How 2 Apparel Brands Swiftly Pivoted to Help Front Line Workers and Their Local Communities | Coronavirus Series

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Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series that explores the impact the coronavirus crisis is having on the world of ecommerce. Explore daily insights surrounding the coronavirus crisis or check out these additional resources to help you navigate your marketing strategy during this time.

Because of the global coronavirus pandemic, many brands are currently pivoting their core business and purpose in order to altruistically support and give back to their local communities and front line workers. 

In March 2020, shortly after states began issuing stay-at-home orders to support social distancing precautions, sales of many essential and new essential items like food, health and fitness, and housewares skyrocketed, while the money that people typically spent on non-essential items like apparel and accessories shrank. 

Simultaneously, daily reports emerged about the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), like face masks and gowns, that front line healthcare workers would need in order to protect themselves from the virus as cases soared across the country. 

What’s more, because of how rapidly the virus has been spreading, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently recommended that everyone (regardless of whether you’re a medical professional), wear cloth face coverings, especially in areas where there’s been significant community transmission of the disease. 

As a result, many apparel companies have additional ways to help out healthcare workers and other non-medical front line workers during this unusual time. 

I recently spoke with two CEOs from apparel and accessories brands who told me how they’ve pivoted their operations to begin manufacturing and selling face masks.

To shift their operations while navigating this pandemic, they couldn’t do it alone. Read on to learn how Pistol Lake, a California-based ecommerce performance apparel company, and Averill’s Sharper Uniforms, a Massachusetts-based company that sells uniforms to hospitality and service industries, relied on their existing skillsets, their manufacturing and supply chain relationships, and the generosity of their networks to embark on this new endeavor. 

How leaning into existing skillsets helped the brands as they pivoted their operations

Like many business owners and CEOS, Ryan Light, CEO of Pistol Lake, is ambitious by nature. His business took a direct hit from the pandemic and his community of customers helped him pull through. Ryan said he wanted to give back and knew that creating face masks was how he would do it. 

To learn how to create face masks, Ryan relied on his hustle and ambition, accounting skills and manufacturing knowledge to take calculated risks, and ability to think about the future. Ryan said there was a learning curve to make sure he could get the patterns and the fabric for the masks right. 

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Ryan Light, CEO, Pistol Lake

“I was constantly reading message boards, tweeting for help, and looking for people who had knowledge—even the Red Cross wasn’t able to provide clear guidance at the time,” Ryan said. 

Soon after Ryan developed a plan to produce face masks, the mayor of Los Angeles outlined the guidelines for all garment makers should follow in terms of what fabrics and templates to use and who could buy them, which aligned directly with what Ryan said he had planned to do.

“We were given two specs: one from Regional Medical Center, the other from Deaconess Health System. After talking to some healthcare pros, we made some of our own modifications. We swapped the elastic bands for ties for comfort and to be hypoallergenic, and we added a bendable embedded metal nose bridge that allows for a tighter fit and more adjustments,” Ryan added. 

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Averill Bromfield, CEO and founder, Averill’s Sharper Uniforms

Averill Bromfield, CEO and founder of Averill’s Sharper Uniforms, is also ambitious to the core. It’s what’s helped him stay in business for more than seventeen years. 

While the hospitality and service industry has been hit particularly hard as a result of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, Averill said he also wanted to focus his time on giving back to the healthcare community. So far, his company has made 20,000 face masks and has donated the profits from those masks to local hospitals. 

“I’ve had to be resourceful, agile, and quickly assemble a team who could make this endeavor work, which was especially tricky considering I’ve had to furlough most of my employees. My manufacturer designed and created the masks, I’ve managed marketing strategy and communication, and my webmaster handles all of the crucial website updates,” Averill said. 

"I’ve had to be resourceful, agile, and quickly assemble a team who could make this endeavor work, which was especially tricky considering I’ve had to furlough most of my employees. My manufacturer designed and created the masks, I’ve managed marketing strategy and communication, and my webmaster handles all of the crucial website updates."

