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Bagging Profit

Josh Ellsworth

Josh is the VP of sales, dealer channel for Stahls'. He deals in the sales and implementation of heat-applied, apparel-decorating systems with a focus on customization. He holds skills in the production, sale, and marketing of customized apparel. He presents seminars at trade shows and contributes articles to trade publications, like Printwear magazine.

Many decorators prefer to subcontract this work out or not do it at all. The problem is, that same customer that orders heat-applied graphics on a one- to six-piece minimum order for decorated apparel has no need for the 25 or 50 bag minimum that contractors usually require. No wonder so many have yet to find this sector of the market to be profitable or worth any time. Maybe that can change today as we take a look at the business opportunity of decorating bags with heat-applied graphics.The marketplace for bag decoration is an interesting profit opportunity for an apparel decorator. Naturally, the same customers who purchase decorated T-shirts, sweatshirts, jerseys and plackets are those with the potential to purchase decorated bags. When you think about it, it really makes perfect sense—the rule of selling more to current customers rather than spending the money to find new ones comes into play. But why haven’t you done this yet?

Remember, heat-applied graphics is a low- to mid-size run technology. For the purpose of bags it’s suited over screen printing in runs of 50 pieces or smaller. It’s also the choice in higher-volume runs where the bag of choice is very tough to screen print. Now let’s get on to business….

Bagful of options

The bag market is very diverse. A challenge that plagues apparel decorators is the variety of shapes, sizes and constructions. The big thing with heat-applied graphics is that, to achieve a desired result, accuracy is required. Time, temperature and pressure are critical to the adhesion and overall durability of the graphic. With an accurate heat press, time and temperature are a cinch. The wild card is pressure. You cannot just position a bag on top of a heat press and press it. 

In order to properly accommodate a bag, its barriers must be removed to achieve an even, accurate pressure. The barriers include any seams, buckles, zippers or buttons that are in the way. To accomplish this simply raise the print area, right? Easier said than done.

Bags come in thousands of styles. Take a look at the bags in the showcase on page 78 to get a slight idea of the constructions. If we look at the general styles of bags, we can place the relatively flat bags in the easy category. Those with some seams and drawstrings get placed into the moderate category and those with lots of bulk, buckles or zippers go into the difficult category.

Equipment considerations

Decorators have a choice: Which of these styles will you want to accommodate? 

If you answered easy, then it may be as simple as using a heat press and some buffer print pads (a mouse-pad like material) to place on the bottom platen of the press to elevate the print area. Once the print pad cut to size, be sure to adjust the pressure accordingly. You should be able to dial this in fairly easy and run jobs.

To accommodate both the easy and moderate choices, I would recommend consulting with your heat-press manufacturer or distributor to see if there are optional bottom attachments/platens for your heat press. By removing the current bottom platen and placing a small or more-suited size on the machine, you may be able to allow for excess bulk and barriers to fall off the platen, making for a smooth pressing surface. This strategy is effective to a point but is not a fix-all solution or the most production-friendly.

For those looking to maximize the ability to decorate any type of bag, I would recommend getting a heat press that is ‘threadable’ with quick-change bottom platens. The gist of this type of press is that you can stock many bottom attachments and select the one that is best for the job. The key to selecting a platen is that it must accomplish the goal of raising the print area as well as allow for enough space for the graphic, i.e. the platen should be larger than the graphic. 

The real key here though is the ‘threadability’ in combination with the platen size. By having open space underneath the bottom platen, there will not be restrictions on bag styling. Simply open up the bag and split it, threading it onto the press. A press like this starts at approximately $1,800. When you calculate the profit opportunity with customization on bags, you may be able to justify this investment fairly quickly. 

Transfer technology

In a perfect world, we could look at the quantity of pieces being decorated and select whether to get a CAD-Cut, digitally-printed or a screen-printed transfer based on the volume. However, with bags this simple equation changes. Usually the selection comes down to what works on the fabric from which the bag is constructed and then we look at the best compatible solution based on volume and pricing. The most common fabrics that comprise the bag category are polypropylene, polyester, nylon and canvas. 

