5 Biggest Issues in the Decorated Apparel Industry Today

These challenges are the ones that I am either constantly getting asked about, or face every day in my own job.  I’m sure there are more than five.  There could be hundreds really, as every shop faces a different struggle.  However, that would be a really long article, and not quite as dramatic as narrowing it down to a few.  Maybe you look some of these squarely in the face; maybe you are wrestling with something else.  I’d love to hear yours!  Please share in the comments section below…

1. The Struggle to Find Competent Staff.  Whether it’s an embroidery machine operator, an automatic screen-press operator, a skilled graphic artist or digitizer, or just a general worker in the shop; this has to be the number one problem that shops face everywhere.  I’m always asked about this.  “Where do you find your staff?” or “How do you recruit?”  This is a difficult one, as the success of a company is completely driven by the competency of the people that work there.  Some thoughts:

     a. Treat your existing employees well.  A competitive wage, benefits, and perks to start with; but make them feel important by giving them trust, empathy and a sense of belonging.  Work to develop their skills.  Make them feel at home and that they want to work for your company and nowhere else.  They often will be your best recruiters, and maybe they’ll stick around so you won’t have to go looking.

     b. Post an Ad.  Whether it’s Craigslist, your local paper, or a job site; write and post your ad with a very accurate description of the job available.  Always use a pay range.  If your company offers benefits and health insurance make sure that it’s on there, as a lot of companies these days are cutting back on those.

     c. Offer a Bonus to Your Existing Staff for Referrals.  $50 or $100 can be enough incentive for someone to talk about your company to someone else and get them to bring them in to fill out an application.  Pay if the person makes it to 90 days on the job.

     d. Participate in the Local Job Fair or Expo.  Chances are your Chamber of Commerce, labor training group, or other agency driven work force training group is having a job fair or expo near you.  Bring some business cards, applications, and shop collateral and head down there and set up a table.

     e. “Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill” – that’s the old adage that is usually very true.  First find staff members that constantly hit homeruns with simpler tasks and keep training them up with new skills.  It might take some time to get them competent in more advanced areas of your shop, but in the end you’ll have staff with rock star attitudes doing the work.  (I wrote an article for Impressions about cross training that might help you too – check it out – http://impressions.issshows.com/shirt-printing-business/Why-Cross-Training-I-6026.shtml

2. The Challenge to Find New Business.  When I talk to shop owners about their business, this almost always comes up as something they struggle with daily.  Some are new to the industry; some have been in existence for decades.  Let’s face it, the climate in the modern business world is challenging.  It doesn’t help that some shops are spinning their wheels in the wrong direction.  Some basic thoughts – please share yours!!

     a. Write a Business and Marketing Plan.  A good number of shops that I speak with have never completed this exercise.  Who are your customers?  What are you offering them?  What is your main value proposition?  Successful shops have these statements dialed in and can tailor their message to them.  Have you done your homework?  Have you set any short or long term goals?  Ready, Fire, Aim is not a strategy with a good track record of success.

     b. You Are Not a Spider.  Are you sitting in your web just waiting for your customers to fly in and land in your web so you can sell them something?  Maybe that worked once, but with stiff competition down the street and a gazillion online stores that attitude will sink your shop pretty fast.  See (a) above and develop your plan to bring in the sales by developing lasting relationships with new customers.

     c. Value.  What do you bring to the table?  These days anybody can print a shirt or sew a logo on a polo.  What are you offering that nobody else has?  A killer art department?  Faster turn-times?  Knowledge and expertise?  A new decoration method?  The fancy business term for this is “Value Proposition”.  The decorated apparel industry is huge; but in your neighborhood the pie is shrinking due to increased competition online, and maybe even down the street.  It isn’t enough that you help out with little juniors little league uniforms every year; as that gigantic order for the main league sponsor spends their money with someone else.  Do something that separates you from the herd.  Make sure everyone knows about it.

     d. Partner and Collaborate.  A great way to build business is to partner with others to offer a better deal for everyone.  Maybe there is a hotel, or a wedding planner, or a marina, or a stadium, or a “fill in the blank”…that needs your services.  Collaborate with them to offer something that is good for both businesses.  You have to ask.  They won’t come to you.  Don’t wait until tomorrow.

     e. TCB.  Elvis Presley’s famous acronym for “Taking Care of Business”.  Make sure the customers you have are happy.  Don’t ignore them.  When was the last time you personally delivered an order?  Dropped in to say hello?  Maybe even a basic “how are we doing phone call”? Do you do business with your own customers?  Do you recommend them to others?  Develop your relationships and make sure everyone stays happy.

     f. Social Media.  Do you have a game plan and written goals that you are following?  Or are you just “spraying and praying” that your infrequent and non-targeted posts on Facebook or Twitter will hopefully get you some orders in the door.  What social media channels are your customers using?  Do you have any way of measuring what is working and what isn’t?  This is a very confusing subject, and the results will be different for every shop – as your company has your own set of variables: geography, customer base, product offering, skill set, etc.  To be effective you have to do some initial research, write a plan and get started.  You’ll learn more from the failures than the successes.  It’s very hard work, and it takes a lot of time.  Check out this article for a more in-depth look – http://preview.tinyurl.com/my7oeau.

