“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.
People describe surf and streetwear icon, Shawn Stüssy as a laid-back Californian, despite being known to the world as the pioneer for a huge fashion and lifestyle movement that’s had massive staying power and appeal over the years. Back in the ’70s as a teenager, one of Stüssy’s first jobs was making surfboards—and as it turned out, 1979 was a seriously memorable year for Stüssy, when he first scrawled his infamous signature scribble.
This “punky scribble” made its debut on surfboards and would later became an iconic symbol printed on T-shirts, hats and shorts. He eventually earned cult status, and became the cornerstone of what we’d argue is the O.G. of all streetwear brands today. Just the fact that Stüssy’s hand-drawn signature is still a relevant logo in fashion, makes it a timeless and immediately recognizable brand. From the beginning, Stüssy has also been synonymous with killer screen prints, which often used overexposed and pixelated images, paired with ironic speech bubbles – also a huge staple of the brand’s graphic tees and ads.
So, how did Stüssy lay the foundation for today’s streetwear scene, culture and designers?
Six months before COVID-19 hit, shop owner Howard Potter was planning to invest a cool $240,000 on new equipment and a building addition. However, as the lockdowns started, luckily he was still in the “thinking phase” and hadn’t made final purchases. This gave him time to replan A&P Master Images’ next moves to stay profitable during the pandemic.
In 2020, Potter instead made some smaller strategic purchases to the tune of $20,000, like moving his shop’s server room into the office to offer more file protection and create more production work space (that cost $5,000). He also bought cameras and monitors to have a full view of production; digital phones, so staff can answer customer calls from any computer; software upgrades; new LED lighting in the screen-print room; and extra screen-printing press attachments.
Now that Potter pivoted his Utica, NY shop in 2020 and is even more profitable, next year he plans to invest in an $87,000 eight-head embroidery machine. He made this equipment investment decision after carefully reviewing his shop’s needs and where he wants to grow the most. “We produce more than $500,000 in embroidery every year with four heads in 350 square feet,” he says. “This one new machine will allow us to run everything three times faster, book three times more work, and still hold our high-quality standards.”
As we head into a new year, yes, it’s usual for decorators to review their business plans and consider adding new decorating equipment like embroidery machines, screen-printing presses, DTG printers, heat presses and more. But with a global pandemic still at large, investing in new equipment might look a little different, so here’s what you need to know.
Should You Invest in New Equipment Right Now?
Potter advises shop owners to take a realistic view of their shop status before jumping in. “In 2020, did you take a loss, break even or gain market share?” he says. “Is your P&L statement strong to where you have the cash flow to make the investment? If another lockdown happens, can you still carry the loan payment on the investment?”
If you’re thinking about investing in new equipment, there are lots of factors to consider:
Your older equipment isn’t cutting it anymore, so you need to upgrade it to become more production-efficient.
You need to increase your production capacity to keep up with your current business demand, as Potter did with embroidery.
You want to bring your production in-house, instead of contracting it out.
You’re a screen printer and want to offer a new service like embroidery. (Or you’re an embroiderer and want to offer screen printing or direct-to-garment printing.)
You want to reduce your tax burden. Older machines are often fully depreciated, whereas new equipment can open the doors for new tax programs and savings for your business. Always check with your accountant to be sure.
Once you feel new equipment is necessary for your shop’s growth, think about these questions:
Will you have to spend on advertising to help grow your business or hire an operator to keep the equipment running?
Do you have the capital for the investment? Have you talked to a bank or leasing company to apply for a loan to purchase the equipment? “Try to get the furthest terms possible, with the lowest interest rate, to create the lowest payment as a safety net,” Potter says. “You can always apply extra principal payments later.”
The Rise of Print on Demand
POD and direct-to-consumer fulfillment is a shift that many decorators have had to make in 2020, and might influence what equipment you purchase. “We see a lot of printers investing in POD decoration and fulfillment automation as more and more brands, retailers and groups need fulfillment services alongside printing,” says Ryan Moor, CEO of Ryonet and ROQ.us.
So, what types of equipment investments make sense here? First up, direct-to-garment printers. “DTG technology allows for on-demand printing and minimizes inventory, while folding and shipping automation allows for minimal touches and overhead during the fulfilment process,” Moor says.
S&S Activewear Account Manager, Frank Good, has talked to many decorators looking for easy ways to fulfill short-quantity runs. They usually choose DTG printers, sublimation printers and heat presses to fit that need. “If you aren’t quite ready to purchase a machine, there are many decorators able to offer reasonably priced heat-transfer services with a fast turnaround and all you need is a heat press,” Good says. “Heat presses come in at budget-friendly price points.”
When it’s time to buy your equipment, you need to choose the right vendor that will be a partner to you long after the machine arrives in your shop. Here’s what to look for in that ideal supplier:
1. A big footprint. Shortlist established companies that have a nationwide sales and support network. That way, you’re in a better position to get help exactly when you need it, from a real, live human. Read online reviews and see what people say in online forums. And don’t hesitate to ask other decorators for their feedback on different vendors. “Most people will jump at the chance to tell you a horror story or explain how happy they are with the company,” Potter says.
2. Extraordinary support. After you’ve taken delivery of your new machine, what happens? Does a rep come to your shop to train your staff? Can you reach someone 24/7 if you have a problem or question? Do they offer an online learning center where you can learn to use their equipment and troubleshoot issues? Can they send techs out to your shop fast to troubleshoot issues? What does the warranty cover and for how long?
“Service and warranty is big, especially as the labor force tightens up,” Moor says. “You need a vendor that offers a good warranty and has the resources and reputation to support it. If your equipment goes down and you no longer have the team in place to fix it manually, you want to ensure it gets up and functioning right away.”
