How Aspinwall Survived the Pandemic
When the world shut down in 2020, we were told that it would only be three weeks to flatten the curve. Small businesses everywhere took a deep breath, dug in their heels, and said, “Yeah, okay, we can do this.” The government helped keep things rolling with a bunch of free money, and a whole lot of people thought that things would be great.
That obviously didn’t work out quite the way we hoped.
Three weeks turned into a year. That “free” money turned into some ridiculous inflation. And those small businesses that weren’t able to pivot hung their “closed” sign and never took it down.
In this blog, we want to give you an insider look on what actually happened during the pandemic, how it affected your favorite Montana clothing shop, and lay out the plans on what you can expect from Aspinwall going forward.
A Brief History of the Aspinwall Brand
Aspinwall has always fully relied on you, the loyal community, to help grow the brand.
What started out with a $100 investment and some space cleared in the garage grew into a small shop in downtown Billings.
That shop, with just a handful of t-shirts and styles, quickly saw success as the people of Billings longed for a Montana clothing store that didn’t import shirts from sweatshops. Unique styles, uncompromising high quality, and local owners involved in the community helped to drive the brand forward.
In just a few years, the brand gained recognition. Our faithful customers told their friends, they told their friends, and soon Aspinwall was spotted around the world. Outgrowing the small storefront on North 3rd, clothing was boxed up and moved into the current location on N. Broadway.
Things were looking great with new styles coming out, new designs, and much more than just t-shirts.
Then COVID hit. The pandemic swept through the world, and caused a lot of businesses to shutter their doors. But what happened behind the scenes? What caused those issues?
Aspinwall Suffers from Supply Chain Issues
You heard this excuse over and over: it’s supply chain issues. But what does that mean to a small business that makes clothing in the US?
When factories aren’t producing material, we can’t purchase material. Fabric to make clothing, dye to imprint them, even tags to label and price the goods were suddenly scarce, back ordered, or just non-existent.
What was once a four-week turnaround, where Derek would call up a factory in LA and say we need another order of XYZ, and suddenly it would arrive; that order is now taking 3 to 6 months, if able to get it at all.
And sometimes, it was straight up wrong.
Aspinwall’s dedication to quality means every single fabric swatch is handled, tested, and ensured that it will endure the outdoor lifestyle customers live. All fabric “handles” a little differently, so sizing for one type of fabric will be different than another type of fabric.
When the factory runs out of “Fabric A,” the fabric originally ordered, they substitute with “Fabric B,” one that is similar, but not the same. Some companies may not care, but Aspinwall is dedicated to quality, and sending a lower quality fabric that isn’t sized just right, well, that doesn’t set just right. And it means even further delays.
In the words of Billy Mays, “But wait, there’s more!”
Some factories were shuttered. Some were producing at diminished capacity. Some colors of fabric were still available, some dyes were still available, some products were still available. But most were only available in limited quantities and options. So, when you used to be able to shop for your favorite t-shirt design in 10 different colors, now it’s only available in 3.
When you can’t get the right material, everything is back ordered for months, when it shows up wrong, and you’re forced to slash product offerings considerably, what’s a small “mom and pop” clothing company to do?
It’s all about leaning heavily on the community that caused the growth in the first place.
From the middle of 2020, if you came into the store, you probably noticed a whole lot of “off brand” items. Meaning, they weren’t made by Aspinwall; they were made by other members of the community. They were organic dog treats from someone in Reed Point. It was artwork from local artists. Soap from a place in Great Falls. High quality gear from other brands like Kavu. It was sell what meets the Aspinwall standards, even if it’s not Aspinwall created products.
And the community rallied around it. Loving the support and the local entrepreneurs who themselves were getting through the pandemic, Aspinwall survived.
But now that supply chains are moving a little better, we have another issue on hand.
Aspinwall Suffers from Inflated Freight Prices
It turns out that free money to help drive the economy forward tends to come due on the back end.
This isn’t an economics lesson; nor is it a political stance. It’s just laying out the facts.
Before 2020 it cost about $1,800 in freight costs to get a shipment of shirts from California. Today, that exact same shipment is pushing past $6,000.
Unfortunately, Montana is a bit of a dead-end route for shipping companies. Many of them charge a premium to ship here in the first place, and when prices surge, that premium surges as well. So now that products are somewhat available, it costs 3 to 4 times as much just to get them to the door.
Raising prices, especially the fact that prices would have to essentially double to offset all the increases, isn’t an option.
Instead, it’s again relying on the community to rally. With more offerings, more designs, and new product lines coming out, there is more for the Aspinwall supporters to enjoy.
Aspinwall Suffers from Elevated Minimums
Finally, there is yet another wrench in the standard functioning of running a clothing store.
Pre-pandemic, placing an order for shirts was pretty straightforward. Choose three colors, and you order a minimum of 750 shirts. If math serves me correctly, that’s 250 per color.
But all pandemic related issues thrown into the mix, it’s not as easy anymore. Now you choose two colors, and place a minimum order of 1,500. Again, my math tallies that up to 750 per color.
The store now has three times as many shirts in each color, fewer options, and paying more for each shirt that comes in.
With the community support, support that loves the quality of the products, we have no qualms that the larger order minimums will be an issue, because there are a ton of great projects coming down the line that you should watch for in the next year.
Aspinwall Surges Forward with New Custom Projects
From shirts, to pants, to jackets, to outdoor gear, the original idea behind Aspinwall wasn’t just to make shirts. It’s to make things that people who love Montana will use in Montana. So over the coming 12-18 months, keep an eye out for these products:
- Polartec fleeces return: no longer in one color, but three colors
- Polartec vests
- Stretch nylon puffy jackets
- Rain shell jacket and pants
- Rainfly design tent (a concept that hasn’t been seen since the 1950’s)
- Hiking pants and shorts
Many of our styles that were available pre-pandemic will return. So if you are down hearted that your favorite product isn’t around anymore, it’s likely coming back!
Aspinwall: Getting Back to Basics
A local entrepreneur once told Derek Aspinwall, “It’s about year 10 that you can take a breath and know what’s going on.”
Aspinwall Mountain Wear recently passed year 8. Surging forward after the pandemic, one that only strengthened the resolve to continue to create high quality outdoor clothing and gear means it’s time to get back to basics.
Back to basics doesn’t mean simply t-shirts any longer. It means quality items designed here, made here, and used here. Gear made by the community, for the community.
The Aspinwall brand will grow. Will you be along for the ride?