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Handling Holiday Orders

Erich has more than 18 years experience as an award-winning digitizer, e-commerce manager, and industry educator. He empowers decorators to do their best work and achieve a greater success. A current educator and long-time columnist, Erich takes every opportunity to provide value to the industry. Find more information on Erich and his publications here.

This article appears in the latest issue of Printwear magazine. To ensure that you can access this and other industry-focused pieces, be sure to subscribe today!

If your business is anything like mine, you’ve been assailed with orders for stockings since before Halloween. Even so, as we enter the headlong slide into the biggest gift-giving season of the year, you’ll probably be stuck taking up the slack for the poor souls who didn’t spend their first fall days planning for Yuletide festivities. Luckily, I have a veritable sleigh-load of tips for how to handle customers, keep production on track, and handle those specialty holiday items and last minute requests that will make the end of the year not only productive but profitable.

Seasonal Survival Guide

Good pre-holiday planning starts with time management; not personal time management, necessary as it is, but time production management. You have roughly 53 days before the December 24th deadline for your customers to pick up gifts and still manage to get them under the tree for the big reveal. This means that your business customers have even less time before holiday parties ensue. For some of us, it seems ludicrous to be stitching gifts 23 days before the turkey hits the table, but a little planning goes a long way toward keeping customers happy and your schedule manageable. The following five tips can help keep your customers’ input and your output on track.

Be proactive, start selling now. If you have customers who reliably contact you on December 20th looking for employee incentives for that night’s holiday party, take a moment to put together a simple sales pitch featuring easily decorated items and send it to them now. For an extra incentive, offer a small discount or benefit like a free item for the purchaser or free direct shipping if they complete their order within a week of receiving your promotion. Removing the friction from the ordering process could turn your tardy customers into the first finished gifts of the season. Even if that’s not the case, the message gives you a chance to hint at the busy upcoming schedule which may motivate customers to start ordering earlier.

Predict and present your lead time accurately. You should know how much time the average order takes to move from primary contact to packaged product. If you don’t, it’s time to measure your output and find out. Once you know your lead time, be honest and upfront with potential customers. Whether this means posting production time updates to your social media feeds, replying to quote requests with a prospective delivery date and the factors that affect scheduling, or putting up signage showing current lead time in your showroom, you should be sharing that estimate with your potential clients. We’ve all encountered a customer who didn’t appreciate our later-than-expected estimated delivery date, but we’ve also all been customers ourselves, and we intuitively know that it’s better to hear a reliable estimate that’s not ideal than to be disappointed by missed deadlines.

If you want to leave room for your late customers, you can always make rush processing available for an added fee. At best, you can use the increased revenue to keep staff on for overtime; at worst, you can ease the sting of losing your free time to an over-promised job or having to disappoint another customer with a bumped production date. Even if you decide to accept dates in a shorter timeframe than your estimate, simply setting the expectation of a regular turnaround time will help you keep your prepared customers on a manageable schedule. It will at least allow you to justify the times you choose to bend over backwards for a customer that doesn’t follow the schedule with added rush-job profits.

Be ready to redirect. Sometimes the customer’s ideal decoration simply can’t be done in time to make a holiday deadline. When the delivery date can’t budge, the compromise has to come in production time or shipping time. Be ready with alternative, quicker decoration methods, emergency gift items, contract decorators who can take on the job, or even suitably presentable gift certificates. Your embroidery customers may not want to print, and the occasional job may fall through, but your readiness with solutions puts you in the realm of a creative consultant rather than just an embroiderer. Though your potential customer may decline your alternatives, they'll know you did your best to take care of their needs and will have an increased understanding of your product options for the next time they order.

Set a cut-off date. As the holidays approach, you’ll eventually run out of capacity to fill orders for timely events. Start promoting a deadline by which orders must be placed in order to deliver by the 24th. Promote it at least two weeks out, repeating the message at least once a week later. This isn’t to say that you won’t necessarily take orders after it passes, but it does increase the sense of urgency for your customers. It’s better to be seen making an exception than to miss delivery on a gift item. Deliver a heartfelt apology when you can’t make room and suggest alternative decorators when you can’t deliver. The care you show will speak well of your character. It can be hard to let a customer go to another decorator, but you’ll be more likely to see the customer again when they reflect on your fairness and superior customer service than they would if you just declined their request outright.

