There was once a time when high-volume jobs were...

New World Order

There was once a time when high-volume jobs were qualified as such in several thousands of pieces, and even hundreds of thousands. With the new mentality of fast fashion and just-in-time deliveries, jobs like these have become stories of yore. Average large-volume orders have been reduced to the low thousands and several hundred pieces, which isn’t awful, but is by no means what it once was. Printwear explores this new business model and what the new reality and future may hold.

Around the world

Part of the reduced order size can be attributed to globalization, and less-developed countries entering the screen printing game at a fraction of the domestic price. “If it’s a really big order and customers have the time, they’re going to have goods made where they don’t have the payroll costs that we do. In China or Central America or some place,” declares John Horne, Stitch Designs.

Many of today’s off-shore projects are larger programs with the luxury of working on future seasons. According to Horne, the cost difference in some foreign countries is about 25 percent less than work done domestically. Even though the savings are measureable, off-shore business does have the disadvantage of time. Since jobs done abroad can take months to complete and ship, most domestic production has turned to a react business, supplying small runs in no time flat.

“Domestically, we’re working on tomorrow’s orders, maybe even a little bit of todays,” says Jon Weiss, owner of New Buffalo Shirt Factory, a print shop with factories in both upstate New York and Honduras.

Although today’s average shop is doing last-minute fulfillment orders, this is not to say that the international business has taken over the 500,000 unit jobs either. “I’m not seeing the volume in Honduras either,” says Weiss. “Those big orders, the nice runs, are long gone.”

Risky business

So where have all of the big orders gone? As anyone living in this day and age knows, the economy took a dramatic turn back in 2008, which set in motion a change to how business is done. People haven’t stopped wearing shirts, and the variety available has done nothing if continue to grow. The reality is, companies may still be ordering the same number of shirts, it’s just that they are writing the orders more often and in fewer quantities at a time, explains Weiss.

It no longer makes sense for companies to risk hope (and cash flow) on 500,000 shirt orders that could potentially move. Retailers, the main client of these massive orders, whether it’s Target or tourist shops, can no longer take the risk of a markdown, says Weiss.

Instead, designs are ordered in small quantities to test their effectiveness, giving wiggle room to leave failing or ill-performing stock and substitute in more trial designs, or tried and true sellers.

“Inventory is so expensive, relatively speaking, with capitol at a premium in particular,” states Rick Roth, Mirror Image. Because of this, he also believes that the current state of the banking industry plays a role in the bigger picture of limited order sizes.

Banks are no longer run by local bankers willing to help out a neighbor, but are instead ran by a mighty few, which makes it much more difficult to get a substantial loan to start a new clothing company with enough inventory to survive in the at-once world.

Penny pinchers

Due in part to these factors, this segment of the industry has become a numbers game, one where the lowest bid takes all. “Unfortunately when you get to this volume, you’re global and you’re competing with countries that pay their people seventy-dollars a month,” says Weiss. Because of this, jobs come down to bidding on pennies. “Lucky for me, I don’t have a computer that allows me to bill in half cents,” he further muses. 

This method alone is a difficult way to carry on business for very long, especially when orders require multiple rounds of setup, packaging and shipment. Unfortunately, this is the reality of the market. “Fighting the market isn’t very wise; you’re going to lose. What we have to do is see what the market wants, figure out a way to do it, keep competitive and hopefully figure out a way to do it better,” declares Horne.

Two simple but often overlooked ways to stay ahead of the curve is with good, old fashioned artwork and customer service. Whether guiding customers from the very beginning, using your professional know-how or by going the extra step to individually count out each blank and size, the added hands-on attention speaks volumes for your work. “It’s all of the details—that your boxes are right, loads are properly done and shipped to the right place,” insists Roth.

Fortunately, the other attributes the market is looking for most right now is speed and price, a turn that may lead a substantial amount of this coveted work, ironically, back to the U.S.

Coming to America

Although jobs have been shifted abroad for reasons of financial interest, this same move has essentially created the same dilemma that drove it there.

When good, steady work enters countries of lessor means, the quality of life improves dramatically, which leads to the desire to live a better life. Because of this inevitable human cycle, labor wages rise, a trend happening in many producing countries at the moment, including Central American countries like Honduras. Weiss suspects to see an increase in the country’s wages of approximately 30 percent over the next five years. While this doesn’t equate a 30 percent increase domestically, it is dramatic enough to help close the gap, that much more.

Further, local shops can deliver on a tight turnaround, becoming the first to market—an increasingly important factor to deciding where work will be produced. With technology continuing to evolve and our patience subsequently devolving, turnaround times can be expected to tighten further.

In the end…

As frustrating as it may be fighting for jobs down to the cent and competing in a global market, large-scale printing has clear payoffs. “We’ve got 27 machines and logos are being done for all over the country and a lot of cool events,” explains Horne. After months or even days of setup, selection, design, checking, cross-checking, packaging and shipping out dozens of boxes, only to then see that hard work hanging on the shelf of your favorite shop or on display at a sold out concert, does the pains of that labor become a satisfying success.