3. Need for Sustainability.  Ok, it’s no secret where I stand on this subject.  I’m encouraged lately by the great discussions I’m having with printers, suppliers and manufacturers on their interest in the subject.  However, getting companies to invest the time, effort and money to develop a sustainability program is something that should be a priority.  One of the best ways to create bigger margins for your company is to find opportunities to lower your operational expenses.  A robust and effective sustainability program does that.  (check out this article that I wrote for Impressions magazine – http://preview.tinyurl.com/n6mtyqy)  Here are some quick tips:

     a. Start a Sustainability Committee.  Get a group of interested people to join forces and brainstorm on what you can do with your company.  Make sure you have involvement from all levels of staff members, but also include top management, accounting (for financials), and floor level employees.  Get engagement and ideas from everyone.  Start discussing the easiest things to do and implement them.  Quick successes will drive future efforts.  Document your efforts.

     b. Get an Energy Audit.  Call your local utility and have an analyst come out and review your building.  They will poke around for a bit, measure and probe and write you a report.  In that report will be some ideas on how you can save money.  Implement those ideas and save a bundle of cash.  More than likely these ideas will be: switch your lighting from whatever you use to LED’s, review your insulation for cool/heat loss, fix any and all air leaks from your compressor, upgrade equipment or appliances to more energy efficient models, turn off unneeded equipment.

     c. Talk to Your Suppliers & Vendors.  What new products are they offering that are better than what you are currently using?  Would new equipment perform faster and with less energy consumption?  Can a new chemical or ink perform better than what you are normally using?  What type of deal or incentive can you get if you purchase in bulk?  Moving to a new “something” is scary and sometimes requires an investment.  However if you run the numbers, quite often you’ll find that an upgrade is more efficient and your return on investment (ROI) can be quicker than you think.  Have the conversation, that’s at least free…educate yourself.  Trade shows are great for this.  Check this out – http://www.issshows.com/index.shtml

     d. Pet Project – Recycling Embroidery Stabilizer   I’ve been personally working on this for over a year.  Our shop at Visual Impressions has 120 heads that operate on two shifts.  We go through a massive amount of embroidery stabilizer (pellons) every day.  Last year we started a recycling program and now have all of our waste materials being recycled, (at the time of this post we’ve recycled over 30 tons of material since March 2013), and staying out of the landfill…except for embroidery pellons.  We’ve dropped our trash pick-up from three 8 yard dumpster pick-ups a week to two.  The only thing going into these now is really lunchroom trash and embroidery pellon scraps.  I bet I could go down to one trash pick-up a week or maybe even once every two weeks if I could find a way to get this material recycled too.  The problem is that the scraps are worth less than what it would take to haul them away.  To me, these could be recycled into filters, shredded into material to be used in pillows or insulation.  Something!  If anyone out there is recycling this material please let me know how you are doing it.  Also – Embroidery Stabilizer Manufacturers – please pick up this challenge and throw some R&D money at this problem.  Every embroidery shop, meaning your entire customer base, has this same problem.  My bet is that a good portion of these shops would like to stop sending this stuff to the landfill as well.  Get on it!!

      e. Obtain a Sustainability Certification through the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership.  More and more companies are starting to look for certified printers to use for their supply chain.  Are you one of them?  Getting the SGP Sustainability Certification proves that you walk the walk.  It’s a robust program that ends with a third party audit of your facility.  Yes, it’s some work to obtain, but that’s the reason it’s worthwhile.  The best industry practices, documentation and new ideas you will learn and implement will make your company stronger.  I should know, I’ve steered two companies through the process now.  Check out their website at www.sgppartnership.org for more information.

4. Digital Will Take Over.  Are you ready for this?  Don’t be an ostrich with your head buried in the sand, but instead embrace this technology and work to make it a tool to grow your business.  Digital garment printing is still a relatively new concept, but it’s growing increasingly popular and customers are starting to understand the advantages and disadvantages of the medium.  Ask any printer and to a person they will tell you that their order turn-times and quantities have been dropping over the last few years.  Customers no longer place that one big order for 10,000 shirts, but instead want twenty orders for 500…and can I still get that same price?  Check out any t-shirt forum and look at the number of newbies posting that want someone to take over their online store operations.  Small orders, quick turns, orders generated from the web.  This is where your business is going.  Retail foot traffic into your shop will start to disappear (if it hasn’t already) as more customers simply place their orders online and get their shirts delivered a few days later.  Can you succeed with this technology?  Some thoughts:

      a. Built-In Pretreatment.  This is the way to go for lower operational expenses.  You are not saving any money by purchasing equipment with a lower price tag that has this critical step outside of the printer.  If you are doing any sort of volume printing, the time and labor cost of this step quickly overshadows any dollars saved on the purchase price of the machine.  Not to mention, the external pre-treatment equipment can be a bit flaky, and if you don’t have that dialed in correctly your imaging will never be accurate.  Do the math.