It’s about more than time; it’s about trust. Though you can't control the flow of customers or plan for every contingency, taking an active role in scheduling and presenting an honest and accommodating message to your customers will reduce the number of emergencies, late nights, and all-out panics that are often the hallmark of the holiday season. Reasonable expectations, transparency, and well-defined options can help you avoid scheduling issues before they begin.

Holiday Specialties

With your scheduling firmly under control, all you have to do is stitch, finish, package, and repeat, right? Unfortunately, the holidays come with a set of unique materials and items that make the production process harder than usual. The following tips will help you keep your needles moving, no matter what the season throws at you.

Tis the season for textured substrates. At no other time will you see more heavy, ribbed knit caps, microfiber fleece, faux fur, sherpa collars, robes, towels, and the like than around the holidays. Be prepared to handle napped and textured materials. If you learn no other trick, learn the light mesh fill; an underlayer of two fill elements, perpendicular to each other at a 3mm spacing in the color of the garment. This will hold down fibers, tamp down knit, and provide a smooth surface for embroidery on almost any garment. It can sometimes be overkill, as many simple designs and text only need a structural underlay and added pull compensation to tackle textured fabrics, but in a pinch, the light mesh fill can be used under almost any design to avoid loose fibers poking through and allow small details to stay above the nap. Use a matte finish thread for fabrics that don’t have surface shine to let the mesh stitching blend even more seamlessly into the substrate. For a custom, embossed look, digitize a contoured shape just outside the overall footprint of the design rather than a square when you create the mesh.

Manage metallic. If there’s one thing that just screams holidays to most customers, it’s metallic thread. Stock up on trusted, tested metallic thread before the season starts. It’s worth trying samples to find one that resists fraying, kinking, and runs well for your decoration methods. Check your current stock as well to make sure it’s not brittle. If it snaps easily under tension, you might want to replace it. Metallics can be difficult to run under ideal conditions, but old, breakage-prone metallics are a total nightmare. Make sure you have clean thread paths, new, appropriately sized needles, and make sure your tensions are set properly for your thread. Metallic threads are fantastic for adding a festive touch to existing designs, provided you are prepared.

Stick out the stockings.  As previously mentioned, this is also the stocking season. This classic fireplace decor just isn’t complete until each piece is embroidered with the name of a loved one. The problem for decorators is that they are often difficult to hoop. Though there are many methods to clamp them, adhere them to adhesive backings, or to wedge them into a standard hoop, these methods often allow only limited access to the cuff and even less access to the body of the stocking.

With planning, there are other options. For one, you can partner with a local alteration shop and work up a price for unstitching/re-stitching the finished stockings so that you can have full access to the body. Most stockings are very simply constructed, so the cost isn’t on par with more complicated alterations. A simpler alternative is the zip-flat stocking. These stockings are fitted with a hidden zipper that allows complete access to flat hooping of the entire body and cuff. If you have a customer looking for all-new stockings, having a sample in-house with a large design and full-width cuff personalization is sure to create interest in this embroidery-friendly piece.

Create a friendly waiver. This season also sees us stitching on hand-made quilt squares and apparel, decorating passed-down heirlooms, and embroidering impossibly-sourced imported accessories. If you are taking in customer-supplied garments and materials that are irreplaceable, it’s time for a damage waiver. Having the customer sign a document that states that they understand, despite careful treatment, accidents do happen. This method is less about providing yourself with legal protection as much as it is about educating the customer before they choose to go through with the job. Be forthright with your customer about what can go wrong; explain that you have no way to replace their item, and give them a chance to decide if the decoration is worth the risk. This is also a fantastic time to offer a last round of alternative, less risky decoration solutions if the customer is concerned.

All in all, this is a great time to be an embroiderer. The value of our craft is high, canvases for our work are plentiful, and we are allowed to participate in a plethora of celebrations. We are here, after all, to make people happy. With honesty, support, creativity, and a knowledge of our craft, we can make a profit for our businesses while we make a difference in our customers’ experience of the season. Start now, and make the end of this year the beginning of great relationships that will benefit you both for years to come.