As if it’s not enough to fuss over screen and bobbin tensions all day, not to mention the hassles of thread breaks and proper cure times and temps, apparel decorators are constantly challenged to impress their customers with innovative avenues to bring messages to their clients. All in a day’s work. As such, it makes sense that many screen printers and embroiderers stick close to what they know when innovating their product lines. It’s better to be an expert in one area than a—what’s the phrase—jack of all trades; master of none? But what if adding diverse capabilities and products was more akin to current technologies . . . and the known headaches that go along with them?
Non-wearables, ad-specialties, and the broad category of corporate gifts are often perceived as their own niche in the industry. But many of the same decorating techniques are applied to these new surfaces. So offering your customers a complete package for all of their imprinting needs without cornering you into a lot of extra equipment adds dimension to your business and depth to your pockets.
The who factor
So what exactly constitutes this vast category of non-wearables/ad specialties? “The entire non-wearable sector has universal appeal and includes a variety of products from high-end business bags to small, electronic gadgets,” Lindsay Hoylman, marketing specialist for New Kensington, Pa.-based Leed’s says, adding that many of the subcategories under the umbrella of accessories create their own niches. But the key to surviving within any niche of the industry and earning repeat business is by assessing the needs of a customer, and addressing those needs with a variety of products. For example, “The purchaser of a wine set has different objectives, messages, and applications than the purchaser of a tote bag,” says Hoylman. “Any time a wearable is given out for promotional purposes, a non-wearable item works just as well.”
All our sources resound that the biggest clients for these items are the same customers that come to you for uniforms, athletic wear and T-shirts. Mary Sells, Miami-based supplier services for the Advertising Specialty Institute (ASI) makes the point that it seems ridiculous to send your clients down the road for their corporate gifts, but admits that it’s pretty common. “You might have been pigeon-holed as the person who does fill-in-the-blank for them,” she says. “So
it’s important to let your clients know that you are ready, willing and able to help them with all their gift and accessory needs as well.”
Hoylman adds that it’s not always the buyer that dictates the type of promotional product as much so as the application. Matching the purpose to the product is what the entire promotional products/ad specialty industry survives on. It’s different than with wearables, where there’s more public awareness of uniforms, T-shirt giveaways, and so on. Accessories require more selling, and a keener awareness on the part of the decorator of why and under what circumstances each product would be beneficial.
In turn, “Not only will you make the profit on any of the orders that come in for non-wearables, but you will increase your customer’s loyalty so that you will actually get more wearables business too,” Hoylman explains. “Your overall goal should be to make it possible for your customers to come to you no matter what their promotion or product choice is.”
Packaging for profit
Taking a page from the promotional-product distributors’ handbook, a common practice for selling customers on accessories and extras is to put together an entire package, complete with imprinted wrapping paper. Because non-wearables often don’t have that perceived value that apparel has, it is sometimes necessary to put in the extra time to create a wowing presentation. There are many other creative options to enhance delivery of an apparel item to a recipient and make them feel more valued, more appreciated. It can also make an apparel item seem more expensive and rewarding.
A great way to market this service to existing customers is, for example, “Delivering their next order in a backpack with their logo,” Sells explains. “Other more traditional ways of marketing include postcards mailers, or even giving away a free—though inexpensive as to not eat into your profits—accessory with each order.” Part of the business of selling this stuff is believing in the effect it will have on any business. If you aren’t willing to put money into self-promotion, what message does that send your clients?
Hoylman also suggests inviting current and potential customers to an open house at the beginning of the year to unveil any new up and coming styles, and include non-wearables. “If you are afraid of cannibalizing existing wearables business with non-wearables, don’t be,” she adds. “Chances are your current clients are already going somewhere else for non-wearables or will find new applications that work for non-wearables. “
“The easiest way to branch out to non-wearables without an investment,” says Mike Barber, production manager for Leed’s, “is to start with products that act like a T-shirt when being decorated so that the same equipment can be utilized.” He says to take into consideration the material and dimensions of products like tote bags that behave similarly to wearables when embroidered or screen printed. “Stationery often works for the same reasons that totes do,” he reports. Plus, metal items can be screen printed with special epoxy inks, Barber says, that, with special prep and clean up, can be printed with traditional presses used for wearables.
Shops that provide decorating options such as sublimation and heat transfers, and especially those with the capabilities presented by CAD-cutters have a wealth of services that can be applied to ad-specialty items. In fact, sublimation’s roots are in the awards and recognition industry, where it brought color to a widely engraved set of offerings. But it’s gaining such momentum in the apparel market with the rising popularity of performance synthetics that it makes a ton of sense for wearables decorators to utilize. Sublimatable plaques, clipboards, ID and bag tags, among ornaments, clocks, key chains, photo frames and a plethora of other colorful gift and recognition items are readily available from sources that have made names for themselves around this and intersecting industries.
Other heat transfer materials, along with heat presses that seal them, are investments that make sense from a holistic point of view. They accommodate decorating a variety of accessories, make bags a breeze to adorn, and can be utilized for short runs of wearables as well. “A heat press is becoming a must-have for any business,” resounds Josh Ellsworth, sales representative for Imprintables Warehouse in Masontown, Pa. “ It will allow business owners to offer low quantity custom items at a reasonable price while turning a good profit. You will need to make sure you have a heat press that will accommodate different thicknesses and different types of items. One with interchangeable lower platens is ideal, because you can keep buckles, zippers and seams off of the pressing area so the pressure on the print is not comprised,” he advises. With the advancements in heat-transfer papers, this short-run alternative to screen printing truly is in a position to compete in the decorated-apparel marketplace.
So get with the program and start exploring all of these new odd-shaped surfaces with your shop technology. You may even discover a whole new world full of profit.