     b. Heat Chamber Needed.  DTG printers are all CMYK water-based ink systems.  100% of the water has to be evaporated out of the garment to be fully cured.  This is a critical step that is missed by penny-pinching shop owners who think that they can save a buck by just using a heat press to cure their DTG images.  If you are going digital, do it the right way.

     c. Artwork Critical.  Just like traditional screen-printing, printing digital files requires adequate image preparation to get great results.  Make sure your art staff and DTG press operator have good communication and work together to understand the limitations and color gamut of your printer.

     d. Sublimation.  Don’t forget this incredible technology either.  Many shops solely focus on DTG printing as their only digital choice, but sublimation printing offers an incredible opportunity for businesses that have the right market mix.

     e. Technology Is Always Advancing.  Print head speeds, web connectivity, ink choices, pre-treatment, chemistry, unit size and capabilities…these are all constantly advancing as manufacturers develop their equipment.  Money burning a hole in your pocket?  Before your go out and buy something to start using on the shop floor make sure you do your research as to what’s available now…but more importantly what may be coming out next year or soon.  Whatever you decide, ensure that it aligns with your current needs and possible future workflow.

5. The Garments Themselves.  As every busy shop knows, there are sometimes quality or other issues with garments that land on the heads of folks in the apparel decoration industry.  Personally, these manufacturers all do a pretty decent job – but sometimes their mistakes become my headache.  Ouch.  Here are some:

     a. Dress Shirts, Polo’s or Other Apparel.  Have you seen your embroidery department lately?  What’s keeping them from turning more orders and getting more jobs shipped?  Maybe it’s the incredible amount of labor that is directed at preparing the garments.  Ever noticed the over-abundance of pins, cardboard, plastic bags and other packaging that these garments have?  Maybe I’m naïve, but is it really necessary?  All of these items are in catalogs (printed or online) for the decorated apparel industry to order.  I don’t think many of these are going to stores for retail sales.  For some dress shirts that we need to brand, we may be pulling a dozen pins or more from that shirt.  Unbagging the shirt, removing the paper insert, cardboard and other pieces designed to keep the shirt “perfect” can be a real chore.  Multiply that by an order of 400 or 4000 and I’m sure you can see why this is a problem.  Maybe there’s an engineering genius out there that can look at this problem and determine a better way to keep the shirts looking great, without all the packaging.

     b. Fabrics with Crappy Dyes.  I’m sure the t-shirt ink manufacturers love the fact that the garment manufacturers can’t solve this dye problem.  They must be laughing every day.  Can someone please invent a dye that will color the garment and NOT be susceptible to heat?  What a miracle cure that would be.  How much time and effort does this industry spend countering this problem?  Of course, for shops that master the technique of controlling their dye-migration it gives them the edge over others that can’t quite consistently pull it off.  So there’s that.

     c. Shirt Counts72 is 72.  36 is 36.  24 is 24.  By the way, we count our shirts before running the order.  Putting 70 in a box is not a full case.  Sometimes our orders have to ship exact pieces and this can cause a challenge for shops with time deadlines.  Tighten up, please.

     d. Packing Slips.  These are needed with every order.  Every time.  It’s how receiving departments check in the goods when they arrive to see if they match up to what was ordered.  Most distributors do a great job at this, but some are horrible.  (I’m looking at you American Apparel)  Mispicked items drive us nuts.

Ok, so did I leave out something that you face every day?  Let’s hear about it!!  One of the great things about this industry is that there’s a certain level of “Je ne sais quoi”, and we stick together and help each other.  If you’d rather not post your challenge for the world to see, but need some help resolving it, e-mail me directly at matkinson4804@gmail.com.    Thanks for reading!!


  • This is in fact a wonderful post, the piece of writing has really allured me, and you have given a definite idea of this issue. Nice !!

  • Thank you for sharing the above information. Its really helpful, specially for newbies in the Decorated Apparel Industry, like me.

  • Hello Atkinsontshirt

    Thank you for sharing the above information. Its really helpful, specially for newbies in the Decorated Apparel Industry, like me.

  • Kylee browning

    I read about you recycling your stuff instead of throwing them out. Looking for any recommendations for getting any companys to donate their wasre products any help appreciated! Our softball team is doing a fundraiser with collecting any clothing no matter their condition. Take torn stained or anything in between.

    • Kylee:

      Thanks for reading and commenting…

      I would simply just ask them. Draft something and illustrate your goals and what you are trying to do. Make it easy for them to do the right thing. Great idea! Good luck.. -M

  • nice articles.. i like this.. thank u Mr.Atkinson..

    T Shirt Printing

  • Very good info here liked it

  • You missed out listing winning designers! An old trick that’s never failed me. If you wish me to expand e-mail me at rico@deeptrek.net.

    • Rico:

      You are right!! As a former art director I know that the creative team behind the shirts rarely gets enough credit. They do get paid though. How much is up to you. Thanks for commenting!! -M

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