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Green Scene

As more parents make an effort to buy eco-friendly products for their children, retailers with the right strategy can maximize their organic sales.
By Lyndsay …

As more parents make an effort to buy eco-friendly products for their children, retailers with the right strategy can maximize their organic sales.

By Lyndsay McGregor

Green is in. Marshal Cohen of The NPD Group reports that eco-friendly apparel and accessories make up $5 billion of the $200 billion fashion business in the United States—just a decade ago it barely grazed half a billion. Meanwhile, the Cotton Incorporated 2013 Environment Study reveals that more than two out of three consumers agree that they are happy to be environmentally friendly as long as it saves them money, and more than half of shoppers describe themselves as “green consumers.” That leaves a lot of opportunities for childrenswear manufacturers and retailers to capitalize on parents looking to purchase more organic and environmentally sound products.

“With an increase in allergies and skin-related problems, parents choose to protect their family using non-toxic, environmentally friendly products,” says Sheree Lee, creative director and founder of New York’s Tane Organics. “Modern parents are also very conscious of leaving a cleaner, healthier earth for their children, and are therefore choosing to live an eco-friendly lifestyle.”b

More and more designers and retailers are promoting their brands as environmentally conscious, too. “The industry is becoming more aware of how we can reduce our carbon footprint. The whole process of using chemical dyes and plants cultivated using pesticides—it all has a huge effect on the water supply and that goes into the food we eat. People are becoming aware of how detrimental these things are,” offers Sariah Park, adjunct professor at Parsons The New School.

To be sure, eco-friendly fashion is one of the biggest and fastest growing trends of the decade. We asked an array of retail experts to share their secrets to attracting an organic-inclined customer.

Do your homework.

Nowadays in fashion “organic” and “eco-friendly” are popular buzzwords that get bandied around quite a bit—which is a good thing for building eco-awareness, but not so good for pinning down a definition. More often than not, these descriptors don’t tell consumers anything specific about the products being sold. Some “all-natural” plush toys may be stuffed with non-organic filling and though fast-fashion giant H&M is the No. 1 buyer of organic cotton in the world, the vast majority of big name brands tend to blend—using organic alongside non-organic fabric. “If you’re going to do it, do it properly,” says Raegan Moya-Jones, founder and CEO of Aden + Anais, which is expanding its collection of organic swaddle blankets this year. “Not all things marked organic are the real deal. Make sure you understand the process and ensure that what you are selling is really organic.”< Heather Rider, owner of Monkey Bars, an eco-friendly kids’ boutique in Alameda, CA, stresses that research is paramount. “When I go to other stores with my kids I see a lot lines that I know have a lot of money behind them and are made in China. Even though they have green packaging and look super-earthy, they’re not,” she says, adding that she prefers to research online, rather than trusting a brand’s spiel at a show. “If it’s in my store, then it’s safe. It does put the onus on me, which I’m totally fine with. When people come in and start asking really basic stuff like ‘Is there lead in this?’ the one-liner I usually use is, ‘It’s not in the store unless I have used it or I would use it with my own kids,’” she shares. But how can you be sure a product lives up to its earth-friendly claims? One way is to look for a white and green “USDA Organic” label. In order to label a product organic, it must be USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) certified, meaning it has met the requirements of the USDA NOP (National Organic Program) standards throughout the entire production process—no cancer-causing dyes or finishes and no fudging the data on organic content. Manufacturers must specify what percentage of organic materials a given item contains. Amanda Searancke, founder of Austin, TX-based Nui Organics, a line of sustainable wool and cotton clothing for kids ages newborn to 10 years, advises retailers who are thinking of going green to look at everything the market has to offer. To retailers who are worried by the higher price tag that usually comes with eco-friendly duds, Searancke points out that the market has changed. “Don’t be scared off because you thought organic was expensive. Revisit lines you had considered in the past but didn’t buy because they weren’t affordable then. The market is bigger now, so prices have come down,” she points out.

Take baby steps.

“I would suggest beginning with product in the newborn or infant size range to potentially capture a wide audience consisting of parents, grandparents and gift givers,” advises Nancy Kaplan Ostroff, associate professor and assistant chairperson at FIT. Searancke agrees. “That’s when people are obsessive about what they put into and onto their child’s body,” she notes. Lee furthers this sentiment by adding, “Baby products are a great introduction to organic products, since babies’ skin is more porous and thin, more prone to absorb and hence less resistant to bacteria and harmful substances.”

By introducing organic products to your merchandise mix through the infant/toddler category, you’re also opening the door to a potential long-term relationship with your shoppers. “I have customers who have grown up with Nui. They originally bought our one-pieces for their newborn, and they loved the quality and colors,” Searancke shares. “We’re evolving as a brand, too, so we have customers who loyally come back to us season after season.”

