How to Sell: Soft Shells

There is no such thing as a soft shell. Soft shell is not one thing. Soft shell is a range of performance criteria of windproofness, water resistance, breathability, stretch and insulation. Soft shell is a range of fabrics, from light, airy, stretchy, sweater-feeling knits to stiffer, laminated, dense, waterproof wovens. The key word in understanding soft shell garments is “range.” There are no rules, no boxes to fit into. To sell soft shells, you gotta know the territory and place your waypoints. And there is a lot of territory to know.
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This Retail College "How to Sell" classroom article is written by the editors of SNEWS®

There is no such thing as a soft shell. Soft shell is not one thing. Soft shell is a range of performance criteria of windproofness, water resistance, breathability, stretch and insulation. Soft shell is a range of fabrics, from light, airy, stretchy, sweater-feeling knits to stiffer, laminated, dense, waterproof wovens. The key word in understanding soft shell garments is “range.” There are no rules, no boxes to fit into. To sell soft shells, you gotta know the territory and place your waypoints. And there is a lot of territory to know.

A Short History

The original concept of soft shell was developed first in Europe for trekking and ski touring. Soft shell began as a mid-weight woven garment that was highly breathable, slightly wind proof, slightly water resistant, slightly warm and that stretched with active movement. And perhaps most importantly, it was comfortable. Whether pant or jacket, its great attribute was you could put it on and leave it on throughout a day of active sport use, summer or winter. It wasn’t rainwear, it wasn’t fleece, it wasn’t outerwear, it wasn’t mid-layer, but it was all these things at the same time – sort of. Whatever the feature set, one thing remained constant: Soft shell was really comfortable and people liked it.

Once discovered, soft shell was naturally exploited, much the same as a starlet. Some companies claimed to own the name “soft shell”; others claimed to have invented it; most claimed to have the “best”, whatever that meant, because it meant so many different things.

For the complete history of soft shell, including who really invented the term and who first published it, click here (you're going to be surprised!)

To Find Your Way Around Soft Shell Choices, You Have To Establish Waypoints

As market opportunity increased, so did the array of choices of soft shell fabrics. Companies introduced their own brand of soft shell fabrics, increasing the growing number of fabric constructions, names, claims and descriptors. Again, no rules; there is no road map to help you navigate through this soft shell forest. You must make your own map and fix some waypoints for reference.

Given the standard soft shell criteria as a stretch woven fabric, there are two important variables or waypoints that can be used to establish some order to this fabric forest: water resistance and air permeability. Generally, as water resistance increases, air permeability decreases. Translated, this means that as a soft shell fabric becomes more water resistant, it also becomes less air permeable, less breathable, and less suited for warmer weather. (However, recent membrane technology developments announced in SNEWS in late 2010 from GE Energy, Mountain Hardwear and Polartec indicate that air permeability may be an essential ingredient for dramatically improved waterproof/breathable performance --but that's a topic for another article. The North Face Kishtwar jacket, shown above, uses a new membrane technology that lifts its soft shell performance into the realm of waterproof/breathable fabrics, though Polartec and TNF do not promote or advertise the jacket as such.)

Few soft shell fabrics have the same ratio of water resistance to breathability or air permeability. Because these fabric ratios are all different and nearly unique, it is these ratios that become the key to selling soft shells. These ratios are your waypoint. These ratios become the means to position the use of, and explain the performance differences in, the soft shells on the rack.

Establishing Waypoints For Your Store's Soft Shell Selection

SoftShellWaypoints.gif


If you know the performance criteria of a soft shell fabric, you have the waypoint to position each garment in the array of soft shells offered. Once you have the waypoints of each garment you offer, you know the territory and are ready to sell soft shells.

Waypoint 1: Lightweight, stretchy knit or woven fabric ideal for mild, dry conditions and active use

Waypoint 2: Mid-weight, more densely woven fabric with good weather resistance, moderate breathability and some thermal protection. Best for cold, dry conditions.

Waypoint 3: Heavier fabric, perhaps with fleecy brushed inside. Little stretch. High weather resistance. Best for cold, wet conditions.

Try creating a waypoint and a corresponding explanation for every soft shell in your store so all sales associates in your store are telling the same story.

Choosing the Right Soft Shell

Start your review of soft shell choices with questions to your customer to identify some basics:

Where will the garment be used primarily?

  • Desert
  • Mountain
  • Trail
  • Expedition
  • Trekking and travel

When will the garment be used primarily?

  • Summer
  • Winter

What specific features are necessary or important to the customer?

  • Hood
  • Pit zips
  • Cuffs
  • Pockets: inside and outside
  • Special fit requirements: snug or loose

How will the garment be used primarily?

  • As a protective outer shell
  • As an insulating mid-layer
  • For highly aerobic activities
  • As part of a multiple layer clothing system

Answers to each of the above questions will help you to pin-point your choices of soft shells to offer the customer by finding your customer's needs on the associated waypoint.

Selling Soft Shells – Quick Talking Points:

  1. Don’t talk about the entire range of soft shells your store carries. Too many choices confuse customers.
  2. Choose two styles that best meet the customer’s needs as identified above.
  3. Demonstrate why these two garments meet his or her needs.
  4. Find the right size and get the garment on your customer.
  5. Move to a full-length mirror and review the features in which your customer expressed interest and need.
  6. Talk about color, fit, the “hand” and stretch of the fabric.
  7. Talk about comfort, style and convenience.
  8. Finish with an explanation of the amazing versatility of soft shell – put it on and leave it on all day.
  9. Close the sale.

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