Open Your Own Pink Ribbon Merchandise Line, Why?

A grad student recently sent me a series of questions about the future of cause marketing and one of the things I see more of over the near term is causes putting out their own lines of branded merchandise. When I look at this pink miniskirt skirt from the Loft benefiting the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, I wonder why.

Right now when you buy this sequined miniskirt (in ‘blushing rose’) for $70, the Loft will give 25 percent to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

Clothing at retail is said to be marked up between 100 and 350 percent, more for luxury brands. Little surprise then that enterprising nonprofit managers look at these margins longingly. “We have a compelling brand,” they say, “and an engaged user base willing to buy things from us directly. Why not build a merchandise line?”

But. But. But.

Ann Taylor Stores Corporation, which owns the Loft, has almost 60 years experience figuring out what women want and what they like to wear. The 510 Loft stores have clerks trained to sell and fit women. If you’re dissatisfied with a purchase, the Loft has a return policy. There are 14 Loft outlet stores for the merchandise that doesn’t sell as well. The Loft has a method for dealing with merchandise that doesn’t sell even at the outlet stores.

The Loft knows where to get goods manufactured. It knows which factories are efficient and effective. It knows who’s honest and easy-to-work with. It knows how to tell the good designers from the bad. It knows how to get a container-load of blushing rose miniskirts to the Port of Long Beach, and from there to its stores. It knows how long that trip across the Pacific should take. It knows what to do if that container of blushing rose miniskirts blows off the deck of the cargo ship into the Pacific during a storm.

The Loft has a highly-functional website optimized for selling clothing to women. And, if you don’t like what you buy online, it has a way of letting you return the merchandise. If you call their 800-number, someone answers.

Finally, there is this. If the viscose that the skirt is made of turns out to be sub-par, or the sequins detach too easily, only the most dyspeptic among us blames the Breast Cancer Research Foundation or think less of it. But if the BCRF sold the skirt directly then a bad garment would reflect poorly on the Foundation.

I can see the temptation for charities to get into their own branded merchandise. $35 (assuming a 100 percent markup) is more than 25 percent of $70, after all. But for most causes, I don’t think the rewards outweigh the risks.

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