Tom Burns found an unexpected ally in the fight to bring equality to the kids’ underpants selection. Now he needs your help.
Who knew that so many people had such strong opinions about kids’ underpants?
Ever since my article Why I Bought Boys’ Underpants for My Daughter made the rounds on 8BitDad, The Good Men Project, and The Huffington Post, I have been flooded with emails and comments from a cross-section of humanity, all of whom seem to have very, very definite opinions about the appropriateness of letting a young girl wear boys’ underpants.
Largely, I’ve been pleased with the debate the article inspired, including over 800 comments at Huffington Post. (I’ve been less happy with the comments alleging that my underwear permissiveness has forever transformed my daughter into a sissified deviant, but I’ve been on the internet long enough to expect—and mildly enjoy—that kind of reaction.)
One of the most common recurring criticisms goes a little something like this (I’m paraphrasing here):
“Stores don’t sell Star Wars underpants for girls because they wouldn’t sell. You shouldn’t expect a store to carry merchandise that won’t sell and that will make them lose money, just to provide more options to your daughter.”
I thought this was, potentially, an interesting point. My original article did place the blame on underwear retailers and manufacturers for their gender marketing tactics. (I believe I referred to them as the “sinister masters of the character underwear industrial complex.”) But if a retailer could sit me down and say, “Look, Tom, we tried to do ‘Avengers for Girls’ underwear and it flopped. No one bought any. Check out these numbers…” that would be a hard point to argue with.
Thus, I decided to learn more about the issue, in order to give the retailers and the manufacturers the benefit of the doubt.
First, I tried researching sales data for kids’ character underpants and… I found nothing. This could point towards a global gender-bias conspiracy or… maybe people online just aren’t that interested in kids’ underwear sales patterns (which, OK, I get that).
Next, I tried contacting retailers, specifically Target, since that was the store mentioned in my original article, the store where my daughter bought her first pair of Han Solo underpants. After going through all of the appropriate channels, a Target PR rep finally told me “At this time we are going to have to decline an interview with a Target spokesperson.”
And that’s totally their right. I understand that decision. So, I simply added Target as a key member of the “Character Underwear Illuminati” on my Kids’ Underpants Gender-Bias Conspiracy flowchart – a big posterboard, covered in news clippings and yarn, with “UndieGate” scrawled on the top – and moved on. (I’m kidding… mostly.)
Finally, I started hearing from underwear manufacturers, and THIS was where I started to get some actual insights into the decision-making process behind the gendering of kids’ character underpants.
After the original article was published, a representative from Fruit of the Loom, the Microsoft of the underwear industry, contacted me with this statement:
“Here at Fruit of the Loom we have heard this complaint, listened and communicated the demand to retailers. As of January 2013, Fruit of the Loom has added DC Comics licensed underwear to our girls’ product line! We now offer Wonder Woman, Bat Girl and Super Girl underwear for girls.”
And, while that was nice to hear (more on that later), I got the bulk of my manufacturer insights from Marshall Mizrahi, Vice President of Sales and Merchandising, for Handcraft Manufacturing Corp, the company that handles many of the most popular kids’ character underwear licenses for retailers like Target, Wal-Mart, and Kohl’s, among others. (To quote Mizrahi, “Our underwear is 100% cotton and 200% awesome.”)
Mizrahi helped me understand how most major retailers choose what kinds of character underwear they offer for kids. The process begins with underwear manufacturers attending annual licensing meetings, where licensors offer previews of what new and exciting TV shows, movies, and toys will be debuting over the next 12 to 18 months. Next, the manufacturers develop a series of underwear designs based on the best-looking licensing properties they were pitched, and they take those designs to the major retailers. According to Mizrahi, “The big accounts, Target and Wal-Mart, they kind of only set their [character underwear] rack only once a year. Sometimes twice a year.”
When I asked Mizrahi how the retailers make their decisions regarding what character underwear to carry, he argued that “they’re basing it on their gut as well as past sales.”
His best-selling licensed designs for girls over the past year have included Brave and Hello Kitty—a brand that he noted is always a big seller—and Mizrahi cited a few interesting case studies of some of his more-gender neutral girls’ underwear packs, none of which have been consistent top sellers. (One example was the “Pixar for Girls” pack mentioned in my original article. In his words, “It did very well during [the release of Toy Story 3], but the moment the movie was out of the theatres… sales dropped off dramatically.”)
Mizrahi admitted that they don’t market-test their designs often. In his opinion, the retailers are primarily just interested in what licenses he carries. The licenses are based on popular movies and TV shows and Mizrahi was quick to point out how few Hollywood blockbusters feature female characters in leading roles. When you pair that with the relative lack of turnover in the retailers’ underwear section during the year, it makes it hard to drop in newer brands or more gender-neutral designs onto the sales floor to see how consumers will react.
However, according to Mizrahi, “With today’s e-commerce business, I’m able to call Amazon and say ‘Do me a favor, can you buy 300 units of this and we’ll see if anyone cares?’”
