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Cotton Traders - A Good Source of Basic Wardrobe Staples
Member Name: Hishyeness
Advantages: Easy to use. Good quality merchandise. Value for money.
Disadvantages: Fit and sizing can be inconsistent. Clothing is unexciting and functional.
Cotton Traders (CT) has become a staple source of clothes for me. In my darkest days, pushing almost 25 stone, it was my only mainstream source of reasonably priced, outsized clothes that did not carry the psychological baggage inherent in "Big & Tall" and "High & Mighty" type shops. With sizes up to 5XL for T-shirts and polo shirts, and waist sizes up to 52 inches, it was a godsend.
The only downside was that ordering from them helped perpetuate the illusion that my size was OK. In fact, it was when I started struggling to get into CT's biggest clothes that the penny finally dropped and I took decisive action to manage my health.
The good news, for readers at least, is that I have ordered clothes from CT for going on three years, in various sizes, and have built up enough experience - both good and bad - to be able to write an objective review on their offerings. They are serving me just as well now - in "normal" sizes - as they did in my larger days.
CT THREE WAYS
Apologies for making the title of this section sound like a Chinese menu item, but what I'm getting at is where and how you can buy their products. CT, which was founded by two ex-rugby players, started out as a mail order company selling rugby shirts, and it still does a bulk of its business in this way.
However, in parallel, they have a comprehensive and easy to navigate web site from which you can order direct (www.cottontraders.co.uk). This is my primary method of buying CT clothes. They also have - at last count - 75 shops, which vary in location from high street retail units, garden centres (yes, you read that right) to various "factory outlet" type shopping centres.
STOCK IN TRADE
I primarily use CT for wardrobe staples like T-shirts, polo shirts, rugger shirts and chinos, but have bought boat shoes, jumpers, fleeces and jackets from them as well. A lot of their catalogue is unisex, but there are speciality items for both men and women. They also do a good line in shoes, swimwear and Guinness-branded merchandise, as well as some limited accessories such as belts, bags, socks, watches and scarves.
Granted, you're not going to find the latest Paris fashions on there, but they do sell good quality basic gear at really good prices. There is a very broad range of sizes, from the new Petite (for women under 5'3") to mens 5XL (60" to 62" chest), but these are not available in all ranges. Helpfully, the web site offers a tab on the home page, so you can go straight to the catalogue items that are available in larger (and very small) sizes, saving you the hassle of going to each item individually.
My comments are confined to their web site, which is intuitive to use and well laid out. I have never ordered via mail from the CT catalogue, however, if you prefer to do your shopping off-line, you can order a catalogue from the web site or by telephone, and then order by mail or call your order in.
The first time you order from the web site, you have to register your details - including payment details which are stored securely - after which you are sent a confirmation e-mail with your log-in and password and your unique customer number. Once you log-in, you are able to add and save items to the shopping basket. There is an option to enter promotional "media" codes which can vary from free gifts, money off your order, free delivery, to specially reduced items (more about this later).
When you find the item you want, you are given the size and colour options on a table and click on the one you want to place it in the basket. The table is colour-coded either blue (in stock in quantity), red (available but low stock) or will have a number, identifying it as out of stock with an estimate of the number of weeks anticipated before it is available again. These indicators are usually pretty accurate, and allow you to pre-order stuff at special offer prices if you are willing to wait.
An "X" against the item means it is no longer stocked in that variant. The stock levels on the site are not in real-time, so if you order something "red" you won't know if its available for sure until you get an order confirmation. Items with long lead times may become available sooner, but estimates are likely to change, but any delay to delivery is notified promptly by e-mail, and you are always given the option to cancel.
PAYMENT & CHARGES
The usual payment cards are accepted (Visa, MasterCard, Amex and debit cards) but there is no provision for PayPal or anything else. Your credit card address must match your delivery address for the first order. You can specify delivery to an alternate address for any subsequent orders. You can opt for your details to be "remembered" by the site to expedite future orders. You pay from the date of order - not delivery - so keep this in mind if you have ordered out of stock items with long lead times.
There is a flat delivery charge of £3.99 per order, plus optional postal insurance of 0.38p. I have never used the latter, but it will offer peace of mind for some. If your order contains items that are not immediately available, they will follow on later as and when they come back in stock, but you will not be charged again for delivery.
Delivery is advertised at around three to four working days after your order is submitted, but I have found this can vary considerably. Most times you get it quicker, but sometimes slower. That said, their e-mail comms are excellent, as you get an order confirmation, notice of dispatch, and thank you note once delivery is completed. You can check the progress of your order, as well as your history of completed orders when you log in.
The delivery is usually made by courier, but you will not be given any warning of their arrival. I have had deliveries as early as 8:30am and as late as 6pm. If you are not at home, they will leave a card with instructions on how to re-arrange delivery. On occasion, packages have been left inside my porch, but this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
VALUE FOR MONEY
In a word? Excellent - but in context. If you want high quality materials and exquisite, fitted tailoring with the best fabrics and accoutrements, you are not going to find it here, but for what they charge, you would not expect to. The best value for money is in the multibuy options. For example, polo shirts are £12.99 each, which, all things considered, is a pretty good deal, but it gets better if you buy three, as they knock £12 off the total price, meaning that essentially, you buy two and get one free.
