Duluth Trading Co. has nearly doubled its sales in just two years, thanks in no small part to a giant angry beaver and an animated buck-naked underwear guy.
In an unforgiving environment for apparel retailers, the Wisconsin-based designer of casual clothing and rugged workwear stands out from the crowd like one of its quirky commercials.
With headquarters about 20 miles south of Madison in the little village of Belleville, the company, which sells primarily online and through catalogs, took in $304 million last year — up from $163 million in 2013.
The raw dollar increase alone would be the envy of many much-larger clothing retailers. In percentage terms, Duluth’s growth is positively stellar.
And a key factor in that success is an offbeat marketing style — simple, direct and amusingly self-aware.
The essence, according to John Talbott, a longtime retail executive turned educator (Indiana University), may be that the rapidly growing retailer is tapping into “the construction worker in all of us.”
Duluth’s roots are in the building trades. The firm was started in 1989 by a pair of carpenters in Duluth, Minn., who invented a tool organizer they dubbed the Bucket Boss.
The company still sells hardgoods — an eclectic assortment that ranges from ratchet drivers to books such as “Outwitting Squirrels” — but its main focus is on apparel.
Designed to meet the demands of construction workers and the like, the great majority of the clothing actually is purchased by customers who have nothing to do with the building trades.
But even if we aren’t much good at using a speed square or toenailing a stud, many of us admire those with such skills. And as we putter around the house, we just might want a pair of high-quality carpenter pants with lots of pockets for all those tools we sort-of know how to use.
Duluth, whose parent company, Duluth Holdings, went public last November, has been combining specificity with humor for years. It introduced its “Longtail T” shirts in 2002 as the cure for plumber’s butt. Following that innovation came “Ballroom Jeans” (a gusset in the crotch provides comfort when crouching) and Buck Naked Underwear (supposedly how they feel).
About five years ago, Duluth began advertising on television. The ads are mostly line drawings that look like they could have been sketched by a fifth-grader. Among them: a “giant angry beaver” who breaks his teeth trying to bite through Duluth work pants, and a hefty guy who feels so happy in his Buck Naked Underwear that he pole-dances to a polka.
Duluth did offend one noted person, but not because it joked about butt cracks. Rather, in a rare marketing misstep, the company’s copywriters got a bit too clever and urged potential buyers of its three-button pullover to “DON A HENLEY and Take it easy.”
That wordplay alluding to a founding member of the Eagles and one of the group’s best-known songs prompted a lawsuit from singer and drummer Don Henley. The two sides settled, with Duluth posting an apology on its website.
Not surprisingly, Duluth takes a different marketing tack with its women’s business, which accounts for about 20 percent of sales but is growing as a share of the total.
No body humor there. And where Duluth’s men’s catalogs use retro-looking illustrations rather than photographs, the women’s books do just the opposite. The retailer tried illustrations with its first women’s catalog, DeRuyter said, but quickly switched amid immediate female feedback: We want to see actual photos of what we’re buying.
That was a decade ago, before Duluth had stores. Now the firm has 11 brick-and-mortar locations, with three more expected to open in the coming months. Nationwide, Duluth has identified about 100 markets that it believes could host a store.
The company’s stores emphasize visitor experience — a tool museum in the flagship, nautical gear in another store — and a further build-out could help boost consumer awareness of the brand, said research analyst Jonathan Komp, who follows Duluth for Milwaukee-based Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc.
That awareness is relatively low now, Komp said.
“The real opportunity is to keep growing the customer base, and they’re doing that effectively with the television and in print and other advertisements,” he said.
In other words, there are lots of potential shoppers yet to be introduced to giant angry beavers and buck-naked underwear guys.