“I need 100 screen-printed shirts, but I needed them yesterday.” It’s a pretty common scenario for decorating shops to get a phone call that starts with that harried line. Rush and last-minute orders are part of doing business in this industry, and shop owners have mixed feelings about how to handle them.
“We’re in the sales and customer service business, so customers ask for things, not realizing how it affects our world,” says Jordy Gamson, co-founder at The Icebox. “You want to make their lives easier, but sometimes it creates havoc on our side of the fence.”
Sandy Jo Pilgram, owner of Rhinestonetemplates.com and The T-Shirt Shop 56601, takes last-minute orders and upcharges for them accordingly. “These last-minute orders don’t affect my other jobs,” she says. “I build in time to fulfill those requests after-hours, and we get it done.”
While you probably won’t see the value in taking every rush order that comes your way, there are times when it makes good business sense. “We do our best to accommodate a new or existing customer’s fast-turn request so it doesn’t affect our other customers,” Gamson says. “It’s an ongoing challenge, but we’re always trying to rise to the occasion.”
Now might be a good time to look at how you could incorporate last-minute requests into your shop’s operations, without stressing your team or normal workflow. You might even identify some bottlenecks that prevent you from flexing your production workflow with ease.
Here are eight ways to think about adding rush orders into your shop’s regular workflow.
1. Create a clear rush-order program.
“Document and develop a short-run length program and product offering,” says JP Hunt, co-founder of InkSoft. “Make a concerted effort to thoroughly develop this program to make it easy for customers to understand their options and pricing. Similarly, train your staff on how to sell, position and maximize this product offering.”
Remember, last-minute requests can be lucrative, since they can often merit rush fees or charges that might not accompany your regularly scheduled orders. “One way to accommodate these requests is to build ‘last-minute request’ padding into your shop schedule,” says Kristine Shreve, a decorated-apparel industry expert.
2. Build an accurate production schedule.
The way you achieve a bullet-proof production schedule is through the right processes and timing. “Having functional processes in your shop means predictability, even when all your decorated-apparel orders are different,” says Marshall Atkinson, owner of Atkinson Consulting and host of the Success Stories Podcast.
“In your shop, the reason you’ve been struggling with keeping an accurate production schedule, could be the clarity in which you create, implement, standardize, train and hold employees accountable for all of the processes needed to complete the work. This means that regardless of the order, everything is handled the same way, every time.”
Alison Banholzer, owner of Wear Your Spirit Warehouse, recommends always ensuring you have the production capacity to meet customer demands before committing to a rush order. “This question really goes to the heart of shop management,” she says.
“How well do you know your actual production times? How well do you know your overall shop production costs, based on your individual production lines like embroidery or screen printing? How well do you know your supplier’s inventory and delivery? Rush jobs are great for building customer loyalty, but only if you can still deliver a quality product on their timeline, and still make a profit. Before accepting that rush job, you have to check these boxes.”
Another consideration, Banholzer points out, is to understand that you may need to pay overtime to cover your labor costs for a rush order. That’s why the primary goal of creating an airtight production schedule is to, of course, ensure that your shop produces profitably, even with unscheduled rush orders coming in. “Over time, your scheduler will come to know the rhythm of the buying seasons and year, and can build last-minute request blocks into when they’re most likely to be needed,” Shreve adds.
3. Monetize rush orders like a pro.
Be sure to consider ways to monetize on-demand and fast turnaround orders. “Remember, you’re providing added value and you should monetize that value,” Hunt says. “Instead of calling them ‘rush fees,’ which can create a negative impression, factor in price increases into your on-hand blank products and decoration methods.”
For example, Contract Impressions offers a competitive five-day standard turn time for all orders, but also offers rush services for a fee to those clients, who seem to always wait until the last minute. “This fee allows us to pay overtime, when needed, to change the workflow to ensure that last-minute order is on-time,” says shop owner Colette Wilhelm. “That way, we don’t have to push any other orders past their due dates.”
Banholzer says that it can be easy for decorators to do a rush job at the same price as a regular job. “Let’s say the youth sports club needs 12 more one-color shirts with the same design you did earlier in the week,” she says. “You still have the screens sitting around from their initial order of 144 shirts, and you have the open production time.” However, if you charge this client the same price for the rush order of 12 shirts, you’ve trained them to wait till the last minute to orders and to expect lower pricing for a lower-volume order. So, if you’re in a situation where you’d like to offer one of your top clients the regular price for a rush order, Banholzer has a solution that could help in keeping this from becoming a bad habit.