Averill Bromfield, CEO, Averill's Sharper Uniforms

Averill says his business is also working with the Massachusetts Restaurant Association (MRA) to create a campaign that shows the different aprons he’s created, and the sales from those aprons will directly go toward benefitting local restaurants. 

How existing manufacturing and supply chain relationships helped bring the brands’ visions to fruition

After Light came up with the idea for creating and donating facemasks to the medical community, he immediately took an audit of what resources he had to see if it was possible. Fortunately, he had a few advantages.

“We use a third-party logistics provider (3PL) that we share with 25 other companies. Some of these companies sell essential products, so the 3PL continued to ship for us,” Ryan said. 

Despite the support from their 3PL, Ryan said Pistol Lake encountered other challenges.

“Our factory, fabric, and dye products are all local to LA, so there were no issues with customs or bringing in items from overseas, but fabric and dye are considered non-essential items so those manufacturers had to shut down. Because we were going to use the materials to make face masks, the city of Anaheim granted us a permit of a few hours during which we could quickly pick up the fabrics that our fabric manufacturer was storing for us,” Ryan added.

"Our factory, fabric, and dye products are all local to LA, so there were no issues with customs or bringing in items from overseas, but fabric and dye are considered non-essential items so those manufacturers had to shut down. Because we were going to use the materials to make face masks, the city of Anaheim granted us a permit of a few hours during which we could quickly pick up the fabrics that our fabric manufacturer was storing for us."

Ryan Light, CEO, Pistol Lake

Averill said he had similar supply chain and manufacturing advantages, too. 

Like Ryan at Pistol Lake, Averill was fortunate enough to have a strong network with his suppliers. 

“One of my apron-makers came to me directly and said he had the materials and design, so they could make the face masks if I could market them. That’s how this is even a possibility,” Averill said. 

According to Averill, his manufacturers drop-ship the masks directly to his customers, so he hasn’t had to worry about shipping delays like many other businesses have experienced.

Why the generosity of their networks was an essential part of their success

Because of the urgent need for facemasks, Ryan has made it his priority to get face masks into the hands of healthcare professionals as quickly as possible. But Ryan said that hospital administration red tape can cause delays anywhere from two to four weeks. 

“If I were to donate these masks, the healthcare workers would have them in one day. If the hospital has to pay for it, there’s a bit of bureaucracy and it substantially delays the time,” Ryan said. 

To creatively circumvent these delays, Ryan and his team have tapped into their TechStars network and pairing up with well-funded donors who wanted to help. These generous individuals have donated the money to Pistol Lake for the masks and in turn, Pistol Lake donates the masks to healthcare workers who immediately get them without delay.

Averill says he’s also relied on the generosity of his network. 

His customers have helped him by placing large bulk orders for face masks, which have helped him meet his manufacturer’s required minimums. Even though these customers may not be fully operational because their industry has been severely impacted by state orders to temporarily shut down, they’re still buying these products for their employees, and also their families and friends. 

“Their generosity is incredible. After my expenses, I’m donating 100 percent of the profits to hospitals. To date, we’ve sold 20,000 face masks,” Averill said.  

Final thoughts

Many businesses are struggling to navigate through these uncertain and unsettling times, yet many are finding innovative ways to give back to their local communities. 

With the foresight to ask for help and by relying on their existing skillsets, resources, and networks, brands like Pistol Lake and Averill’s Sharper Uniforms have been able to support their community, donate to causes they care deeply about, and lead with purpose. 

If you’d like to also make face masks to donate directly to your local area hospitals or if you’d like to sell them and donate the proceeds from your sales to your local area front line workers, consider following these guidelines for tips and best practices on how to create them.  

Looking for more information to help you adjust your marketing strategies as you navigate the coronavirus crisis? These resources may be helpful.

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