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Zubaz on the comeback trail

  

By Wally Shaver

 

Most baby boomers and Generation X’ers remember them well – Zubaz, those zany, zebra striped pants that exploded on the scene selling millions beginning in the late 1980’s. Guess what, they’re back. And an expanding audience segment driving their resurgence are softball players.

“We’ve been back at it for about a year and a half now,” said Dan Stock, who with Bob Truax, founded the original Zubaz company along with the tag-team pro wrestlers, the Road Warriors. “We just started talking about getting the line back together a little while ago and the next thing you know, here we are.”

My hockey-playing buddy Sherm will be real happy. Ever since the late 1980’s, Sherm has always worn a pair of Zubaz over his pads. He’s the only guy I know who still wears them and when a pair of the striped pants finally wears out, he magically shows up with a brand new pair. “I’d been hoarding a few over the years” was his explanation.

No problem going forward. “Back when we started the company out of our gym in 1988, we found softball and broomball teams were wearing them because they were so darn comfortable. It just spread from there. We think the team market is still one we can hit and we can wholesale them for $20 a pair. That’s pretty cheap and it’s easy for teams to pick up on,” added Stock.

The new edition of Zubaz has an entirely different business model than the first go around. Back in the late 1980’s when Zubaz was founded out of the Tri City Gym in Roseville, things just kind of exploded for the fledgling company.

As Stock relates, “We literally started out of the back room of the gym. We hired a seamstress to do the cutting and sewing.  Our first print was a zebra design. It quickly became our signature design. The Road Warriors were training out of our gym and started wearing them in pro wrestling and became partners in the business with us.”

“We initially sold them out of our gym. We then expanded into the JC Penney store near us in Roseville. The Penney’s at the time was the fifth biggest store in their chain. They sold a lot and helped us get into other Penny’s stores around the country. From there, other retailers added the line as well.”

Along the way came licensing deals with the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and most major colleges around the nation.  From 1991 to 1993, sales mushroomed to $40 million per year at the peak. Then things went south.

“Things were really going well at that time,” said Stock. “We even licensed the designs to other companies who made hats, bags, shoes, shirts. It was going everywhere. But as we were growing, we just couldn’t keep up with the financing and had to bring in other partners. It was beyond what we could do.”

When it finally fell apart in 1995, the private financing simply dried up. “Our lead investor had a major downturn in another part of their business. That dried up the cash available to keep us going, ordering product and carrying inventory as well as receivables. Bob and I had very little ownership left and the brand just stopped being produced. I went back to running the gym and Bob stayed in the apparel business.”

Ten years later, the revival started. “We reacquired the name from another party to get the rights back and decided to give it a whirl,” commented Stock. And with it, a new approach to marketing – e-tailing.

“We learned earlier that when you set up payment with retailers for 30-days net, they have a tendency to stretch it to 60 and 90 days. This really hurt our cash flow and led to us bringing in investors in the first place. This time, almost all of our sales are Internet. People can just go to zubaz.com.”

Word of mouth advertising, Internet search engines and basic guerilla marketing is the new marketing mantra. This time around, the lads started slowly selling retail out of The Press Gym in Little Canada, while targeting high school and college kids.

“We sold millions of pairs back then and so people knew about them. The recognition was already there. Now the kids are wearing them to school – they really don’t care what they wear. But you know, they’re so darn comfortable. People try them on and they love the comfort. We added the team deal on our website and like last time, we have softball and broomball teams wearing them again and we think it’s a good market. You get one team going to a tourney and there are 30 other teams seeing these cool looking pants wondering where they can get them.”

Sales are coming from all across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. “We’re finding a lot of women ordering them. We think in might be wives who threw out their husbands favorite pair years ago, caught some heat for it and now have a chance to pay them back,” added Stock, laughing. Thing is, he’s right.

Besides the word of mouth advertising and Internet click-throughs, the St. Paul Saints have a Zubaz night coming up. “Saints players and staff have been training with us for eight years in the gym and we came up with this idea. It will be July 16 and they’re going to do something with the bases (striped, I bet), they’ll have a monkey coming in and something with the pig. The Saints folks mentioned it to some other teams and we’re suddenly getting calls from other minor league teams who like to do some of these wacky and crazy promotions. Who knows? If this grows into something, that’ll be great!”

I’ve got a hunch they’re going to do quite well. And this time around, they won’t have to worry about slow-paying retail accounts.