Most all transfer products will apply to canvas. There are no additional considerations here other than using an opaque transfer for dark colored fabric and a transparent transfer for light colored fabric—this principle holds true throughout heat-transfer applications.

The issue some polyesters pose is dye migration. To resolve this issue, select a transfer technology that will address it. The key term to look for in transfer materials is “dye blocking.” Test the bag before running production by applying a small white film product or transfer to a test bag and wait 48-72 hours to see if the color of the bag bleeds through. Also, when dealing with polyesters, adhesion shouldn’t be an issue, but be sure to pick a compatible adhesive.

Nylon may melt underneath of the heat press. Find out the maximum temperature/time combination by testing or consulting with your bag supplier. Select a transfer technology that fits within the constraints established. Some nylon bags have coatings and nylon is tough to adhere to as is. Be sure that no special coatings exist such as waterproofing which may affect the transfer adhesive’s bond. If the bag has a coating, select a transfer that addresses it.

Polypropylene or non-woven bags are immensely popular… and melt very easily. Consult with various transfer manufacturers for compatibility. One good idea is to order a few dozen bags and send them to potential suppliers of transfer products to confirm compatibility. The cost of these bags is next to nothing. The transfer cost will probably exceed that of the bag.

Quantifying quantities

For one or two color graphics needed in quantities less than 24 pieces, a CAD-Cut transfer is recommended, or heat-applied film that can be cut in house. For this same quantity in three or more colors/four-color process, a transfer printed on an inkjet or laser device and compatible media is the way to go.

When processing orders of more than 48 pieces, a one- to two-color graphic is best fulfilled with a screen-printed transfer. For three-plus colors, a four-color process transfer fits the bill. There are some cases on tough fabrics where a four-color process transfer only becomes achievable at high quantities. In this instance, default back to the digital transfer as the method of choice.

Notice that I avoided the 24 to 48 piece range. The lines blur at these quantities; take a look at the options as the best choice will vary based on design size, fabric compatibility and exact number of colors.

The key to making money with any process is finding and accepting the right types of jobs. The bag market is diverse in styles therefore is also diverse in costing. Key opportunities can be found on the low end of the scale by purchasing inexpensive polypropylene bags and decorating them with four-color process transfers. Or, business may not be built for this low-priced item but may be geared toward a higher-end duffel bag or even luggage. Regardless of where on the spectrum one sits, the opportunities are many.

Whether you decide to jump in or not, bag decoration is poised to break out of the 50 quantity minimum box and into customization. The merging of new transfer technologies/adhesives along with the invention of new heat press equipment will help to lead the way into making this an affordable opportunity. 

Hot Profits - Five profit scenarios for heat-transferred bags 

Customized Luggage

Business Model: Low Quantity (one at a time)
Cost to decorate with 2" X 10" heat-applied film personalization, vinyl cut in house = approximately $1 including labor
Selling price of personalization = $10–15 

Customized Book Bags

Business Model: Low Quantity (one at a time)
Cost to decorate with 2" X 10" safety reflective transfer = approximately $3 including labor
Selling price of personalization = $10–15

Laptop Bag

Business Model: Mid-Quantity (12 to15 at a time)
Cost to decorate with 4" X 6" digital transfer = $2.75 including labor
Selling price of personalization = $6–10 + laptop bag mark up

Canvas Totes

Business Model: Mid-Quantity (24 to 36 at a time)
Cost to decorate with two-color 8 X 10 screen printed transfer = $2.50 including labor
Selling price of decoration = $5–7 + canvas bag mark up

Polypro Non-Woven Bags

Business Model: High Quantity (500 minimum)
Cost to decorate with four-color process transfers = $1–1.50 per piece including the bag and labor
Selling price of decorated bag = $2–4