3. Ability to help you grow. As your business grows and changes, can this vendor be there for the long haul to help you? “Remember, expandability is everything right now, so can the equipment you invest in today expand to a new world of tomorrow’s customer needs?” Moor says. “You’ll want to ask your vendor, and find out what else this equipment can, or cannot do, in the future.”
A New Age of Automation
In 2020, many shops reduced their staff due to COVID-19. That means shop owners like you might be searching for automation solutions related to garment decorating, to help offset a smaller team.
Moor has seen a lot of decorators looking for newer, more efficient machines that run faster with fewer people, especially in the pre-and post-press screen printing areas. “An equipment payment is typically 30% to 50% of the equivalent human overhead to do the same job on less efficient equipment,” he says, “so not only is this a cost savings, it’s also adding an asset to your business books.”
Let’s look at a few examples. If you have a manual screen-printing press, you might turn out 40 to 60 pieces an hour. Investing in an automated screen-printing press can increase your production to 60 to 120 prints every 60 minutes. “This keeps your crew fresh, by putting the bulk of the work on the machine,” Potter says.
“By adding automated computer-to-screen equipment, automatic screen-coating machines or automated screen reclaiming machines, you’ll also save considerable labor costs,” Good says. “Automated folding and packaging machines reduce the amount of staff required to prepare goods for shipping or pickup.”
Similarly, if you purchase a better-quality sublimation printer that can handle larger prints and more prints in the feed tray, buying a heat press that runs off an air compressor allows an operator to do other tasks, while also controlling the press.
On the embroidery side, Potter cites this example: Say you have two single heads and one two-head machine. If you have a large run, you need to load a design three times with three setups. If you invest in a six or eight head, you can save time by setting up a design once and running more pieces at the same time. “Your runs get done faster and you improve profit margins,” he says. “If the machine takes the workload, your staff can work on other tasks.”
Another thing to consider? Here’s an alternative to investing in new equipment: contract decorating. “Working with multiple contract decorators gives you many options without the overhead of equipment or additional staff,” Good says. ”It’s a good option for a any small or growing business.”
The first three years that Megan Lindholm ran her decorated-apparel business from her home, she hauled samples everywhere, from uniform fittings to school offices to baseball fields. “We had apparel literally everywhere, since we saved our print overruns for sampling,” says Lindholm, owner of 643SPIRIT in New Albany, OH. “We created endless mock sheets for people with style ideas. We took lots of bad photos of spirit shirts or basketball socks and sent them to clients.”
Finally, Lindholm was over the time-consuming back-and-forth with her customers and moved into a showroom. “It’s been fantastic,” she says. “People stop in to pick up what they want for their organization sales, and it takes five minutes instead of an hour. We host uniform fittings instead of carting samples all over town. People driving by see our signs for masks, custom tees and work apparel, and stop-in to order tees and hoodies for their workplace.” Are uniform fittings still a thing with COVID?
Here are 10 ways to set up an effective apparel showroom that customers can’t wait to visit.
Since we’re all in the branding business, you know how vital brand recognition can be to your shop. Getting really clear on your shop’s identity, values and uniqueness allows creation of a brand that defines your company—and in turn, a brand your clients identify with (and love).
“Establishing your brand online is an important aspect of your company’s success,” says Brooke Banta, co-founder of branding agency Bea + Elle. “Regardless of the social media platform, your brand should be recognizable and authentic to its values.”
Generating that level of recognition takes time and work. Start building your brand on social media today in 5 steps.
1. COVER YOUR BASICS
Before creating your social media accounts, you need to have all your brand ducks in a row. For starters, do you have an established and consistent logo, fonts, color palette, phraseology and voice?
Want some not-so-fun customer service news? The average American tells 15 people when they’ve had a poor customer service experience—and 56% of buyers have stopped doing business with a company because they’ve experienced poor customer service, Microsoft reports.
“Your customer service team can make or break your success with each customer,” says Zach Ellsworth, general manager at Stahls’. “If you’re receiving complaints often, it’s time to dig in and take improvement seriously.”
To quote the great Bill Gates, “your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” The customer complaints your shop racks up the most often are your best resource for understanding how your business can perform better.
We asked the experts to break down six common customer complaints decorators get—and how to fix them for good.
One thing that contract apparel decorators sell most is Trust, with a capital “T”. Sure, you can focus on the embroidery, screenprinting, heat transfer or other methods of embellishing a garment, but seasoned contract professionals know that sales for them are not transactional. Everything is about the relationship.
As a 25 year decorating veteran, Traci Miller, of Color3 Embroidery, knows this all too well. Listen as she shares advice on how to establish strong business relationships and how to sell trust instead of decorations.
Does your decorating shop stand out from competitors? Really think about it—there are thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of screen printers and embroiderers, many offering the same blanks and services as you. Don’t worry, we’ve got a smart way to separate yourself from the pack: Become a rockstar decorator, within your special niche.
While this isn’t something you can do overnight, when you position your shop as a “go-to decorator” for something specific, you’ll score repeat customers and watch your profits rise.
We talked to three successful decorators who’ve established themselves as experts in lucrative niches. (And, we’ve got insider secrets to fast-track your success!)
The Bling Brigade
Husband-and-wife team Andrew Sequeira and Lee Romano Sequeira call their business a “big, sparkly niche.” For two decades, the Sparkle-Plenty.com co-owners have focused on offering custom rhinestone, stud and crystal transfers. “We use Swarovski crystal, the ‘Waterford’ of sparkle,” Andrew says. “It’s a decorating niche, since most shops focus on embroidery and ink. We offer something different for a specific market: women.”