In this example, you could determine your normal rate for a 12-piece rush order, then show that price on their invoice, along with an added discount bringing them back to the regular rate. “This visually shows your client that in normal circumstances they’d pay the higher price and a rush fee, but because you appreciate their business you’re giving them a one-time ‘good’ deal, ”she says.
4. Stock a robust on-hand inventory of blanks.
Hunt recommends maintaining an on-hand inventory of your most popular and best-selling items in the most common sizes and product colors. “Customers who need rapid turn-times and fast fulfillment will be promoted to select products from your on-hand inventory,” he says.
5. Push easy-to-implement decoration options.
“Develop decoration and imprint options suitable to fast turn-times and short-run length production jobs,” Hunt says. Production methods best suited for this use include:
- Direct-to-garment printing
- Heat applied cad-cut vinyl transfers made in-house
- Sublimation printing
- Laser engraving
- Eco-solve printing.
Shreve points out that outsourced heat transfers can also be a good solution for last-minute decoration requests. Find a couple of transfer companies that you know do good work, keep a current pricing schedule, and keep them on speed dial.
“These suppliers can do the bulk of the work, so you just need to press the transfers on the garments,” Shreve says. “Your price for a rush job using transfers will obviously have to factor in the cost of the transfers. Also, know what your overhead is and what you need to make on a last-minute job to make it worth doing.”
Finally, know your limitations. For example, Jane Cibulskas, owner of National Embroidery & Transfer Service in Ohio, does take rush orders without a fee, but she doesn’t digitize. That means the customer has to supply embroidery-ready artwork or choose another decorating method. “I also require that the customer bring in the items before I agree to take the job,” she says.
6. Use shop tech to save time and labor, plus be more efficient.
The Icebox team constantly evaluates the enterprise-wide technology that’s the backbone of the company. While Gamson relies on tech, he cautions other shop owners to thoroughly vet any new tech tool. “Your technology should work together, since it gets too cumbersome if your plug-ins don’t talk to each other,” he says. “We’re constantly trying to figure out how to do things better through technology.”
Whenever The Icebox takes on a huge new customer or new initiative for an existing customer that will have a big financial impact on the company, Gamson holds strategy meetings on the front end with all the account stakeholders, including his sales, IT, warehouse and accounting teams. “We build the path together, since our workflows are customized,” he says. “We aim to have company-wide visibility, via a universal calendar that shows every customer initiative and schedule,” Gamson says. “We want every department to see their role up front.”
7. Educate your customers on how your workflow actually works.
When you onboard new customers, educate them about how the scheduling choices they make can impact what artwork or decoration you can offer them. “We provide ongoing education to our customers,” Gamson says. “It’s a balance, because you don’t want to sound like you’re whining if you say, ‘This is what your last-minute, 800-SKU program will do to us.’ But we have to be good leaders, so we can properly execute what they need from us.”
This kind of communication comes in handy, especially when you’re dealing with big clients like Delta Airlines, Hooters and AT&T. Not only will the client see the kind of effort you’re putting into your operation for them, they’ll also get a better understanding of what they can realistically expect from you. You’ll also be able to gather information that’ll help you evolve and fine-tune your workflow to be as efficient and mistakes-free as possible.
For example, Gamson puts staffers together who can learn from each other’s past experiences, to help prevent mistakes being made on-the-job. “That way, they work together to eliminate bottlenecks or save time downstream,” Gamson says.
8. Get in the right headspace.
“If running a top-performing shop was so easy, then everyone would be doing it, and that’s not the case,” Gamson says. “To scale your shop, you need to think like a big company, not a mom and pop.”
Gamson has grown The Icebox through constantly reviewing data and making sound decisions because of it. “We’re a sales and marketing organization that offers a high-touch, high-service experience,” he says. “Ultimately, we need to rely on data to run our turnkey programs and accommodate our customers, especially through uncertain times.”
Ultimately, whether and how you take on rush orders is up to you. But take Banholzer’s advice: Get laser-focused on having parameters and processes for handling these jobs. “To do a lot of last-minute, fast-turn or on-demand orders, consider processes that are quick setup, don’t require special artwork outside of .jpgs or .pngs and can be produced one at a time,” she says.