Domestic decoration location: What's your 20?

To the tune of My Favorite Things) “Name drops on left chests and sleeves with words written. . . .” These may be few of embellishers’ favorite design placements…but what of their own placement? On the planet, that is?

Does the location of a decorator’s operation—and, more significantly, whether his coordinates lie within or without US borders—affect the status of garments to which he brings identity? What about bearings on the industry as a whole? On consumers’ gasoline-thinned wallets? We surveyed a variety of veteran players to find out.

One (dollar) if by land, two (cents) if by sea

When it comes to domestic versus offshore anything, dollars and delivery time are the polar pillars. And when money has everything to do with it, as is true with big corporations, timing will always be allocated. “The people I see that are really utilizing offshore sourcing for decoration are the mass-market people,” reports Greg Kitson of Indiana-based Mind’s Eye Graphics. “Those that have the ability to sit down and forecast a season, and determine that they’re going to need X-amount of product within a given timeframe that typically is outside of six weeks.” To buyers with a generous time frame and even more flexible funding, even a penny per dozen seems to make an extraordinary difference, Kitson contends. “If there were domestic producers that were able to compete in that market . . . they would be,” he continues. “I’ve had customers that I’m no longer talking to because they don’t even consider that I can compete in that arena.”

Though money is ultimately why businesses find themselves sourcing decoration elsewhere, according to Unionwear’s Mitch Cahn, garments also enter the US already embellished as a byproduct of offshore apparel sourcing. “Design placement also plays a role,” Cahn comments. “Embroidery on a shirt pocket, for example, often needs to be done before the shirt is manufactured. If the shirt is coming in from China, then the embroidery will need to be done there. In general, offshore manufacturers up-charge a relative pittance for embroidery.”

But money and big business are just the bullion amid integral ingredients, lest this spicy stew come to a bland and undercooked finish. For smaller corporate, and promotional-apparel recipients of the non-corporate kind, domestic decoration is the norm, and offshore the exception to the rule.

Domestic dominance

Why the embellishment market’s majority sticks around is attributable to various scenarios: mom-and-pop shops without resources to plan months out or buy garments in quantities attractive to off-shore subcontractors, or the rise in shipping costs coupled with a falling dollar. At its most basic, though, people stay here by default because of what they get for the extra coin. “Hot market is something that will continue to be almost exclusively the right of domestic decorators,” Kitson asserts. “The biggest gain or advantage currently for decorating domestically is quite simply response time. Look at a Super Bowl. If you had to decorate those in China and put them on a ship, how many people are interested in buying a Super Bowl T-shirt for thirty dollars two weeks after the event?”

Our sources underline US advantage where response time is concerned, also agreeing that another gain involves simply avoiding loss. “There are definitely language barriers offshore,” Cahn remarks. “While decorators in India may actually have as many English-speaking operators as decorators in New Jersey, there are cultural literacy issues that send clients for small run, high-end products back stateside for decoration,” he explains. “I have clients who have tried to save a lot of money overseas only to find out that they can’t just send a picture of a pugnacious leprechaun, a bulldog, and an interlocking ‘NY’ along with instructions to embroider Notre Dame on the green hats, Georgetown on the gray hats, and the Yankees on the navy hats.”

Kitson names control as the biggest aspect given up when sourcing offshore, offering another anecdote in which a cheaper choice could translate into an expensive lesson. “If you have a non-English-speaking work force, they don’t know that something is spelled wrong. For instance, Nike, spelled N-I-K-K-E, would be perfectly acceptable to them as long as it had the swoosh,” he says. “Because they know the swoosh, but they have no idea how Nike is spelled. So those are the types of things that, if you can’t touch and feel, you start to sacrifice. So you have to put in other controls and, most of the time, those controls come in the form of brokers who have people onsite in these companies and have made the arrangements and also have a financial stake in the success.”

Kitson emphasizes artwork, communication, responsiveness and face time as domestic selling points outweighing higher decoration costs. In his opinion, a two-hour flight to your “local” embellisher of choice for quality assurance, accuracy and peace of mind is manageable and worth it compared to the alternative plane ride. “Again, its that touch and feel,” Kitson reiterates. “There are still people that value a relationship and a relationship sometimes needs a handshake to solidify it. If you’ve got to hop on a plane and spend twenty-seven hours getting from here to there, it’s just not as easy to do.”

