Fruit of the Loom expansion to serve growing retail, e-commerce sectors

Underwear is slowly being transformed by the Internet, and nowhere is that more evident than in Berkeley County.

Fruit of the Loom, one of the nation’s biggest — and oldest — underwear and intimate apparel manufacturers, cut the ribbon Friday on an expansion of its Summerville-area Palmetto Distribution Center with an eye toward boosting e-commerce sales at the 165-year-old company.

“We’re gearing up and getting ready to do that,” Rick Medlin, Fruit of the Loom’s president and CEO, said of his company’s foray into web-based sales. “We’re building platforms and digital capabilities, as is everybody.”

The 402,000-square-foot addition more than doubles the Berkeley County center’s original 350,000-square-foot space. The expansion gives the site off Interstate 26 enough capacity to ship 60 million pairs of T-shirts, boxers, briefs and other casual garments each year.

Along with an automated packaging system that helps 225 full-time workers ship product to retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Kohl’s, there is a section dedicated to fulfilling direct-to-consumer e-commerce sales.

“We’ve got to create that omni-channel approach,” Medlin said. “The consumer may be in Wal-Mart this afternoon and see a product, then order it online from us. Then we can deliver it to them at home or to Wal-Mart, and they can pick it up there.”

Fruit of the Loom is part of the Warren Buffett-owned Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate, which doesn’t break out sales figures for its individual subsidiaries. However, Medlin said just 1 percent of sales take place online. The company hopes to increase that to 7 percent in coming years.

“We’re under a lot of migration in our e-commerce capabilities,” Medlin said.

Fruit of the Loom’s fruit.com website went live in July 2012 and now averages between 41,000 and 236,500 visitors per month, according to the compete.com analytics firm, with December the online retailer’s busiest period. The website notched 71,479 visitors in February, the most recent data available. That leaves plenty of room for growth to catch online competitors like Jockey, which had 307,168 visitors in February, and Hanes, which had 1.2 million visitors in February.

Underwear isn’t necessarily an easy online sale.

“Without seeing it in person, it’s hard to know if the fabric is a good quality or get a sense for how it might fit,” a Fast Company magazine report pointed out this month. “And unlike clothing products, nobody wants to send used underwear back to a company.”

And that’s why brick-and-mortar retailers will remain a key focus at Fruit of the Loom’s Berkeley County site as the company works to figure out the web.

“About one-third of our total company production will go through here,” Medlin said, referring to Fruit of the Loom’s apparel division. The Bowling Green, Ky., company also owns Spalding, a sporting goods company, and two other apparel firms — Russell Athletic and Vanity Fair.

Fruit of the Loom acquired the 50-acre site between Business Park and Old Dairy roads near Jedburg in 2005. It bought the land after looking at sites in every major port city in the Southeast. The company completed the distribution center in 2006. In addition to its full-time staff, the center hires about 150 seasonal employees during peak times.

Roughly 80 percent of the center’s clothing is imported from Central America through Gulf Coast and East Coast ports, including the Port of Charleston. The warehouse, which can store up to 65,000 pallets of merchandise at a time, was built to handle garments for “just-in-time” delivery to North American customers.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_