Graphics Hot Spot

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.

“I got 99 problems and my kicks ain’t one,” a T-shirt reads on leading streetwear site Last year, the site crowned a winning design in an open vote contest. The design was a pair of sneakers on the front of a white T with the laces spelling the words “Cool Kids” Sneakers, or what the hip-hop savvy may refer to as “kicks” are part of pop culture and very much street culture. Remember the popular ad campaign “it must have been the shoes?” How about the anthem by rapper Nelly: “I get to stompin‚’ in my Air Force Ones‚” or that famous dunk by Dee Brown in his Reebok Pumps? Hopefully some of these references are recognizable, but if not, it’s probably because I’m just a shoe junkie‚“I admit it! But even if you’re not like me in this regard, just know that there are a lot of us out here, and it’s us we will be talking about capitalizing on.

First things first, the most basic way to customize on the sale of an item in the decorated-apparel market is to decorate the item itself.

Customizing shoes

There are a few ways to customize a sneaker; the most popular method is heat-applied graphics. The key to sneakers is a technology that can adhere to the surface. The most common selection for this is a heat-transfer film and a vinyl cutter for simple single-color customizations. If the demand is a full color logo, rely on solvent print/cut film. Since shoe customization is in its infancy, most customers will be ecstatic to have any custom text on their shoe, so a basic system should be fine to start.

Here are the basic tools to get started with single color customizations:

Vinyl cutter— while I would recommend at least a 24" wide cutter for traditional apparel decoration, shoes are a little different in that any size cutter will do the job.

Software—in many instances, software comes prepackaged with a cutter. If not, other generic programs or those specific to the industry are available.

Heat press—for traditional apparel decoration, I recommend a 15" X 15" press or larger, but for shoes you can get by with a small 6" X 6" press or even a tacking iron for reaching tough spots.

Heat-transfer film—choose a product that is compatible with your sneakers’ composition. A lot of transfer film manufacturers will have no clue if their product works on shoes, so the best way to find out is to test them. Look for something that can be applied for a short amount of time to limit the shoes’ exposure to heat. Also, for aesthetics, consider a film’s gloss level that matches that of the shoes.

Start up costs for this setup at its most basic level (for a hobby type cutter and a tacking iron) is around $600. The cost, including labor to cut and apply a simple number, is about $0.25 and customizations sell for as little as $10 or as much as $25. Either way, lots of profit. At an average selling price of $15, a return on investment will be earned after customizing just 40 pairs of shoes.

Selling shoe customization

The key to having success with this venture is having the proper strategy. Here are a few ways to approach the market:

Team sales—the team marketplace is one of the easiest targets for shoe customization. Purchase a pair of cleats or sneakers and create a sample to show. This is a nice way to get bulk orders.

Retail sales—if you are positioned close to a footwear retailer, you are in shoe-customization heaven. Consider striking a co-op with them to market your shoe customization services when they sell a pair. In exchange, share profits or pay for referrals.

Contract sales—try approaching footwear retailers with a proposal to offer customization for them. Remember it only costs about $0.25 to customize a shoe, so there should be enough profit to make it worthwhile for everyone.

Event sales—set up a kiosk or booth at a sporting event. Be prepared to receive shoes you don’t necessarily want to handle. Gloves and a mask are a must for this method.

Hopefully this gets the gears turning on some of the opportunities for customizing the actual shoes, but there are more ways to make money in this market.

Pair it up

Something that is increasing in popularity is customizing a T-shirt, jeans or jacket to match the design and/or color scheme of shoes. Remember, a lot of times it’s the $100-plus pair of shoes that dictates the outfit. In this case, the T-shirt becomes an accessory that complements the design and color scheme of the shoes.

Once again to cash in, you’ll need a vinyl cutter and a heat press. And it’s important to understand that, when decorating garments that will be laundered, a quality heat press is required.

The market for this type of customization is primarily retail. A simple way to start is by creating a shoe/T-shirt combo sample to display in-store or in a photo on your website.

The average finished cost per color including labor is about $0.02 per square inch. I would recommend charging for art costs separately since these will vary greatly based on the type of design and whether designs are created with a template-based software or from scratch. Retail prices of these types of T-shirts range from $30 to $60. The cost range is approximately $8 to $20.

Whether you decide to cash in or not, shoes are the next big thing in line in the world of customization. Think about it: We are customizing T-shirts, hats, shorts, jeans and pretty much every other wearable, so the time is due.