Let me ask you some simple questions. Be honest to yourself while you think about your answer. Are you a shop that constantly seeks to reinvent itself, improve and get better? Or are you the shop that sits there enviously and wonders “how do those guys do it?” This is important, as I see all too many shops closing these days because they can’t compete. The used equipment resellers are loaded for bear, and their inventory has never been more stocked. Why is that do you think?
It’s not just the smaller shops either. Bigger ones are going down in droves as different market forces and other factors affect their business. So how are some shops not only staying in business, but actually growing? Innovation.
Stronger, healthier companies are constantly seeking new avenues for continuous improvement. They are looking toward the future, taking some calculated risks, experimenting, and driving change in their shop. Professionals practice and develop their game. It’s the ones with their heads down that just take orders and print, never looking up or facing the market that are going to be left wondering where their business went. Below are a few ideas that I’ve been working on lately. Think about how these might affect your shop a year or two down the road.
Innovation for Better Margins. The margin is simply the difference between what it costs you to decorate the garment and what you are charging. There’s always enormous price pressure in the apparel decoration industry, regardless of the market niche you are serving. Yet, few shops really do anything to help build their margins. Some can’t even tell you realistically what their actual margin even is.
- Sustainability. Sure it’s good karma being “green”, but building a sustainability program in your shop forces you to review all of your processes, materials, and wasted motions to see if they really matter. It’s hard work, and takes a good foundation of solidly trained staff members to pull off, but you can add thousands of dollars to of your bottom line by implementing a sustainability program. For a more detailed answer check out this article I wrote for Impressions Magazine – http://impressions.issshows.com/shirt-printing-business/Why-a-Sustainability-2110.shtml
- New Products to Try. Your vendors come out with new products constantly. In fact, I’ll bet you have some unused samples sitting in the same box they were delivered to you in from six months ago. You never opened it for whatever reason. Too busy, didn’t ask for it, loyal to a competitive product, etc. That, my friend, is foolish. You should always be looking for the newer, better, cheaper product. When was the last time you went to a trade show? I try stuff constantly, and let the staff using the product gauge whether it works for them before deciding about it. Some are instant hits, some are ok, and some are complete dogs. You will never know unless you open the box and find out.
- Training. Innovation by Training? Sure…as unless your staff actually knows how to do something, how would they have a concept on how to improve it? Taking someone from customer service and teaching them how to ship, or taking someone from the screen room and instructing them on how to set up a job….those just may be the next people on your staff to have the epiphany on how to do something better. Here’s how you can effectively build a Cross Training Program in your shop: http://impressions.issshows.com/shirt-printing-business/Why-Cross-Training-I-6026.shtml
- Automation. When was the last time you looked at the labor steps needed to do anything in your shop? From typing in an order, all the way through production, to invoicing. Many hands touch that job. How much time would you save if you reduced the steps necessary for each task along the way? Have you conducted any time studies? Technology, software and help is out there and early adopters seize a competitive advantage when they understand their numbers so well that they can spend the capital it takes to acquire new technology. Are you doing anything to innovate in these areas? Why not? Your competitors are.
Innovation for New Techniques. Do you ever just “try” something to see if you can make it work or figure it out? Other industries call this Research and Development, or R&D for short. Stretching your creative muscles once in a while when it doesn’t matter and nobody is looking can reap big benefits as you could master a technique or even invent something new. Take that new skill and bring it to market. Make money on it. Here are some thoughts to get you started:
- Listen to Your Customers. What do they want? Where are they going? When was the last time you actually sat down with them over a cup of coffee or a plate of BBQ for lunch and asked them? Partner with them and solve a problem for them.
- Experiment. When was the last time you tried to foil a DTG print? Print off the seam of the shirt? Screen print on an inflatable toy? Fold shirts differently to get a drop ship set in a smaller (and less costly) polybag? Eliminate masking tape on screens? Print eight metallic inks on one shirt, without pick up? Print over hoodie seams without a special platen? We’ve done all of those, and more. The “What If” question is a big one. How are you handling it? Here’s a bunch of shots of our shop that I’ve taken and loaded on my Pinterest board “Behind the Curtain at a T-shirt Shop” – http://pinterest.com/atkinsontshirt/behind-the-curtain-at-a-t-shirt-shop/
- Ask Your Vendors. I do this all the time. I state the challenge that I’m trying to resolve and partner with them to work towards the solution. Some are easy, as there’s a ready-made product. A few aren’t really in their wheelhouse, but they may have experience or knowledge that could steer me in the right direction. How good is your relationship with your vendors? Do you treat them as partners, or do you put them off and keep them at arms-length?
- Adopting or Trying New Technology. Still using film for screens? Do you waste time digitizing your own files? Have you looked into Direct to Garment printing? Do you have an order entry system? Do you have an online presence? There’s an old adage that says “The only constant in life is change” – this is true of business. Either you adapt or you will soon become obsolete. There is technology, services, equipment and expertise out there that can make your business stronger, faster, leaner, and more profitable. What was the last thing you tried?
Innovation for Exercising the Creative Mind. Unless you are a blank apparel distributor you probably don’t sell much undecorated product. We all have our market that we sell to…but what have you developed lately that is creative and would set yourself apart from your competition? Or, even worse, what are they doing that is going to take your customers away from you? Adding value to your sales proposition should be one of your key strategies this year. Have you even thought about it, or are you just like a lot of apparel decorators and just sit and wait for the orders to come in by themselves?
- Look to Other Industries for Inspiration. Put your thinking cap on and try to see things from another person’s perspective. How would a technology driven company or an equipment manufacturer look at the challenge? Would they make the same choices you would? Any material, training, process, or thinking that you could apply to your situation? Being creative isn’t all art related, as creative thinkers are problem solvers. Step outside what you know and see things from another’s viewpoint. What would you change?
- Borrow Ideas from Others. I like to watch the show “Chopped” on the Food Network. The show’s premise is that they take four chefs and give them a basket of crazy ingredients to use to compete against each other for three separate dishes. With each round, one chef is eliminated until there is a winner. What’s creative about the show is that they are taking diverse elements that might not ever be paired together and forcing the competitors to create something not only new but delicious. What if you took this idea and used it in your shop? What list of weirdo things could you combine to make something that would sell? This is where the “Gee, I never would have thought of that” ideas come from. If you are only taking and producing orders you will never do this. Get out of your rut!!
- Ask Your Staff. Maybe you aren’t creative. But I’ll bet you employ some that are very creative. What’s the one thing that they have always wanted to try? Find some time and have a shop contest to develop the wackiest idea to showcase your creative juices.
- Take a Field Trip. This could be just to the mall or a trade show. Bring a notebook. Take pics. What do you see? Sit around the coffee shop later and debate what was really cool, and what would work for your shop. The best discussions are the ones that are freely and unconsciously made. Don’t try to squeeze them into a meeting. Talk.
Hopefully this article is the catalyst that starts some innovation with your shop. I would be very interested to know if you developed any ideas after reading this article. I’m all about sharing ideas, so let’s trade! E-mail me directly if you don’t want the world to know… firstname.lastname@example.org.