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Duluth Trading Company
Photo: Duluth Trading Company Facebook

Is Duluth Trading Company the Ron Swanson of Stores?

With NoGA pants and plumber’s butt-preventing jeans, it’s hard to tell if the growing workwear brand is political.

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There’s a good chance you’ve heard of Duluth Trading Company, even if you’re not entirely sure what they trade in. The outfitter has earned a reputation over the last decade for its quirky billboards and commercials. You might have seen the TV spot with instructions on how to fix “plumber’s butt,” or the one with the angry beaver, or maybe someone sent you the YouTube clip with the burly cartoon guy pole-dancing to polka music.

The Belleville, Wisconsin-based company (that’s right, Duluth Trading isn’t based in Duluth) likes to lead with its laid-back sense of humor. Duluth Trading got its start in workwear and accessories in 1989 when the founders, two brothers from Duluth, Minnesota, debuted the Bucket Boss: a canvas tool belt that straps onto a five-gallon bucket, making it easy to schlep tools around a job site.

A Duluth Trading Company ad for long-tail T-shirts.
Photo: Duluth Trading Company

The brothers began expanding their line of gear targeted to and tested by tradespeople, and by the early 1990s they were running a catalog business. They sold the company, which is now publicly traded, in the mid-’90s, and the new owners moved the brand into e-commerce and its first brick-and-mortar location, which opened in 2010 in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, a village 20 miles east of Madison known as the “Troll Capitol of the World.”

Duluth Trading gleefully embraces kitsch and off-color humor, but the company has not been breezy about its growth strategy. It opened 15 new stores in 2017 and plans to open 15 more this year. In 2018, it is working to grow the women’s business, which through fiscal year 2016 only accounted for 21 percent of net sales. It also also taken steps to move beyond workwear and enter the activewear space. Today, it’s competing with brands like REI, Columbia, and Patagonia to appeal to younger, more active customers, while still going up against brands like Cabela’s and Carhartt in the workwear space.

The brand’s personality, which is built around the persona of a crotchety tradesman, may be a double-edged sword as Duluth Trading looks to grow — that voice resonates with many shoppers throughout suburban and rural America, but potentially alienates those who have come to expect a certain degree of wokeness and inclusivity from their favorite brands. Whether that latter portion of the population is even on Duluth Trading’s radar depends on who you ask.

An important piece of the Duluth Trading brand, a store manager tells me, is that each retail location should feel “homegrown.” You won’t find a store in Chicago or New York City or Los Angeles, and that’s by design. The company tracks online and catalog sales to locate hot spots with high demand, which has led to stores opening in suburban towns like Wixom, Michigan; Noblesville, Indiana; and Waukesha, Wisconsin.

An ad for Duluth Trading Company Bullpen underwear.
Photo: Duluth Trading Company

The Waukesha store opened last November and is situated in a suburban strip mall 15 miles west of Milwaukee. When I arrive for an interview with Bill Connolly, the store manager, a greeter guides me past an antique Jeep in the entryway. She points me toward the Builder’s Lounge — a customer hospitality area in the back of the store outfitted with a Keurig machine and a mini fridge. “Born to be Wild” plays on the speakers. I pause to look at a collage of artistically arranged vice grips, pipe wrenches, pliers, and nail pullers hanging on pegboards. I later learn that the collage is part of Duluth Trading’s tool museum. (The tool museum in Mount Horeb features a pig castrator.)

In the company’s most recent investor presentation, Duluth Trading outlined its objectives for 2018, which include accelerating retail expansion and growing the women’s business. I’ve gathered that they’re likely targeting shoppers like me: a late-20-something Midwestern woman who enjoys her share of camping, hiking, and messy home remodeling projects. (When asked, a Duluth Trading PR spokesperson did not identify the company’s target customer; Duluth Trading’s corporate leadership team declined multiple interview requests from Racked through its PR agency.) But the Waukesha store, with its classic rock playlist and campy collection of antique hand tools, feels like it’s working harder to target my dad — a white 60-something electrician with a Harley-Davidson.

Connolly confirms that my dad is part of Duluth Trading’s core demographic, which is men age 40 to 65.

A Duluth Trading Company Facebook ad for Buck Naked underwear.
Photo: Duluth Trading Company

“I see the demographic getting younger,” Connolly says, noting that millennial customers in their late 20s and 30s are starting to appear more often in his store. The activewear, including the men’s Alaskan Hardgear performance outerwear, appeals to his younger customers. “It’s the active person who’s like, ‘You know, I’m gonna get out and I’m gonna hop in a canoe. I’m gonna go fishing, or I’m gonna go hiking.’”

