Sharon Lee no longer describes itself as a headwear supplier; instead it promotes itself as a ‘quality headwear supplier’. Jonathan Vince spoke to marketing manager, Steve Clarke about this repositioning and the company’s ultimate ambition to become the global headwear specialist

Headwear without limits… Sharon Lee offers a complete headwear manufacturing and branding service

Sharon Lee is one of the imprint industry’s most familiar names and one of its longest established suppliers, clocking up close to 70 years in the business. Like any business with more than half-century of history, it has experienced its share of ups and downs. However, the past two years have seen the company following a steep upward trajectory, successfully repositioning itself to service promotional and workwear customers with high quality bespoke and ex-stock headwear. When Images visited the company’s Braintree, Essex HQ in early 2015, the paint was barely dry on the newly modernised offices and impressive new showroom. The immediate impression was one of a business that’s brimming with newfound confidence, hunger and purpose.

High perceived value

The company’s marketing manager, Steve Clarke comments: “A few years ago we would have done anything to get an order, but that led to countess problems: we found we were supplying orders for 60,000 hats and not making money. The past two years have seen a massive increase in demand for high quality headwear, and we’ve knuckled down and sorted out who our customers are. We still deal with people who want really cheap hats, where our challenge is to manage their expectations and help them understand the parameters, but 70-80% of our business now involves higher value headwear products. We no longer see ourselves as a headwear supplier; we see ourselves as a quality headwear supplier.”

Steve explains that more clients are understanding that the modest extra cost required to create a better quality product is far outweighed by the increase in the product’s perceived value to the end user. He comments: “For businesses that are investing in their brand, perceived value is more important than price and choosing the cheapest option can be a false economy.

From left: Print, flat and 3-D embroidery, plus a branded metal button on the crown create a cap with a high perceived value to the end user, a selection of the vast array of headwear styles and branding techniques on display in Sharon Lee’s new showroom

“It’s all about quality, and manufacturing a product that looks right,” Steve adds. “Shape, style and fabric make a huge difference: for example, the classic snapback cap is made from acrylic, yet some brands use cotton instead; our snapbacks are made in acrylic because the fabric has greater strength and gives a stronger front panel that will hold a large embroidery, won’t slump and will always look perfect. They’re not cheap caps to make, but discerning customers like their style and finish.”

Steve cites the fact that 90% of Sharon Lee’s caps now include an embossed buckle as another indicator of the move towards quality finishing and higher perceived value products. He adds that Masters Italia’s Atlantis collection, which Sharon Lee supplies alongside its own-brand stock styles, fits well with this overall quality ethos, offering customers unusual, retail-influenced products from stock on short turnaround.

The best evidence of the quality of Sharon Lee’s bespoke product offering is to be found in the array of sample designs proudly displayed in the company’s new showroom. Caps with embossed logos and 3-D embroidered designs; products in combinations of tactile fabrics, EN safety fabrics, specialist flame-retardant and waterproof fabrics; designs with faux suede finishing, liquid metal badges, carbon-fibre effect peak details, high build rubber-effect prints… there appears to be no end to the variety of bespoke headwear designs and branding techniques on show. “There are few limitations on what we can do with a hat; the chances are if you want it we can do it. The only real limitation is your imagination,” Steve confirms.

These possibilities were further extended last year with the purchase of new Tajima TMAR-K1508C multihead embroidery machines from AJS, and the development of an in-house 3-D embroidery service.

3-D embroidery

The new machines are notable for their innovative digitally-controlled presser foot, which is designed to facilitate high-precision embroidery. The embroidery department currently houses a Tajima single-head machine, which is primarily used for sampling, and four TMAR-K1508Cs. Three machines were installed initially, and these were joined by a fourth TMAR-K1508C within a couple of months as orders mushroomed. The department is currently working at close to full capacity and Steve reports that it will be looking to install another multihead machine within the next few months if orders continue to increase at the same rate.

From left: Creative use of 3-D embroidery, Sharon Lee is bringing a quality-focused approach to bespoke branded cap design

Having closed down its embroidery operations a few years ago, the installation of a brand new in-house embroidery department represented a bold statement and a significant investment for Sharon Lee: it’s an investment that’s already delivering handsome returns. Steve notes that the new operation has granted the company total control over its embroidery production and costs, enabling “really accurate quoting”, and, crucially, has led to the development of the new in-house 3-D embroidery service. “3-D is big for us,” he says. “We’d never had the ability to do it in the UK – it used to be a luxury option that was only available from abroad, on flat panels. Once we’d installed our new Tajima machines, Pete Williams, (embroidery manager), began deconstructing 3-D embroideries, testing and sampling, establishing what can and can’t be done. He’s developed loads of new techniques, mixing 3-D embroidery with flat embroidery and appliqués, and materials such as flock and vinyl (click here for details of the RipAway technique). Having the machines in-house has made a huge difference to what we can achieve, and enables us to offer short turnaround 3-D embroidery on stock hats when there is no time for offshore 3-D. I’m confident in claiming that we now offer the best embroidery on headwear in the UK.”

The focus on supplying quality headwear design and branding has also had the unexpected knock-on effect of attracting orders from new customers in hitherto underserviced market sectors, such as angling. “We didn’t know these customers existed three years ago,” says Steve, adding that, “There was no selling involved, they found us by word of mouth.”

One of Sharon Lee’s four Tajima TMAR-K1508C multihead embroidery machines featuring innovative digital presser foot technology

Angling for new business

The caps on display in Sharon Lee’s showroom include several examples of products designed and produced for angling brands, which sit alongside caps for more familiar car, construction and blue chip corporate names. The angling caps are notable for their retail-inspired branding and ingenious design touches – one cap, in particular, stands out on account of the small pockets on the peak that are designed specially for holding fishing flies!

With regard to future business development, Sharon Lee is setting its sights further afield. “We ship customers’ orders to Dubai all the time and we are now seeing a growth in demand for quality headwear from promotions houses in the USA and Europe. We are based in the UK but we work with the best shipping agents who have great expertise in direct deliveries and we have the potential to service customers worldwide. Our aim is to become the global headwear specialist,” says Steve.
For anyone who is interested in finding out what quality headwear could do for their business, he offers the following invitation: “Come and see us; bring your sales team and let us show you what’s possible!”

www.sharonleeltd.co.uk

DID YOU KNOW?…

Sharon Lee started trading on a pier

Wolfe Davies founded the company in 1947, selling novelty headwear on Southend Pier – the longest pleasure pier in the world. The now Grade II listed pier attracted more than 5 million visitors a year during the post-war years.

Sharon Lee is a three-generation family-run business

Wolfe handed ownership of the company to his son-in-law Graham Pache under whose directorship Sharon Lee grew to become an industry leader in imprintable headwear. Six years ago, Graham passed the reins to his son, Toby Pache, the current managing director and the driving force behind the company’s new quality-oriented focus and direction.