Last month's Inc Magazine featured a long and interesting story about Threadless, the online t-shirt maker. Threadless takes an innovative approach to product development by involving a community of designers in design creation and production decisions. The result is $30 million in sales and a very involved, evangelistic customer base.
Threadless's success in the t-shirt business hasn't gone unnoticed. They have been approached by retailers like Target and Urban Outfitters who want to carry Threadless's designs in their stores. Here's what Jake Nickell, Threadless's founder had to say about the opportunity:
"We would do a deal with Target or Urban Outfitters... The only stipulation we need is to have some kind of presence in the store where people are able to easily learn about where the designs come from. You go to Target or Urban, and it's just shirts on a wall. You have no idea where they came from or who designed them... As long as the story isn't lost, we're OK."
Nickell proposed an in-store kiosk that would allow shoppers to rate designs and learn more about the artists who created them. So far, the big retailers have balked.
Unlike retailers who want to move more and more popular products, the guys at Threadless understand that their business isn't just about making and selling t-shirts. It's about interacting with their community of fans, who are suppliers, customers, and evangelists. This story is the one thing that really sets Threadless apart from any other t-shirt vendor. Losing that would make Threadless products just more "shirts on a wall."
Choosing a brand story over the opportunity to increase sales in the short term is no doubt a difficult decision. But it's the right decision in the long run. Good for Threadless.