They offer the same for most staples. Recent ongoing offers include two elasticated waist trousers for £30 (a saving of £10) and three v-neck t-shirts for £18 (a saving of £9). By comparison, my previous source for over 50" waist trousers was charging over £40 for each one, with no appreciable difference in quality.
In addition to the many special multibuy offers mentioned above, a brief surf of the interweb chucks up dozens of valid CT vouchers, usually cadged off the e-mails they send to customers. These turn up with metronomic regularity, so its always worth checking out before you submit your order.
The only catch is that offers tend to be mutually exclusive rather than cumulative, so you can only use one at a time. For instance, you're better off with 10% off an order over £50 rather than free delivery (at around £4), provided of course that you don't pressure yourself into buying an unnecessary extra item to qualify for the discount.
Sometimes, instead of money off, CT run promotions offering free gifts. These are invariably cheap, relatively low quality items with CT-branding on them, although occasionally, they do manage to be something useful. In the past, I have received a CT-branded clock radio which fell apart in a week, some decent melamine picnic cutlery and plates, a picnic blanket and an umbrella, the last of which lasted for two and a half rainstorms. I fail to see the point of these frankly, as if I wanted picnic stuff, I wouldn't be visiting a clothing mail order company.
The goods arrive in a large heavy duty grey plastic bag with the CT brand emblazoned on it. The package includes your clothes, an invoice, return instructions, a catalogue and various other junk advertising. Each item is individually packaged and labelled in its own plastic bag, with CT-branded tissue paper to help it keep its shape. I have never had an issue with damaged goods.
QUALITY & FIT
The construction and durability of most items is usually pretty good, but there have been one or two annoying exceptions. Firstly, consistency of fit can sometimes be a problem. I have bought different colours of the same polo shirt only to find that either: (a) the material on one is not as thick, or is slightly different, from the other; or (b) that the fit is not the same.
I now make sure I try on each and every item I order, to make sure they all fit comfortably. This can be particularly irritating with their elasticated waist trousers, when one pair will fit perfectly, but the other is too tight. I won't labour the point more than I have, but I should point out that this seems to have become less of a problem in the last year or so.
The web-site has a size chart and measuring guidelines so you know how big or small XS or XXL actually is. At the moment, you have to navigate away from he page you were on to view it. I would have preferred a separate pop-out window so that both pages could be viewed side by side, but that's really a minor niggle.
Secondly, especially with the chinos and the pique polo shirts, you need to wash them at low temperatures and air dry them. I have found that leaving them for the tumble dryer often results in considerable shrinkage (especially in length). They do hold their colour quite well though, with darker colours - as would be expected - tending to lose their vibrancy after repeated washes (navy, black and dark green seem especially prone to this).
RETURNS & RETURN POLICY
Given one or two fit issues mentioned above, I have had to return items twice and it has proved to be a fairly painless process - including a recently ordered pair of sandals which my wife had to return because one strap was inexplicably longer than the other. All of the details are clearly provided in the package the items are delivered in.
It's a three step process: (a) fill in the returns form provided, entering the correct code for the reason (ex. faulty, not liked, wrong size, incorrect item, arrived too late); (b) affix the label to the parcel (it is NOT freepost); and (c) post it.
The basic rule of thumb is that if you chose unwisely and there is nothing inherently wrong with the product, you pay for return postage and CT will offer a full refund of the item only, or a replacement free of charge.
However, if it is faulty, or they sent you the wrong item, then they will refund your postage as well. Refunds are processed within three days of return receipt, so allow around a week for it to show up on the card or account you paid from.
I have called their UK-based customer service helpline (0844 844 7777) on a few occasions for various queries and found their staff to be courteous, helpful, efficient and knowledgeable. The call centre is open from 8am to 10pm Monday to Thursday, and 8am to 6pm on Friday and the weekend. You can also submit queries via the website, and I find they usually respond within one working day.
E-MAIL NEWSLETTER & PRIORITY CLUB
If you sign up for their e-mail newsletter you are given 10% off your first order straight away (new customers only). After that, you will be sent periodic e-mails - averaging around one a week, with special offers, promotional codes and product announcements. Two recent examples were the announcement of the British Lions rugby tour (and associated merchandise of course) and a timely offer on shorts, reduced from £16.99 to £7.49 (less than half price and just in time for my summer holidays).
CT also run an invitation only Priority Club for their most frequent customers. Despite the fact that I spend around £250 a year with them, I haven't qualified, so I imagine most "ordinary" punters wouldn't either. You have to be in the top 3% of orderers to qualify, which, given their claim of 2 million customers nationally, looks rather exclusive to me.
CT is a solid, dependable, if relatively unexciting clothing company which provides good value for money merchandise. Some minor niggles about consistency of fit aside, I would have no trouble recommending their products.
© Hishyeness 2009 - Previously published on ciao.co.uk under the same username.
Summary: A good, dependable source for polo shirts, t-shirts and other basic staples of your wardrobe.
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