Shirts are shipped to a blond brick building in Austin Ranch’s industrial area before they end up on shelves at 60 major U.S. retailers including Brooks Brothers Burberry, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, J.C. Penney and J. Crew, plus 450 more men’s specialty stores.
Inside the warehouse, rows and rows of 40-foot-high shelving with 15 layers of boxes hold every imaginable combination of color, fabric, style and size of men’s dress shirt.
It is the U.S. headquarters of The Apparel Group Ltd., known as TAG, a privately-held company that makes 1 out of every 6 men’s dress shirts sold in the U.S.
Thousands of men’s dress shirts a year are designed in the building. But the shirts — like most apparel sold around the world — are made in factories the company owns in Asia.
Never heard of TAG or its Hong Kong parent company, TAL Group? For decades, the company wanted it that way. But now, in addition to its wholesale private label business with major retailers, it’s selling one of the brands it owns, Enro men’s shirts, directly to the consumer and is selling its logistics capabilities to other apparel manufacturers and retailers.
Why change now? Because of Amazon.com.
The e-commerce giant has been courting big and small brands to persuade them to ship directly to consumers and bypass major retailers. Amazon invited consumer products makers to a meeting in Seattle earlier this year to say it can improve their customers’ experience.
Last month, Amazon sent an email to thousands of U.S. merchants offering to buy their inventory at full price. Amazon even wants brands you’ve probably never heard of. It all adds up, after all.
Unlike other apparel categories, the men’s apparel business has remained strong.
The men’s dress and casual shirt category has grown 9.4 percent in the last five years to $13.75 billion last year, according to Euromonitor.
A detail of ENRO clothes in the conference room at The Apparel Group Ltd. distribution center in Lewisville, Texas Thursday August 10, 2017. The Apparel Group Ltd. is the ENRO parent company. According to The Apparel Group Ltd., one sixth of the men’s button down shirts distributed in the United States are processed through this building. Built in 2008, the building is 250,000 square feet and is considered a foreign trade zone. The average order size for direct to consumer purchases is under two units per box, whereas they ship on average eighth units per box to wholesalers. (Andy Jacobsohn/The Dallas Morning News)
Direct to consumer
Enro is a U.S. brand founded in 1919, and TAL purchased it in 1988. It’s had a strong following, but it’s not as widely known as Brooks Brothers or J. Crew. All these years, Enro has been a brand sold to men’s specialty stores and small high-end regional chains in all 50 states. And those stores sold the reliable brand of 100 percent luxury cotton shirts with the motto “let your dryer do the ironing” to its customers.
Suddenly, as Amazon became more interested in apparel, Enro shirts were ending up on Amazon, but TAG hadn’t sold the shirts to Amazon, said Lisa Mullman, senior vice president of design, product development and sourcing.
“Some of our retail customers went to Amazon, and Amazon was buying from our customers,” Mullman said. “The regional stores weren’t big enough to support an online business on their own.”
That’s when TAG decided “we should do it ourselves,” she said. Enro.com has been selling direct to consumers since 2015. The company is controlling the message and trying to make it more of a national brand.
“Buying patterns have changed. Customers don’t want to spend time in the mall browsing. They know what they want. Online, it’s done and shows up at their doorstep,” Mullman said.
“It’s about instant gratification. It’s why you can’t tell the consumer when to watch something anymore and why we have Netflix.”
Enro is also selling its shirts on Amazon. Enro customers said they wanted to use their Prime accounts, in which they pay $99 a year for free shipping and other services. TAG won’t disclose the volume of sales it’s doing on Amazon or on its own Enro.com e-commerce site.
John Apostolidis, e-commerce marketing for Enro, said the company’s website has had more than 4,400 customers who have made 390,000 purchases since March 2015 and the business is growing more than 30 percent a year. The website is profiling its retail specialty store customers and directs customers to them with a store locator, he said. “We’re trying to lift the demand for the brand. We’re trying to lift all boats.”