To have and maintain such a relationship across his Lil’ Dogs embellishment operation, Andy Boyea Jr. does hop a plane to China each year. He considers himself lucky to have a profitable offshore partnership to which he sources artwork production and digitizing, but doesn’t chalk his positive experience entirely up to luck. “Maybe I’m fortunate, too, because I visit them,” Boyea guesses. “So maybe I’m more than just some guy that’s six thousand miles away. They’ve got a face to the company and they know who I am.” He adds that it’s human nature to want to perform better for the person you know or feel as though you’ve some relationship with. While he visits only once annually, he wagers that it’s once a year more than their other clientele.

Over-seaing it

Boyea came serendipitously upon his current connection through outside endeavors, and now sources artwork and digitizing digitally while executing the actual decoration domestically. This allows him to circumvent issues in turn time, shipping and overall cost, among other concerns. This way, he explains, “If you were to get bamboozled in some fashion, you’re out five or ten bucks. If you do an order of T-shirts, you can’t order one hundred T-shirts, you’ve got to order tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of T-shirts and you’re paying upfront. Maybe you could hold ten percent, but the mills in China don’t manufacture goods pretty much without all the money upfront, or close to it. So you get a shipment and it is all wrong, it’s all bad, you’re pretty much out of luck.”

Boyea encourages embellishers to explore some type of digital offshore endeavor to help increase their bottom line. “Don’t use it to charge less,” he advises, “but use it to make more money for yourself.” In his experience, the work Boyea sources to China comes back meticulously to customers’ expectations, but he admits that he would source here to avoid small inconveniences—such as language barriers—if it were cost competitive to do so: “If my people could perform at the level and to the same cost that offshoring is providing me, I wouldn’t offshore it. Even if they could come somewhat close to that cost, I wouldn’t offshore it. But it’s not even close. I mean, we’re talking, double, triple, quadruple the return because they’re that much less expensive.”

Boyea will, however, remain exclusively in the US when circumstances necessitate, as in the occasion when a customer expresses a preference in the matter. “The ones that are very specific, okay, the shirt needs to be made in the USA, I have to have it manufactured here in the USA, every component of it has to be made in the USA. But those are rare situations, and that’s fine,” he says, explaining that, at that point, he calls upon domestic relationships or his in-house artist.

Here and there

Similarly, it seems the impetus for sourcing US-made apparel falls mostly on the customer. “As a domestic manufacturer,” Cahn offers, “I never expect a decorator to purchase our goods unless their clients specifically ask for US made or if they have special needs like cut parts that need to be embroidered before final assembly—like the top of a visor—and the volume or turnaround time does not allow for importing.”

In juxtaposition to US decoration, US-made apparel still remains a niche in both manufacturing and sourcing scenarios. Kitson has only one customer for whom he’s required to provide decoration on domestic garments, with others basing decisions on convenience, money and circumstance. “There are times when, if you meet most of the criteria, it becomes more acceptable,” Kitson argues. “If the situation is, ‘We have to have something for the rally, the picnic, the anniversary, the grand opening, the contract-signing on Friday,’ and you can get a domestic production but it’s on a Mexican garment, it becomes more acceptable because of the timeframe. Situational ethics play very largely in those types of decisions.”

Kitson also cites industry standards for sparse US sourcing. “Some of our niche markets are made on US clothing, but we’re seeing more and more labels that we would have at one time known was exclusively domestic production having a significant portion of their product line that is not domestically produced anymore,” he reports. “It’s still coming through with the same label, but when we look at it, it’s got Vietnam or Pakistan or Honduras on it.” He adds that these are still quality goods because, realistically, they have to be. Should producers fail to maintain the status quo by cheapening value, customers will go elsewhere. “But for us to actually decorate a one-hundred percent domestic garment is a rarity,” he says. “And it has been for a long time.”

With the flowering sustainable movement taking root across the US, perhaps consumers going forward will be more inclined to remain here for both decoration and garments. Until then, this topic remains an equation of price, efficiency, price, patriotism, price, quality and much more. Oh, did we mention price? And while decorators here are keenly aware of strengths from competitors over there, domestic players don’t regard offshore operations as looming evils threatening to shut shops down town by town. To the contrary, they seem to recognize and capitalize on collaborative advantages therein. Says Boyea: “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”