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Army shifts back to buttons. Is Velcro losing its grip?

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Dee Breger/Columbia University/AP/File

(Read caption) Velcro, up close and personal: This file photo shows an extreme close-up of the tiny hooks on a piece of Velcro, which engage similar little loops. The US Army announced on Tuesday that it would remove Velcro closures on its cargo pocket flaps.

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Rrrrrrip!

Starting in August, US soldiers fighting in Afghanistan won’t hear the familiar sound of Velcro strips being torn open when reaching into their cargo pockets. Instead, Army uniform pants will carry three plain old buttons over cargo pocket flaps.

The military isn't exactly known for setting fashion trends, but is it on to something here? Is Velcro on its way out?

The Army had been studying alternatives to the hook-and-loop tape (the generic term for Velcro) closures since last year, an Army spokeswoman told USA Today, after soldiers complained that the fastener did not hold together pockets bulging with gear, and was prone to accumulating dust. Only 11 percent of 2,700 soldiers surveyed by the Army wanted to keep the Velcro-sealed pockets.

Hook-and-loop-tape has been a part of the most recent Army uniform since it was first issued in 2004, and will still be used on other parts of the uniform.

Whether Velcro is also losing nonmilitary markets is harder to tell. The great recession certainly took its toll on the company's revenues, as it did for many US firms.

According to its last 2009 earnings report, the company reported a net loss of $30.23 million on revenues of $121.38 million for the six months ended March 31. The losses were due to decreased consumer spending in the US automotive market, Velcro said. Velcro fasteners are used to assemble doors, seats and consoles, among other components, on vehicles.

Last year the company went private and stopped reporting earnings, making it difficult to tell how well business has rebounded since then.

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"We see an upturn, we're busier the first part of this year than we were last year or the year before," Blaire Townsend, manager of the company's construction division, told the New Hampshire Union Leader in April.

The company, which has a long history of innovation, continues to diversify its products to reach new markets – it currently holds 300 active patents. The fastener is used widely in consumer products, including shoes, clothing designed for people with disabilities, and Huggies brand diapers. Velcro strips are also used in gardening, to prop up vegetables and flowers.

Most recently the company introduced flame retardant Velcro strips and transparent strips that blend into the background. Velcro is also still used widely in the aeronautics industry, where Velcro first got its start. It was used a fastener for bulky astronaut suits in the 1960s.

Velcro has been adapted for some unusual uses since it was first developed in the 1940s. Take “Velcro jumping,” where a person wearing a suit covered with Velco strips runs and leaps at a wall, sticking to it. David Letterman, who performed the stunt on his late-night talk show in 1984, first popularized the game. Now, Velcro walls and jumpsuits can be rented for about $500.

That's attention-getting but probably will not make up for the lost business in Army cargo pants.


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