Connolly takes me on a walking tour of his best-selling products, starting with Duluth Trading’s crown jewel: men’s Buck Naked underwear, which is supposedly so comfortable, it feels like you’re not wearing underwear at all. The underwear has been reviewed online more than 14,000 times, and it’s a Reddit darling, often accompanied by glowing endorsements in men’s fashion subreddits.

Other best-sellers include the men’s Fire Hose Work Pants (made with the same canvas that’s used to wrap fire hoses), men’s Longtail T-shirts (the one that’s supposed to prevent plumber’s butt), and women’s No-Yank Tanks (a tank that won’t ride up and cause the lady version of plumber’s butt).

Duluth Trading describes its approach to apparel as solution-based: If the problem is men’s jeans that pinch in the crotch, Duluth Ballroom Jeans (get it?), made with extra fabric in the groin, are the solution. If a too-tight flannel is inhibiting your ability to chop firewood, the Free Swingin’ Flannel comes with armpit gussets to improve your range of motion. Duluth Trading also touts its No Bull Guarantee, which promises a refund at any time if a customer is unsatisfied. It’s a policy Connolly says isn’t going anywhere, despite L.L.Bean recently killing its own no-receipt-needed return policy.

Duluth Trading’s voice — which starts to sound kind of like Ron Swanson’s, if you listen to its ads long enough — emphasizes a no-frills, hardworking attitude and emphasis on blue-collar Americana. The company describes itself as a brand for the “modern, self-reliant American” who “values a job well done.”

But the ornery voice promising “No Bull” and promoting jeans with ample crotch room can be off-putting to customers who don’t share the same sense of humor.

“It feels very political to me,” says Jeanine Pesce, founder of RANGE, a marketing agency that works with active, outdoor and lifestyle clients. “It all plays into this old-timey ‘when things were pure and simple’ idea.”

“We see things for what they could be, and what they should be,” proclaims the narrator of a video outlining the brand’s philosophy. That message likely resonates with Duluth’s suburban and rural base, Pesce says. But to a different type of listener, the company may as well be saying: “Make workwear great again.”

Fans of Duluth Trading’s ads like the irreverence. They appreciate that the company takes an “honest” approach to marketing. Others have applauded Duluth Trading’s efforts to tap into “the construction worker in all of us” (despite the fact that only 12 percent of Duluth Trading customers work in the building trades, according to investor documents).

“We found a niche in the market where I believe that people were tired of stuffy boxed retail, and this is a breath of fresh air to them,” Connolly says.

Whether that voice will bring in more women remains to be seen. Duluth Trading introduced women’s apparel in 2005, when the first women’s catalog went out to all the “Duluth wives who told us they were sick of flimsy work wear.” Thirteen years later, Duluth says growing the women’s division is a top priority. But in the Waukesha store, it’s hard not to wonder if women are an afterthought. Women’s inventory accounts for about a quarter of the nearly 16,000-square-foot retail space.

The company is clear about the type of women they’re marketing to — “women with tough, dirty jobs and hobbies.” The product description for the women’s NoGA pants takes a tongue-in-cheek swipe at yogis: “Sure, you can wear ’em as you twist yourself into a pretzel at yoga class. But … NoGA Knits are built to take on challenges far more demanding than a downward dog pose.”

I ask Connolly if pitting grit against yoga could alienate some of the women they’re targeting. He points to the cover of the most recent women’s catalog, where a blonde woman wearing NoGA pants and safety glasses takes a crowbar to the side of a wood cabin.

“The reason our brand resonates with women is the empowerment piece,” he says, picking up the catalog. “It’s that not only can you do yoga on a mat, but you can tear this down.”

As a female millennial, I bristled at the NoGA pants copy — who says stretching out in pigeon pose and demolishing a cabin are mutually exclusive? When that thought went through my head, I could hear the faceless, cantankerous voice of Duluth Trading chastising me: “No yoga here, you snowflake!”

“It just feels like a shame because it looks like they are making really smart products, and they are trying to solve problems for women, but it’s also done in a way that feels very patronizing,” Pesce says.

Unlike the men’s catalog, which is filled with cartoony illustrations of the products, the women’s catalog features photography of real women wearing the clothes.

“Guys are simple,” Connolly says when I ask him about the different approaches. “Women want to see [the product] working. Guys just want to see a fat guy dance on a pole in a pair of underwear.”

In 2018, this feels like an archaic men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus approach to marketing. But as far as the company is concerned, the approach is working. Connolly says the cheeky ads pique people’s interest and bring new customers through the door, which is what counts.

