When Howard Potter, CEO of Utica, NY-based A&P Master Images, first started his decorated-apparel business, he operated from a 15-foot-by-15-foot room in his house. “In the beginning, I sold apparel mostly from catalogs and ordered samples to show customers only when I needed them,” he says.
As his business grew, he increased his showroom space—from 8 feet on a wall, to an 8-by-10 area, and then to a large 20-by-20 showroom. “We created a better layout and experience for our customers to view products,” Potter says. “But when we didn’t have tons of space to show actual garments, we didn’t let that become a block to stop us from selling.”
Potter focused on a couple of things: showing clients the most popular and effective mid-level and up styles in a variety of colors, plus recommending apparel and decoration unique to each client’s needs. “We want them to know that we aren’t trying to make them look like everyone else,” Potter says.
Many distributors and decorators, who’d like to sell more apparel, need to overcome their fears about selling it (even more so than overcoming their customers’ objections). Luckily, we’re here to help you get past the four most common challenges we’ve heard about.
- OBJECTION #1: “I have no idea how to present apparel
- OBJECTION #2: “My decorated-apparel customers only care about price.”
- OBJECTION #3: “There are so many fabric blends. I have no idea what I can screen print, sublimate or print using DTG.”
- OBJECTION #4: “A shirt’s just a shirt, right, so how can I stand out?”
In a nutshell, when you’re presenting apparel to showcase your client’s brand or event, most favorably, focus on quality styles that are still cost-effective. “People want quality they can afford,” says Andrew Sequeira, co-owner of Philadelphia-based decorated-apparel business Sparkle Plenty Designs. “While this is true for everyone, it’s even more so for women—nobody wants a shirt that feels rough and fits badly. They just won’t wear it.”
Choose just three solid options that are within your client’s budget range, each with an increase in quality. “The more choices you offer, the more likely it is that either the client can’t make a choice or that their decision takes a lot longer than it should,” Sequeira says. “Also, never just pick the cheapest shirt so you can lowball another provider’s price. If the shirt’s not a good fit, no one will wear it, defeating the purpose of promo apparel.”
In addition, knowing more about your customer’s needs will enable you to offer the best options. “That makes their life easier and will get you to closing a sale faster,” Sequeira suggests, who also notes that if a client requests a garment or decoration method that’s not right for them, tell them why and offer an alternate idea.
Like Potter, Sequeira’s been in the apparel business for more than a few years, so by way of experience, he’s identified a number of styles that are great for women. “When we work with distributors, we’re happy to pass on that knowledge,” he says. “Since knowledge is power and that confidence helps make the sale, don’t ever be shy about asking your suppliers about their advice for your best options for apparel.”
OBJECTION #2: “My decorated-apparel customers only care about price.”
Competing on price is one of the most common mistakes new apparel sellers make and is often a stumbling block for more experienced distributors. Marshall Atkinson, a Phoenix-based decorated-apparel success coach, who also offers hands-on training via his Shirt Lab events, often tells the distributors and decorators he coaches, deadpan: “You don’t have to drop your pants on pricing to get the sale.”
Of course, the closer you get your price to zero, the easier it is to close. “You shouldn’t even be offering discounts though,” says Atkinson, whose success secret is knowing how to articulate his value prop to clients like a boss. “Look, not everybody can decorate a shirt well or print a Pantone color on a yoga pants waistband or turn an order in three days.”
According to Atkinson, the people who become million-dollar sellers employ a couple of key strategies: First, they aren’t afraid to say, “This is my price.” Some “people lead with, ‘I can do shirts for $2,’” he says. “They’re intimidated and challenged by the thought of rejection and they constantly sell on price and think it’s the only way they can succeed in the decorated-apparel sphere.”
Big apparel sellers carefully select who they’re going to sell to, narrowing down their target audience as much as possible. “They’ve essentially picked their lane, whether that’s selling workwear or cornering the collegiate market,” Atkinson says. “They really get to know what their prospects’ like, their pain points, budgets and how they want to receive information.”
Tip: Don’t hide behind your computer screen—go out and connect with people. If you sell workwear to construction companies, go to their trade shows. “Walk the floor to learn new trends and ask people what problems your products and services can solve for them,” Atkinson says. “Clone your best customers, since 20% of your base provides 80% of your revenue.”
OBJECTION #3: “There are so many fabric blends. I have no idea what I can screen print, sublimate or print using DTG.”
As a decorator, Potter remembers all too well the early-days of uncertainty that comes with knowing what decoration method will work best on which garment or fabrication. “You have all these fears,” he says. “How will it look? Is it possible? If I ruin a large order due to never selling or printing this item, then what? Can I recover or how much more do I need to sell to be safe? Will it last?”
Potter says part of gaining that confidence is on-the-job learning, whether you’re the decorator or a distributor working with one. For example, you’ll learn that you canscreen print on 100% cotton, 100% polyester, 50/50, nylon, triblends and more. “If you use the right additives and quality inks, and cure the ink properly, a screen printed garment can last for years,” he says. “If you’re a distributor, a good decorator will share these tips with you, and will even ask you to come to their shop to see the processes and examine the different processes on garments.”
As another example, Potter has found that sublimation works best on 100% polyester white or light gray garments. “While you can try to work with cotton and 50/50 shirts, I prefer not to, since the print hand is rougher, and when you wash it, the cotton fibers want to pull through the print, making it look faded after time,” he says. “If you use 100% poly, your sublimated artwork will look new for years and never fade in the wash.” When Potter is asked to do a new form of decoration, he’ll say that from his research it looks possible, and they order an extra piece or two to test on. “If it doesn’t work, you can find another product and sell that to your customer and still save the order,” he says. “The point is, don’t be afraid to take risks.”
OBJECTION #4: “A shirt’s just a shirt, right, so how can I stand out?”
Lots of distributors and decorators worry that apparel is just a commodity and aren’t sure how to differentiate their offerings from the promo shop down the street that’s offering the exact same hoodies and wovens.
“New promo apparel sellers get so dazzled by so much vocab, that they lose sight of what they’re trying to do—solve customers’ problems,” Atkinson says. “You can grasp that this is a 100% cotton shirt and comes in 72 colors. The challenge isn’t knowing all about the apparel and decoration; it’s about knowing the right questions to ask. Stop selling ink on cotton or thread. Start solving people’s problems: Rather than selling features and benefits, start selling value.”
You can differentiate your offerings through a move to consultation. Rather than asking a prospect what kind of shirts they want, for example, use your knowledge about different product lines to make suggestions—from showing a collection of stock images, to creating virtual samples with logos added, to offering physical samples.
“For example, if a client needs uniforms, we’d ask pointed questions about the uniform needs, the brand colors, the context in which they’d be seen, and the sort of work employees would do,” says Erich Campbell, a decorator for over 20 years and now program manager of BriTon Leap’s Commercial Division. “Then, we’d put together a couple of packages, and coordinate items with headwear, shirts, pants, aprons and jackets. We present a vision for the uniform look with variations in style, price and quality.”
Ultimately, Atkinson says, you want to figure out your customers’ pain points and offer a solution. For example, if you provide uniforms or athletic gear to a school, you could set up an e-store to take the orders. Then, you could polybag each student’s order and deliver them to the school in classroom groupings for ultra-easy distribution.
Tip: Many apparel suppliers provide distributors and decorators with tools and assets that make these “mini-catalog” presentations easy.
Ultimately, the idea isn’t to be the pens and shirts company. “You want to be a company that provides solutions,” Campbell says. “You want to be a partner that helps them discover something they wouldn’t have on their own.”