E-commerce seems to be one of the only major areas where manufacturers and retailers are actually able to focus test newer and less traditional designs for their licensed characters. If Mizrahi creates 30 designs based on licensed characters for a year, retailers may only pick 6 to 8 of those designs to feature in their brick-and-mortar stores. But some of those same retailers then have no problem taking all 30 designs – including more gender-neutral designs – and placing them in their online stores.
For example, even though Mizrahi has seen increased customer requests for “Thomas the Tank Engine for Girls” designs, he’s been unable to convince most retailers to carry them in their stores. However, one retailer has already agreed to start carrying “Thomas for Girls” on their website. While that’s a positive development, Mizrahi was quick to note that many major retailers still regard their online sales trends as niche markets, sales that don’t necessarily reflect the buying patterns of mainstream Middle America.
When I asked Mizrahi what it would take for a retailer to start carrying more gender-neutral character underwear in stores, his response was, “It would take a big, bold retailer to do it.”
(My favorite part of my discussion with Mizrahi was finding out why a 5-pack of boys’ underwear costs the same as a 7-pack of girls’ underwear. It all comes down to the extra fabric for, and I quote, that “dumb crotch panel. Nobody uses it.”)
Despite Mizrahi’s insights into the character underwear industry, I still left our conversation with a lot of open questions.
How are retailers measuring the demand for their kids’ character underwear? If they’re only using their guts and past sales data, both of those metrics seem flawed and subjective. If they’ve never tried to sell “Star Wars for Girls” underwear, how will they ever know if there’s a demand for it or not?
Yes, I now buy my daughter “Star Wars for Boys” underwear, but Target doesn’t know that I’m buying them for a girl. There were hundreds of comments on The Huffington Post article where parents noted that they too were buying their daughters boys’ underwear, but, again, there is absolutely no way for the retailers to know that those purchases are actually crossing gender lines.
How do we change this? Personally, I don’t think the gender marketing will change without the intervention of the most powerful group in this vicious circle—the CONSUMER.
Because what I’m hearing from consumers is “WE WANT MORE OPTIONS” and what I’m hearing from retailers and manufacturers is “WE’RE MAKING OUR DECISIONS BASED ON THE DATA WE HAVE.”
So, I think the easiest way to combat this issue is GIVE THEM NEW DATA.
I can think of THREE relatively easy ways to accomplish this:
1). Contact Retailers
Email Target – here’s their contact us email link. Tell them that you’re buying that boys’ Batman underwear for your daughter (or that Dora underwear for your son) and that you’re unsatisfied with the options they’re offering you. Tell them that you’re not happy with how they’re gendering their licensed offerings and, if it’s an important enough issue for you, tell them that you’re going to start shopping somewhere else if they don’t start offering more inclusive options.
2). Contact Manufacturers
I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how responsive underwear manufacturers seem to be to customer feedback. And, while I’d like to see Fruit of the Loom offer more options than just super-heroine underwear for girls, at least they’re responding to the desires of their consumers. To quote the email they sent me: “Here at Fruit of the Loom we have heard this complaint, listened and communicated the demand to retailers.”
That’s the important part. According to Fruit of the Loom, THEY communicated the demand for more options to retailers, and I’d wager that their opinions matter more to Target than mine do. Seek out manufacturers like Handcraft Manufacturing and Fruit of the Loom and let them know to keep communicating the demand for less-gendered character options to their retail partners. I think they’d be more than happy to supply Target with “Dora for Boys” underwear if they have the data to back them up.
3.) Support E-Commerce Options
E-commerce is currently one of the few proving grounds where retailers and manufacturers are exploring new options (and, ideally, less gendered options) when it comes to kids’ character underpants. So, let’s show Kohl’s that offering more options on their website is a good thing and give them the sales data that suggests that these new designs are commercially viable, even in a store setting.
Granted, I’m not that thrilled about any of these options. I’m a parent, so, by definition, I am EXHAUSTED, and I don’t like creating more work for myself.
I don’t want to have to add more work to my day, particularly about something as seemingly inconsequential as size 6T Batman underwear. Why can’t I just buy my daughter plain white briefs and save myself some time?
While, yes, that is a completely valid response, the reason why I will make the time to let retailers know that I’m not happy about their character underwear options is simple. They are pigeon-holing my daughter. And your daughters. And, come to think of it, your sons too. And that pisses me off.
They’re making big sweeping generalizations about our beautiful, complex, and hilarious kids based on outdated assumptions and flawed market data. And that stinks.
So, if you want more options and less gendered options for your children when it comes to character underpants, let’s fight ignorance with data. TELL them that you want more options. BOTHER them until they write you back. SEEK out the options you want online and BUY them.
OK, maybe the masters of the character underwear industrial complex aren’t “sinister,” but they’re definitely complacent.
I mean, they keep sewing in that crotch flap for boys, costing them money, costing us money, even though the manufacturers themselves acknowledge that the flap is more trouble than it’s worth.
And, maybe, with some new data and some targeted corporate shaming, we can convince those complacent retailers that their gendered assumptions regarding kids’ underwear are just as useless as those superfluous whitey-tighty front flaps.
Right now, Fruit of the Loom is featuring a 7-pack of DC Comics underwear for girls. You can buy them here.
Follow Tom Burns on Twitter @BuildaLibrary
Lead photo courtesy of Flickr/Lance Neilson