Yet while Connolly says he’s seeing more millennials in his store, the company doesn’t appear to be adapting its messaging to court younger, more politically aware shoppers, which could hinder its ability to grow beyond their older, whiter, suburban base, Pesce says.

People of color are sparsely represented in the store’s catalogs and website, and the dismissive reference to women shoppers as “Duluth wives” raises some eyebrows, including Pesce’s. While other activewear brands are embracing diversity and inclusivity, Pesce thinks Duluth Trading is going in the opposite direction.

“It’s probably like an echo chamber where their customer hasn’t really changed, so why would they try to reach out and connect with a new customer?” Pesce says.

The company stands by its identity as a relaxed brand for hardworking people. The jokes are just jokes, and Duluth customers — whether they’re male or female — have a sense of humor, Connolly says.

“It’s just a more laid-back atmosphere,” Connolly said. “You start to lose you to lose touch of the ultimate goal when you start taking yourself too seriously.”

For some customers, Duluth Trading’s ads are fine for a laugh but not as compelling as the products, which reviewers often praise for living up to their promise of no-fuss durability.

Bobby Senores, a 29-year-old nuclear pharmacist from Naperville, Illinois, has seen Duluth Trading’s billboards and commercials. He thinks they’re entertaining, but mostly, he likes the clothes.

“I don’t work in one of the trades, but I feel like the clothes are durable and they tend to last a long time,” he said. “Also, as a big guy, I feel like the sizing of the clothing is around my body type.”

Andrew Rojahn, a 29-year-old senior account executive at a Milwaukee advertising agency, bought his Duluth Trading Shoreman’s Fleece based on a recommendation from a friend. Although he spends most of his workday in front of a computer, he says he likes the “rustic” nature of Duluth Trading’s ads.

On the other hand, shoppers like Chris Fredrickson could be the prototype of a Duluth Trading customer. Fredrickson and her husband farm and ranch on the North Dakota prairie, and the clothes hold up, she says.

“I feel their designers are serious about making hardworking items that keep up with everything I need to do,” says Fredrickson, a 43-year-old mother of three boys who is also a doula and sells Rodan + Fields skincare.

Despite the company’s reluctance to identify a target customer, Duluth Trading seems to be capitalizing on a demographic made up not just of physical laborers like Fredrickson but also of shoppers like Senores and Rojahn — office dwellers looking for a reprieve from their laptops and a chance to try out a more rugged existence for a while, even if only by purchasing a flannel shirt or a vest loaded with pockets.

“I absolutely do think of myself as their target customer,” Rojahn said. “I love the outdoors. Really my ideal job would actually be a park ranger or something, so it’s kind of like an escape from the digital world.”

But what about office dwellers who are also, for lack of a better word, snowflakes? Those of us who might have laughed at the first plumber’s butt commercial but, upon a closer read in 2018, feel uncomfortable appreciating a well-made product if it also means supporting a brand that embraces regressive nostalgia? What about tradespeople and outdoor enthusiasts of color who don’t see faces like their own in the store’s catalog? What about shoppers who want to buy a flannel shirt without buying into an antiquated notion of masculinity?

Duluth Trading could be missing an opportunity to connect with a large swath of the population that is neither white nor male. And while many companies prefer to stay out of politics, Duluth Trading is competing in a space with brands like Patagonia and other outdoor retailers that have made bold statements in opposition to the current administration and in favor of progressive policies like protecting public lands.

Pesce thinks that Duluth Trading is simply unaware of the exclusive and sometimes tone-deaf nature of some of its marketing language.

“I don’t think it’s intentional; I think it’s just old-timey business as usual at Duluth,” Pesce says.

Although the company may be more interested in growing its base than attracting millennials, it would behoove them to target younger shoppers as their core customer (men 40 to 65) continues to age.

Of course, millennials are not a monolith — 41 percent of white millennials voted for Donald Trump — and Duluth Trading’s marketing may endear them to the customers they’re hoping to attract. For every customer who bristles at a description of yoga pants intended to take on “more than the mat,” there could be another who nods along with the faceless Ron Swanson voice as he proclaims that “the better way to do things is the only way to do things.”

Regardless of political leanings, research shows that millennials prefer to support businesses with a moral compass that points in the same direction as our own. It’s not entirely clear where Duluth Trading’s moral compass is pointed, which leaves customers to fill in the blanks.

“The way brands promote their own agendas, it’s going to make or break a purchase right now for people,” Pesce says.

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