’” Chappell explained. “It begins by saying, ‘Your store is the right store for us, because your shoppers are our target audience,’ and then saying, ‘Here’s a set of styles that we recommend for your store.’” He said Ramblers Way researches the store’s market area and matches demand with products customers would want.
“And if certain products don’t work out, we’re not going to stick them with it. We’re going to take responsibility for things that don’t sell. They could send something back,” he said. “That would make it a relationship in which we share the financial risk.”
Chappell is taking more of a wait-and-see attitude toward an earlier plan to open Ramblers Way stores under the company’s own name. But in the next couple years, he does want to open a company store near the headquarters in Kennebunk.
“I’m not looking to shuffle off merchandise at a discount,” he said. “I’m looking to educate the consumer on what’s involved in making a product here in America. So our company store would be one in which you would come to see how things are made, see how it works from the fiber all the way through to the consumer and you’d be able to buy product, too. So it would be educational, experiential and commercial.”
Meantime, the company is waiting to see how business goes over the next few months before it considers increasing its current staff of six salespeople. Chappell said Ramblers Way may hire one or two people this year in areas of the country where it has no sales coverage, such as Manhattan and Los Angeles.
In an interview with Mainebiz published Dec. 1, Chappell said he was buying equipment from a dye house that was going out of business and would move it into a 6,000-square-foot facility in Kennebunk in December. That move has been delayed until February, he said, because the dye house owner extended his closing date to complete a work order for Ramblers Way.
The plan is, however, to bring all dying, sponging, cutting and sewing operations in-house going forward.
“We just completed dying Pima cotton fabric with natural dyes in colors including sage, charcoal, pewter, goldenrod, rock salt and black,” he said. That order will be sent soon to Japanese department store Isetan, to which Ramblers Way has been selling naturally dyed woolen clothing for four seasons.
“Getting cottons to dye well is very, very hard, but we’ve achieved that,” he said. Chappell explained that wool is a protein, and so absorbs colors more readily than cotton, which is a carbohydrate. Typically, natural dyes don’t have the same intensity of color as traditional chemical dyes, but Chappell said his company has gotten strong colors by being persistent in its research.
“I’m very, very proud of this because I’m so committed to natural dyes as a sustainability matter,” he said. “It’s just one more way in which we are breaking the mold with commercial-scale dying using natural dyes.”
Bringing cutting and sewing operating under its own roof in Maine is another goal. “This is a business that requires a great deal of control and checkpoints along the way,” Chappell said. “The more you have under your own employment and company domain, the more you have control over the numerous steps involved in creating a design and a pattern, cutting and sewing it and having it all right, and having it on time.”