Thailand’s Supara Group bagged 800,000 new customers by selling Crayola-branded face masks through a new ecommerce site to U.S. schools and parents during the COVID-19 pandemic. But what’s ahead for the apparel maker now that infection rates are easing?
COVID-19 damaged or destroyed countless businesses since its worldwide rampage began in early 2020, but the pandemic and a timely licensing deal with Crayola LLC created a big opportunity for Bangkok-based men’s clothing manufacturer Supara Group.
Sensing a new market, Supara, which produces apparel under the GQ brand, decided to get into face-mask production. The company kept 3,000 sewers employed during the pandemic and struck a licensing deal with Crayola, a manufacturer of art supplies, to produce Crayola-branded two-layer reusable cloth masks. Supara then assembled a “mask force” of educators, parents and designers to develop masks competitive with offerings from Disney and Gap, George Hartel, Supara’s chief commercial officer, says. Sales to American schools and parents through Supara’s SchoolMaskPack.com ecommerce site began eight months ago.
The result: some 800,000 new customers, Hartel says. “We had 200,000 orders in the first seven weeks,” he says. Privately held Supara did not reveal actual sales figures or details of the licensing agreement. A spokesperson for Easton, Pa.-based Crayola did not respond to a DC 360 request for comment.
Supara’s student masks come in packages of five—one for each day of the school week—and sport of a variety of Crayola images, colors and sizes. Orders come with a mesh laundry bag for washing. The retail price is $29.99, but discounts frequently are available. Bulk orders, or “classpacks,” include 125 children’s masks and five for teachers. The usual bulk price is $749.99, but Supara often discounts that, too.
Extending sales via Amazon and retail chains
Supara sells the masks mainly online through SchoolMaskPack.com but also on Amazon.com. Physical retailers took notice, Hartel says, leading to some distribution deals. Packs of Supara’s masks are available now at Walmart Inc.’s Sam’s Club warehouse stores, Toys ‘R Us in Canada, and “a few other very select retailers,” he adds. Some 70% of sales come from Supara’s direct-to-customer channel via SchoolMaskPack.com; the rest is evenly split between Amazon and the physical retailers, according to Hartel.
SchoolMaskPack.com orders are processed on Ottawa, Ontario-based Shopify Inc.’s Shopify Plus ecommerce platform, and Shopify’s payments unit handles the payment aspect. Hartel says Shopify Plus has a number of features beyond straight ordering and payment that help Supara upsell customers as they go through the checkout process. “They had an incredible assortment of app integrations, or plug-ins, for the website,” Hartel says.
The Shopify system enables SchoolMaskPack to handle the nuances of school districts’ differing invoicing and purchase-order systems. “A lot of this we learned as we went,” says Hartel.
Supara also uses With Reach UK Ltd.’s payments technology platform, which enables Supara’s customers to pay in their local currencies. The Reach platform is also designed to help Supara manage fraud control. In addition to the U.S., Supara has sold masks in nearly 100 other countries. Canada is the company’s second-biggest ecommerce market after the U.S., according to Hartel.
SchoolMaskPack’s U.S. marketing relies heavily on Facebook Inc.’s channels oriented toward teachers and mothers. “We have very optimized web pages,” says Hartel. “Right now, more than 90% of our purchases are from moms. The Facebook system is really fantastic for this.” Influencers who create videos are another component of the online marketing program. “It’s like moms talking to moms,” he says.
But does this business have much of a future now that Covid-19 vaccinations are ramping up? U.S. public-health authorities have reported in recent weeks that the pandemic is finally ebbing, though they caution it’s far from over. “For sure, it’s going be around through 2021,” says Hartel.
Getting ready for post-COVID sales
That leads him to figure SchoolMaskPack will be generating strong sales for months to come. He notes that while Thailand has removed its mask mandate, there is still strong societal pressure for people to don masks in public. “You’ll have a mix of that in the U.S.,” he says.
Supara next month plans to launch a seven-layer washable cloth mask with enhanced filtration capabilities, according to Hartel. And even if the mask business “totally sunsets, that’s OK,” he says. That’s because now that Supara has established a solid U.S. foothold, the company sees a ripe market for what it calls its “tech-enabled” clothing beyond its core fashion-oriented apparel. The key feature is its ability to repel liquids and resist staining, Hartel says.
And with an established ecommerce platform and strategy, Supara already has an edge to drive sales.
Jim Daly is a Mount Prospect, Illinois-based freelance journalist covering business and technology.
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