The Story with Inventory

Zach Ellsworth has been working in heat print technology for the past 20 years. Zach is currently serving as the director of fulfillment technology at GroupeSTAHL, where he’s focused on making it even easier for businesses to implement heat print technology at scale.

ShirtsChristmastime is here! And if you’re anything like me, you’ve waited until the last possible minute to make those most important gift purchases. I always find myself running around the mall or Wal-Mart looking for that perfect present on Christmas Eve about an hour before it must be wrapped. As I sprint through the various stores, I always notice the empty shelves, the spots where the must-have gifts sat, wondering why they don’t have any more in stock. Didn’t they know I was coming? Didn’t they know that having more meant more sales?

Or maybe they considered the flip side of the question... having more means not selling out and having leftover inventory that would need to go on clearance after Christmas or taken as a loss after New Year’s. And that got me to thinking about the concept behind inventory. How do inventory considerations affect a decorating business? Do Printwear readers practice a certain inventory theory? I would venture to say that inventory definitely affects the bottom line. Having too much means tying up cash flow; having too little can mean customers look elsewhere for the same item or service. Like most orders of business, one of the most important concerns is how does my inventory affect my customer?

Who are(n’t) you?

There are volumes upon volumes of business books that deal with inventory theory and best practices, and there are a lot of scenarios to consider when choosing the method that works best. But first, because we only have 1,500 words to mull over the options, let’s define who we are. That will help us along in our deliberation. I’ve always been told that one of the best ways to define who we are is to understand who we’re not.

We are not a big-box retail chain. Yes, we have seasonal consumers but they are not looking for something that is pre-printed or always in stock. Our customer wants a shirt that clearly identifies them, whether personally or as a local entity. Our customer wants something unique or customized.

We are not a large online retailer. Yes, some of us can take orders online but our customers don’t expect tens of thousands of SKUs to be available to ship today from an automated pick-and-pack system. Our customer understands that a unique, customized item requires production and has a slightly longer turn-around time.

We are not a discount warehouse. Yes, we want to provide our customers a quality product at a reasonable price, but larger orders don’t mean deeper discounts. Our customer knows that even though there are 500 kids in their league, each shirt is decorated individually to provide not only an identity for the season but also a keepsake for the player.

What we are, then, is customization experts. We take the time to discover our customers’ needs and wants and provide them with the best solution we can offer. Each order we take has a color, size, piece of artwork, person’s name, desired finish and a deadline. It’s all of these components which make up an order that we need to factor in when considering inventory.

In stock

InventoryLet’s start with the substrate before we talk decoration. If orders are completely custom, the only items to inventory will be samples for customers to see and touch. The sample garments will set the tone for every sale, so think about what you want to sell and inventory those items. It’s also a good idea to consider the upsell when selecting sample inventory. Stock the items that they want and that you want to sell. If given a choice between a hoodie that can sell for $20 or one that can sell for $35, opt for the more expensive choice. Your customer will receive a better finished product and you have the opportunity to make more money for the same amount of work.

Also consider decorating those samples with your preferred method. Again, the visual of the finished item sells much better than asking the customer to picture it. It also provides the opportunity to anticipate questions customers will have: What colors are available? How much will it cost? How soon can I have it? What finish will look best?

If cash flow permits, invest in some stock of a few of the most popular items. This will provide the ability to offer a quicker turn-around. A quicker turn-around can also merit a higher price for those who wait until the last minute, or it can just serve to solidify your business as the customer’s go-to option for future orders. As you research garment suppliers, find those in multiple locations (preferably close to your shop), that offer low shipping charges and have a history of having the items you need in stock.

Decorate on a dime

Part of being a customization expert is matching the best decoration method with the perfect garment, and if multiple methods are offered, inventory concerns can sometimes skew that perspective. Let’s say a business has an embroidery machine, a vinyl cutter, a heat press, a DTG printer, a printer/cutter and some screen-printing equipment. How do they decide which method to use? Sometimes it’s based on the price the customer wants to pay; sometimes on the quantity the customer wants to order. The option may hinge on the effect the customer wants to see. And other times it’s based on the time in which a customer needs the job. While inventory can affect any one of those considerations, more often than not, it most heavily influences job timing and deadlines.

It’s not uncommon for customers to wait until the week of—and sometimes even the day before—the big game to place their order. What to do? Production is consistently tied to two factors: inventory and capacity. Capacity is how much can get done in a shift or a day on any given piece of equipment. Adding capacity is significantly more expensive than controlling inventory, as it means increasing productivity by adding people, equipment or hours to the day. Controlling inventory means having what’s needed on handy so as not to waste any of the capacity already in place.

Embroidery orders aren’t going to go out very fast without the thread color the customer wants and no one wants to pay expedited shipping to get it there any faster. Likewise, heat-applied film won’t be moving through the system without stock of some core colors. So how do we know what to stock? That happens to be one of the fun things about doing custom work: We get to try and foretell the future. What is the customer going to want? Here are some helpful clues in predicting:

  • School colors: If you have a local high school that wears black and gold, stock some black and gold samples. Plan to sew black and gold thread, to heat apply black and gold numbers and to screen black and gold on white Ts.
  • The ability to personalize: If you can print colors on demand, you only have to stock a printable media. Offer names, numbers, sayings, custom patterns, custom fills… anything that sets an item apart.
  • Expertise and guidance: Going back to the point about samples, remember that you are the expert and your customer is looking to you for guidance. The expectation you set can make or break that customer’s experience with you. Why show customers a one-color design when we both benefit more from decorating two? And why not show two colors that are in stock and ready to go?

As scary as the word inventory can be, it can also be as easy as communicating the proper expectations to customers. A little bit of thought about what customers will want in terms of colors, turn time and finish, combined with a willingness to invest in technologies that can accommodate those wants, and inventory can be our best friend. Take a minute to ponder those desires, and you might not wind up standing in the toy store (next to me), staring at an empty shelf the day before Christmas.