How Pukka’s Custom Apparel is putting them on the Map with Specialty Retail

Specialty retail is a barometer Pukka uses to discover new categories that can benefit from its quick-turn, low minimum platform. Custom apparel is a growing one for the Irvine, Calif.-based company.

Specialty retail is a barometer Pukka uses to gauge which new categories can be leveraged with its quick-turn, low minimum platform. Custom apparel is a growing one for the Irvine, Calif.-based company.

Pukka Founder Shawn Rogers uses Specialty Retail as ‘Barometer’ to create Custom Apparel Program

Pukka got its start in the custom printables category in 2003, when father-son team Kent and Shawn Rogers saw an opportunity to offer something that no other company could: low minimums coupled with custom products, created with a quick turnaround. This was crucial to small, mom and pop businesses that often wanted and needed unique products, but didn’t have the capacity for typical volumes required—which often hover around 300 units—when placing such orders.

Hear more of the story behind Pukka’s origins.

The impetus of the brand has remained its key mission through today, and Shawn Rogers has remained diligent when it comes to ways Pukka can support core shops.

“We continually evaluate the core specialty retail markets—surf, skate, snow—as they are the barometer for most of what we do at any given time,” says Rogers. “We have to be trend-conscious.”

pukka's custom apparel

Pukka’s Director of Sales Justin Prior, Director of Marketing James Thompson, and CEO Shawn Rogers.

With that in mind, and listening to the needs of its retail partners in the space, the company began rolling out a custom apparel offering, in addition to bringing in new fabrics, silhouettes, and custom appliques and trim options for its headwear program. By essentially gathering all the knowledge the company has in developing headwear and dropping it into custom apparel, Rogers felt confident they could grow their offering across multiple categories.

And that’s exactly what’s been happening since the soft launch of its apparel program, as major retailers like 17th Street Surf Shop, Huntington Surf & Sport, Hansen’s, and Jacks Surf Shop, have come on board as partners. The company started giving real-time demos of their design capabilities in person at tradeshows, which has also played a integral role in the growth of these programs.

We caught up with Rogers recently to get his take on how Pukka got its start in the new category, how the founding pillars of the business have worked across custom apparel, and what possibilities lie ahead.

Tell us about expanding into the apparel category – how and when did that get started and how is it being received?

Our customers have been asking us if we offer custom tees and fleece for a long time and we simply got tired of saying "no." If you think about it, within our program it's a natural fit as it was a natural question from customers. The 2015 September Surf Expo was the first time we had a complete line of apparel at a show. Customers hadn't seen it from us before, so there were a lot of questions about capabilities, minimums and pricing. Overall it was well received and like anything else custom and new, it's really about slowly rolling it out and drawing people into it. We expect it to really take shape at the January 2016 Expo.

Is the apparel program similar to what you do with hats and accessories?

Similar yes. But not exactly the same. Our Custom Headwear Program is a built-from-scratch custom program, meaning that we have no inventory. The apparel program starts with blanks, which are in inventory. What truly separates us from the competition in this category is all inclusive pricing, our ability to do more than just plastisol printing as we currently offer soft hand plastisol, water-based and discharge inks, and our custom woven label capability. Think of the different types of labels that you see at specialty retail as trims. We can do those same trim treatments in low minimums. Custom woven labels are a core capability that we brought over from our custom headwear, and now shops have access to the very same trims.

pukka's custom apparel

A look at east coast retailer 17th Street’s custom T-shirt program through Pukka.

Which brands are you working with the most on this side of the business?

That's a great question and sometimes a tough question to answer with proper understanding. Brands are not really our focus. I say that with respect as everybody is a potential customer, but our immediate target audience is the shops and the small retailers. Don't get me wrong, in that mix, there are some very iconic names that we classify as brands, as they themselves do. That's really one of the cool things about our program— we are not limited to who we can make product for. In most cases, brands like to keep the fact that we are producing their product private, and we respect that.

I noticed at the last round of Surf Expo the Pukka crew was custom designing some product for accounts. How long have you had this program in place at the tradeshow level, and how do you hope to continue moving it forward?

We have been doing on-site design appointments for years in other markets and since our launch into the surf/skate/snow markets. They are the true hook. Once an account has taken part in a design appointment it all starts to sink in. We can do so much, sometimes for the visual person it's the tipping point. They can see every click on screen and they get into it. The appointments always lead to add on sales for us. A simple color change means extra units. Our design appointments are often imitated but never duplicated. Orders are approved on the spot. Our customers always walk away having had fun and have a better grasp on our program flexibility. In the tradeshow world everyone says it's all about the experience.

What’s Pukka’s game plan for the next round of tradeshows – which ones will you be at and in what capacity?

Surf Expo is our main show. It has been the foundation of our initial launch into the industry and continues pay dividends. Each show is better than the last meaning we have seen considerable growth in terms of orders written at the show and we continue to open new doors and make solid connections as a result of being there. The SURF Expo has been good to us at all levels and at the end of the day; it's a testament to our staff, our sales reps, attendees and show management. In addition to Surf Expo, we have exhibited a t a few other shows, but timing was off for us based on our sales cycle and where those markets were at in their seasonality. We did test the water in a few other smaller markets last year and they were good for us and we will keep the close to the vest for now. We expect them to explode in the next few years.

pukka's custom apparel

Jack’s is a strong partner of Pukka’s within the custom apparel program.

Where does Pukka see the biggest areas of potential for growth and how does the company plan to activate on those areas over the next 12 months?

We are still relatively new in the market place and see strong growth potential in the custom headwear and apparel categories. We have a great rep force that is supported by our internal team. We are headwear experts and because of what we do and how we do it, I don't think we can even begin to ask ourselves where it stops. Our custom apparel is phase two for us and has huge potential. Many of our reps are just breaking it out of their bag for the first time and we continually find ways to refine the program almost daily. We know we are competing with the local screen printers down the street in this market, presenting our program as a total solution for their business is very important. It turns out to become a very efficient way to do business for them.

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