Education is key.

Consumers are increasingly concerned with working conditions, environmental issues and outsourcing, and are demanding similar accountability for their tots’ togs. It’s simple: origins matter. And retailers are now required to hand over information about exactly how and where their products were made.

“Train the sales staff and get them excited about the products and to tell the story,” Lee advises, adding, “A gentle approach to education and authentic communication is key. Once the consumer is aware of the many benefits of using and wearing eco-friendly products, they are much more appreciative and eager to start.” Rider agrees: “I think my approach is very down to earth. I don’t want to admonish consumers—I educate them on the benefits of going green.”

Suzanne Price, founder of organic-centric chain Sprout, notes that there are different segments of customers when it comes to those interested in organics: There are “extreme green” customers who want everything in their life and everything that touches their child to be organic, she says—and if your sales staff can’t match their level of expertise, they will take their business elsewhere. “Our customers know they can trust Sprout because everything we carry across the board is organic,” she says.

And then there are consumers who are starting to become concerned about more basic lifestyle choices, like not using plastic food containers or purchasing sustainable fabrics. Your staff needs to be able to mix knowledge with enthusiasm about the product and pass that message on to the consumer. “I try to teach people the benefits of organic cotton,” Rider says. “Cotton is one of the most chemically treated crops in the world—it can be processed with chlorine bleach, formaldehyde or hydrogen peroxide—and babies’ skin is especially sensitive and can react to conventional cotton fabrics.”

Mix it up.

Whereas grocery stores like to highlight their organic produce, either in separate sections or with signage that differentiates it from the rest, the same approach simply won’t work for childrenswear. As reported in the Cotton Incorporated 2013 Environment Study, consumers say they are more likely to buy clothing labeled as 100-percent cotton or made-in-the-U.S.A. than clothes marketed as natural, sustainable or environmentally friendly.

“Most consumers just care about clothing being cute. Moms who are pregnant or have a newborn are more conscious of organic clothing but as the kids get older, parents seem to think about it less,” Price says. Searancke echoes this, adding, “If retailers try to get people in because it’s organic they will be disheartened because people just want to buy cute clothes for their kids. Organic has to be in addition to all those other things.”

Lee says the sweet spot is to fold organic product into the various assortments in the store. “Focus on the great design of the product and have the confidence to introduce the organic benefits intimately,” she shares. Searancke adds, “Sometimes consumers might be deciding between a pair of pants that are organic and a pair that aren’t organic; they look similar and have a similar price point, and maybe the fact that one is organic will sway the sale.”

Kaplan Ostroff recommends grouping a mix of basic tees together or merchandising them with a range of bottoms. “The important thing is to be authentic. If you offer organic or eco-friendly merchandise, be prepared to back it up. It should not be just a perception,” she notes. Most importantly, keep it cute, Price says. “I’ve seen a lot of organic stores where everything is beige. There’s no reason why anything green has to mean plain and boring,” she quips.

Plus, mixing it up is a great way to gauge precisely which types of all-natural items parents are willing to pay a premium for. “A lot of parents talk about how important it is to use organic products, but don’t always want to pay a higher price for it. If you make sure that you have some organic and non-organic choices in each category, you can start to figure out what your customers are willing to spend more on,” Moya-Jones notes.

Consider more than clothing.

It’s important to offer consumers a range of organic products to choose from, from gifts like plush toys and swaddling blankets to wooden playthings and skin care products. With more and more mainstream toys being recalled for toxic paints or harmful components, many parents are turning to all-natural, non-toxic basics to keep their kids safe and happy.

“There’s a great need for retailers to carry toys that are eco-friendly and made from recyclable materials. A lot of toys today are made with toxic materials and these are sitting in landfills, and kids are learning about this in schools and they’re a lot more aware than parents are,” states Laxmi Wadhwani, founder of Zeenie Dollz, a line of eco-friendly dolls made of recycled plastics. Price adds, “Everybody has iPad apps for their toddler, and I think that makes people crave a more simple option for their child.” She points to PlanToys, wooden toys made in Thailand from sustainably sourced rubber wood with vegetable dyes, as a great example of an eco-friendly toy that appeals to parent and child alike.

That applies to the products that goes on kids’ skin, too. “With my girls I’m not adamant that everything be organic. However, I’m willing to spend more on their skin and hair care to make sure what they put on their body is naturally-derived and chemical free,” Moya-Jones says. Even companies that specialize in body and bath products for children often use irritants like phthalates, sulfates and parabens. Rider swears by her store’s array of Zoe Organics, an eco-friendly skin care line for babies that uses only organic ingredients.

“I think people in general are becoming more aware and, by default, conscious of the environment and how we treat it,” Moya-Jones adds. “People feel more obliged to do their little bit to help.”

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