Back in 1982, the New York Hat Co., a men’s hat distributor, got off to a strong start — with more than a little help from celebrities. While Boy George and LL Cool J donned hats in the era’s music videos, “Crocodile Dundee” star Paul Hogan transformed the leather bush cowboy hat into a symbol of rugged sexiness.
But those heady days are long gone for the Bethpage wholesaler, which largely handles U.S.-manufactured headwear. Jennifer Stewart, a principal in the family-owned business, declined to disclose its sales, but said business fell off in the past decade and even more so since 2014.
To lift sagging sales about eight years ago, New York Hat launched an e-commerce website for retailers and direct-to-consumer sales. “I don’t like competing with my [retail] customers, but many people were calling us,” Stewart said. Boutique businesses that had sold the firm’s hats “were going out and not being replaced.”
According to experts, the market brims with turnaround opportunities for the hat company. Among their suggestions: Create word-of-mouth sales with hat giveaways at bars and clubs that young people patronize, and connect with stylists who dress luminaries for their paparazzi-snapping appearances.
“Young people are wearing whatever famous people are wearing,” said Ronni Rosen, senior business adviser and program director at the Stony Brook Small Business Development Center.
Don Rongione, president and CEO of Adamstown, Pennsylvania-headquartered Bollman Hat Co., a New York Hat supplier, attributes Stewart’s woes to the ever-growing competition from cheap imports and the demise of small retailers and department stores, which are industrywide challenges.
“There are fewer outlets to sell the product,” Rongione noted.
Style trends aren’t favoring men’s hats, either. “With the exception of winter hats — many of which are beanies — most guys have not embraced dress hats,” said Jean Palmieri, senior editor, men’s, at WWD, the fashion trade publication.
Headquartered in a 10,000-square-foot space encompassing its warehouse and wholesale showroom, New York Hat was founded by Stewart’s father, Arnold Ackerman, 74. He retired five years ago, but still comes into the office occasionally. Today, Stewart, 48, and her siblings, Laura Ackerman, 51, and Adam Ackerman, 53, run the business. They are all owners.
The firm stocks 100 different styles, including bowlers, caps and fedoras, each available in different colors and sizes. Stewart estimated an inventory of 20,000 hats. Retail prices on the company’s website range from $25 for an acrylic knit beanie to $130 for an 18th century-styled top hat.
Sixty percent of its sales are from international markets, including England, Germany, Japan, Thailand and South Korea. Domestic sales make up 30 percent, while e-commerce represents 10 percent. The company’s diverse customers include vintage, skateboard, cold weather and beach wear shops, as well as marching bands, costume firms, historical re-enactors, equestrians and theater companies, including the Metropolitan Opera.
“We’re very efficient, stock everything and work very hard,” Stewart said. “I take an order and I ship it.” The lean firm uses a consultant for social media, and Stewart’s mother, Barbara Ackerman, 73, is the bookkeeper. Currently, no sales reps market its products.
And therein lies a possible barrier to a sales upturn, menswear consultant Michael Macko said. Suppliers benefit from a sales organization’s relationships with buyers, he said.
Stewart said that over the years, sales reps have approached the company to market its line but eventually dropped it. The hats were too cumbersome to take on sales calls, she said.
Macko suggested New York Hat add an American flag and “Made in America” to its website, to appeal to people keen on supporting domestic manufacturers.
Joanne Scillitoe, academic director of the Center for Entrepreneurship Studies at New York Institute of Technology, recommended adding reviews to the website to make customers more comfortable buying online.
And Rosen, of the Stony Brook SBDC, said the firm should extend free shipping to all orders, not just those over $100, as it does now.
Stewart gave a thumbs-down to online reviews, because of the costs involved in modifying the site and the need to monitor comments.
And with her firm recently hit with “huge” increases in postal and UPS rates, she said it wasn’t feasible to offer free shipping on all orders; New York Hat, however, picks up shipping charges for merchandise exchanges.
Stewart said she and her siblings realize, though, that “we need to work on updating our website,” including adding an American flag to it.
“We just want to keep our heads up,” Adam Ackerman said.
At a glance
- Company: New York Hat Co., Bethpage
- Owners: Jennifer Stewart, Laura Ackerman, Adam Ackerman
- Established: 1982
- Hat styles: 100
- Estimated inventory: 20,000 hats
- Domestic hat suppliers: 5