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Forward March

A century of children’s wear coverage proves that our industry has survived several revolutions, with fortune favoring the boldest and most tenacious of fighters.

ed-letter-apr-16Over the past few months I’ve had the privilege of holding history in my hands as we’ve tirelessly combed through a 1,000-plus issues of Earnshaw’s archives to create this very special Centennial Celebration issue.

It’s truly awe-inspiring to hold a faded copy of Earnshaw’s from 1933, published during the heart of the Great Depression, and imagine the pluck and perseverance it must have taken for a childrenswear manufacturer to survive during those dark days. I found myself Googling the retailers and executives quoted throughout the years, especially those whose photos were included because they were headed off to fight in WWII. Talk about perspective: The era’s fabric shortages and price restrictions make managing your brand’s Instagram account look like child’s play, appropriately enough. Who knows if they all returned home safely? At the very least, their contribution to our industry are forever marked in the pages of Earnshaw’s.

It’s an important point to note because it’s no secret that the children’s industry is going through tumultuous times of late. The rise of the online shopping and social media has created any number of complications for manufacturers, retailers, sales reps and trade show exhibitors alike. And while it may seem like these changes spell the end of our industry as we have come to know it, the archives of 100 years of Earnshaw’s tell quite a different tale. In fact, the more I researched our back issues, the more I realized that today’s industry is actually quite similar to earlier periods. Depressions, recessions, wars, the rise of category-killing retail formats…The more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s a cliché for a reason. Need proof? Here are just a few pieces of advice I came across in the pages of Earnshaw’s that ring as true today as when they first appeared in print.

Make Mama Happy: While it’s tempting to think that we live exceptionally harried lives, Earnshaw’s provides a telling reminder that moms have always been multi-tasking. In fact, the children’s apparel industry was born in the early 1900s because the era’s moms realized they could purchase ready-to-wear garments in lieu of sewing and stitching an entire layette collection. In our February 1942 issue, an ad heralded “gripper fasteners”—the precursor to snaps—as ideal for women with “no time for button-bothering.” As the ad notes, “Mothers nowadays are spending their spare minutes at Red Cross meetings, knitting for the boys and the service [and] doing volunteer work.” Fast-forward to 1960 and the decade’s new easy-care knits were ideal since, “Today’s young mother does more than wash and iron and cook… She’s busy worrying about the committee to banish beach litter, taking courses in pottery or water skiing.” The gist? Make moms’ lives easier, and you’ll make money. 

Make Shopping Easier: Throughout the years, Earnshaw’s has encouraged retailers to make shopping easy for mom—from hosting educational seminars on baby hygiene in the early 1900s to creating a seamless omnichannel experience in 2015. For a perfect example, check our this month’s On the Block profile with Amanda DeGrave, DMM of boys’ and infants’ at Von Maur. The Midwest-based department store chain has been providing a comfortable atmosphere for moms since it was founded in 1872.

Ringing Up Sales: If you think e-commerce is intimidating, imagine how retailers in the early 1900s must have felt when they started taking orders by a strange new talking box known as the telephone. One of Earnshaw’s earliest features, in fact, was a how-to on using the device to boost sales. Through the years, we have continued to provide high-quality service journalism on everything from radio and TV to computers and now social media. In the wake of each technological revolution, Earnshaw’s encouraged retailers not to be intimidated, but to use the new medium to their advantage. Because how mom shops has and will continue to change, but an adorable frock for her beloved little one remains an irresistible temptation just as the need for an entire new wardrobe—because kids get bigger— never goes away.

Unlike other industries where a market dies out (think the video rental store) because new technologies make them obsolete (think streaming devices), one of the beauties of the children’s apparel industry is its replenishment of millions of new customers every year who are always in need and want of new clothes. So while the battle to compete, survive and thrive rages on season after season (resulting in a fair share of casualties on both the wholesale and retail fronts), at least we can take comfort in knowing that a new crop of customers will be coming into the fold. The Earnshaw’s archives prove exactly that: Fashions change, field generals come and go and industry flashpoints are ignited and snuffed out. But our beloved industry as a whole lives on to fight another day.   

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