Lisa Mullman, senior vice president for design, product development and sourcing, speaks to The Dallas Morning News while at The Apparel Group Ltd. distribution center in Lewisville, Texas Thursday August 10, 2017. According to The Apparel Group Ltd., one sixth of the men’s button down shirts distributed in the United States are processed through this building. Built in 2008, the building is 250,000 square feet and is considered a foreign trade zone. The average order size for direct to consumer purchases is under two units per box, whereas they ship on average eighth units per box to wholesalers. (Andy Jacobsohn/The Dallas Morning News) (Andy Jacobsohn/Staff Photographer)
More than half of Enro customers wear a dress shirt four or more times a week, he said.
“The typical Enro man isn’t a casual office dress kind of guy. If he does ‘dress down,’ it’s a dress shirt with no tie or one of our casual shirts, which are primarily a dress shirt with a casual pattern to it that isn’t meant to pair with a tie.”
Linking the supply chain
The local retail network of 450 independent retailers in 47 states is the largest seller of Enro, followed by enro.com and then Amazon.com, he said.
Part two of this Amazon-inspired story is more about TAG’s relationship with other retailers.
TAG is trying to compete with Amazon in the behind-the-scenes business of third-party logistics, which it started in 2014.
“We’re trying to democratize the supply chain,” said Ken Bloomberg, manager of commercial services at the company’s logistics business.
TAG’s Lewisville facility is now the fulfillment backroom for 11 retailers for their apparel and shoe business. TAG also fulfills orders for the TAG-owned brand of women’s shirts, Foxcroft, which is based in New York and is also going directly to the consumer.
Bloomberg is asked to take on other merchandise, but is sticking with the categories the company can accommodate best, he said. TAG rents out a space in the warehouse to Z Customizations, a company that personalizes goods with embroidery, monogramming and heat transfers so it can offer that service to its retail customers.
At any given time, the warehouse may be shipping 10 items to replenish one boutique in New York, or one item to the home of one of that store’s customers.
“We can break up bulk orders for them and replenish stores weekly,” Bloomberg said. “We can ship to their customers directly.”
TAG’s warehouse in Lewisville is within a free-trade zone, which allows its retail customers to defer paying import taxes until the merchandise is shipped to them from the warehouse. It’s a cash flow issue, Bloomberg said, that helps retailers whose product may arrive at the warehouse from overseas in August, three months before they are ready to sell.
It’s logistically impossible for all stores’ merchandise, say for the Christmas season, to come into the U.S. at the same time, he said. Goods start to flow in during the summer.
The Lewisville warehouse is operated by 55 people. It has three levels, including two mezzanines. Aisles of the towering shelves are just wide enough for a small truck, which has a lift that raises the driver to the highest shelves to store and retrieve boxes. The driver is strapped in, and the truck is guided by a wire in the concrete floor so it can’t go too far to the left or to the right.
“Knocking over one row would create a domino effect and one huge industry accident,” Bloomberg said.
The warehouse also has capacity to hold 250,000 items on hangers. The area looks like a dry cleaners.
“They come from the factory in Asia on hangers, and goods never change appearance all the way to the store,” Bloomberg said. There are special boxes for items on hangers.
More companies want to sell their products online, but they don’t want to create the infrastructure to do it, Bloomberg said.
When the distribution center opened in 2008, the growth in Plano and Frisco hadn’t moved into the area that overlaps The Colony and Lewisville. Now it’s sandwiched between Nebraska Furniture Mart and Berkshire Hathaway’s Grandscape development and Austin Ranch, a large residential and office area developed by the Billingsley Co.
TAG came here for the same reasons other companies are here: location, location, location. Bloomberg specifically mentioned proximity to big customers like Plano-based J.C. Penney and Dillard’s, which has large buying and distribution facilities in Fort Worth.
“We’re centrally located and can be a single point of distribution and can ship anyplace in the U.S. in three days,” he said.
More about TAG’s roots:
— TAL Apparel Group was founded in 1947 by C.C. Lee, a pioneer in Hong Kong’s textile industry.
— The Lee family has been in the cotton textile business since the mid-1800s. The founder left Shanghai during the Chinese Civil War to re-establish the family’s business in Hong Kong in 1946.
— It’s now run by the fourth generation of the Lee family.
— The privately held company has 11 factories in Hong Kong, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam and employs 25,000 people.
— TAL designs, manufactures and delivers shirts to U.S. retailers with each retailer’s tags and packaging already on the shirts.
— Construction of the Lewisville warehouse started in 2006, and the company moved in 2008 from Louisville, Ky.