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What you need to know about COVID-19: October 23, 2020
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Jeff Alpaugh, a maker of stylish, custom-made garments billed as the “world’s most dangerous dress shirts,” operates two retail stores, one in Fredericton and the other in Waterloo, Ont., and employs nine people.
One month after spending on tenant improvements and stocking his new store in downtown Waterloo – and only a little more than a year after opening his Fredericton store – the pandemic shut down Alpaugh’s retail outlets. Revenue dropped to zero.
Switching from dress shirts to designer face masks, Jeff Alpaugh Custom began to sell a product very much in demand during the pandemic and do it online, a way of selling new to the business.
Custom clothier Jeff Alpaugh hates the business he’s in these days: the designing and selling of face masks.
He hates the pandemic that’s led to the need for masks. And he hates the negative comments he gets on social media for designing and selling this bit of protective apparel.
“I hate the masks personally because when you sell shirts it’s all high-fives and when it’s face masks it’s all conspiracy theories . . . on Facebook,” he says.
“People treat me like I’m Rockefeller controlling the mask business.”
In many jurisdictions, including many places in Canada, the wearing of face masks is a legal requirement for anyone in public. Stiff fines are imposed on those who refuse to wear them.
An entire industry has sprung up, seemingly overnight, to fill that demand. Jeff Alpaugh Custom is part of it.
Branded as “dangerous face protection,” his masks retail for just under $20 each. The four-layer masks come in a variety of fashionable patterns with a pouch to insert a filter that is sold separately.
Jeff Alpaugh Custom claims these masks, apparently made in accordance with Centers for Disease Control recommendations, provide a superior fit and the muslin used in their construction keeps the face cool.
Do you want a free pair of Dangerous Socks? Good because I am feeling generous. Post a photo of you wearing your Dangerous Face Protection and tag Jeff Alpaugh Custom. I will choose THIRTY (30) folks who grab my attention and send them a free pair of Dangerous Socks. @Natures_Morphology won the first pair!
Certainly, there is no shortage of testimonials on the company’s website praising them.
“Great designed mask,” writes a satisfied customer identified as Wayne M. “Love the design that allows a dip below the eyeglass area of the face so no steam-ups on the glasses as with other designs.”
Others, though, have posted complaints, even going so far as to call Alpaugh names for making a profit by selling masks during the pandemic. The most offensive remarks have been deleted.
When he started his business, Alpaugh shared a shed in the parking lot of Jim Gilbert’s Wheels & Deals car dealership in Fredericton with an inventory of stuffed animals given to prospective car buyers as promotional items.
He’s in slicker digs now. Jeff Alpaugh Custom has two full-service stores, one near the University of New Brunswick and in downtown Waterloo, Ont. He bought the Fredericton building with operating funds from years of working out of that small shed.
“I sold a lot of shirts (during the first three years) but I didn’t need to pay myself because I was still in the army so it was all profit,” he says.
That Fredericton store opened in January last year. Alpaugh opened his Waterloo store in February this year. Both stores sell shirts, pants, socks, suits and ties.
"As a front line health care worker, masks are here to stay, at least for a little while. We believe in supporting the local economy, so getting these masks from JAC was a win/win. 100% satisfied with the fit and feel from the first time I donned one. We will be looking into purchasing more for our entire staff." Jason Steeves, B.Sc.(Pharm) Pharmacist-Owner Steeves Pharmasave, Saint John, NB
A month after opening, though, COVID-19 forced Alpaugh to shut his doors. Suddenly, in mid-March, revenue dropped to zero. He still had nine employees, including him and his wife, on the payroll.
“Demand for the product disappeared because the core need for the product dropped to nothing,” he says.
“If you don’t leave the house, you think about buying hotdogs. You don’t think about buying a suit.”
Drawing on his database of clients, Alpaugh turned to the sale of socks over the telephone as he struggled to find a niche to fill during the pandemic and a new distribution channel. E-commerce provided the answer.
“I just poured myself into e-commerce,” he says.
“I set myself up in the store, using it like an office, and studied everything about e-commerce for about two weeks. . . . Most people don’t understand there’s much more to it than just putting up a slick website that can take orders. You have to go out there and get the orders.”
Initially marketed by sending out a mass email to all Jeff Alpaugh Custom customers, the masks took off and generated more revenue than expected.
“We sold 500 masks in, like, six hours,” says Alpaugh. “And, the next day, we sold 500 more. The third day, we sold 250. We were pretty much overwhelmed. It was pretty stressful.”
But business succeeded in keeping everyone at Jeff Alpaugh Custom employed.
Roughly 70 per cent of his masks are sold in Canada, with the remainder going to hotspots like New York City and San Francisco.
The company promotes the masks through Facebook Live and paid Google and Facebook ads.
“I take a bunch of cool photos and write a bunch of cool captions and then I dark post them … You pay so that the ad goes on other people’s feeds (on Facebook) but not your page,” says Alpaugh.
“It takes a lot of work and it’s very data-driven. It takes days of looking at your computer and seeing which of these combinations of photos and captions work.”
As the pandemic begins to wind down in Canada, Alpaugh is looking ahead to his next big thing.
He’s convinced the post-COVID-19 world will be one in which people will work more from home and take part in more virtual events. Comfortable, stylish jeans that are custom-made are something he thinks will be a hot commodity.
“The fit is going to be number one,” he says.
“I hate shopping, and I have one pair of jeans and I wear them all the time. I don’t want to go and try on 30 pairs of jeans just to find one.”
The first Jeff Alpaugh Custom jeans are expected to be created in about a month and be offered for sale in the company’s stores and online in the autumn.
The world’s most dangerous jeans, born during one of the world’s most dangerous times.
The Pivot is a regular business feature showcasing an Atlantic Canadian company adapting to new market realities with innovative products, services or strategies. To suggest a business, e-mail Pivot@SaltWire.com.