The Need For Speed

Don't Get Flustered By The Need For Rush Service

The Need for SpeedBy choice or by necessity, distributors who sell apparel are facing a simple fact these days: Rush orders have become the new norm.

Jeff Marks knows the routine when it comes to rush orders: Drop what you're doing and jump through hoops to get the job done. It isn't particularly easy, but Promotional Considerations (asi/300810) is one distributor that's equipped to move quickly. The company digitizes and decorates in-house, and consistently turns apparel orders around in two days – and even 24 hours if the customer needs it. The Richmond, VA-based company doesn't have much of a choice. Rush orders comprise a quarter of its business – and growing.

"We don't advertise 24-hour service, but we offer it," says Marks, the general manager of the company. "We do enough of it without advertising."

Welcome to the rush age of promotional apparel. Time is no longer measured in days, but rather hours and minutes. Suppliers are drastically whittling their production schedules and shipping times. Distributors have remodeled themselves to move with speed and extreme responsiveness. Why? Because buying habits continue to skew toward instant satisfaction.

"We believe it's a natural progression," says Jim Franklyn, vice president of sales and marketing for Inkhead Promotional Products (asi/231159). The online-focused distributor prides itself on speed and has the growth (from $3.2 million to $6.9 million over the last four years) to prove that it matters. It currently offers 6,000 hard-good items for 24-hour rush service at no extra charge, and is accelerating delivery speed for its 2,000-plus apparel offerings. "Rush apparel orders," Franklyn predicts, "will be standard in less than five years, in my opinion."

Exclusive online case study: Anatomy of a Rush Order

How Did We Get Here?
Distributors and suppliers have multiple theories about how they arrived at a time where rush apparel orders seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Big corporate buyers are dwindling, and the clients who do buy want to hold onto their money longer. Inventory shortages two years ago created a panic to secure apparel when it was available. Wearables buyers – whether by dint of busier lifestyles or economy-influenced staff shortages – are putting off their apparel planning and purchases to the last minute.

Plus, consumer purchasing habits are rapidly changing; according to a 2011 Channel-Advisory survey, two-thirds of U.S. consumers prefer shopping online. "The shopping culture is now centered on getting it faster, better and with top-notch service," says General Manager Allison McLain of Brand Fuel (asi/145025), where more than one in 10 orders are of the rush variety. "Years ago, there was no one-hour turnaround service. As long as demand is there, this industry will find a way to accommodate it."

There is a caveat: speed without sacrificing service. "It doesn't matter how quickly you ship something," says Marc Held, national sales director for Bodek and Rhodes (asi/40788). "If they get it and it's wrong, no one's happy. You have to be accurate as well."

Rush is even pervading into other supplier services, such as quick turnaround at Vantage Apparel (asi/93390) on customized proofs and virtual templates for distributor presentations. "Especially in the pre-order stage, the presentations, I'm really seeing an increase in requests that require things to be done," says Gina Barreca, Vantage's marketing director. "They'll ask, 'Can you do it for my meeting at 2:00?' And it might be 10:00 in the morning."

Those supplier innovations are vital – distributors cannot promise rush service if they don't have suppliers that consistently deliver. Inkhead, for example, only doles out "Gold Supplier" status to companies that offer three-day rush with no extra charge.

There is also much more clarity now about which items are available for rush service. Business is lost if a distributor takes a rush order but a supplier can't deliver on time. "The most helpful suppliers are the ones who are proactive, suggest alternatives when appropriate, and work with the same sense of urgency as a true partner," says McLain. "We are all in this together, and together as a team, we will be successful. And those are the suppliers we go back to – they can make us look like heroes."

Distributors on Speed Dial
Speed kills is the informal motto at Inkhead. "We're set up to meet the customer's needs same day," Franklyn says. Not only does the distributor stake its livelihood to its online presence, but it brazenly solicits customers who want their promotional products yesterday. The distributor won't even charge a rush fee if the supplier doesn't charge them. It could turn a tidy profit, but the distributor clearly intends to make it up in new and repeat customers.

Not every distributor courts rush orders with open arms. Even though rush service is a growing reality, it's also a problematic one – "a pain," in Marks' words. Like many distributors, Promotional Considerations took what business it could get when the economy soured. That establishes precedents that are hard to go back on. "Once you do it for somebody, you spoil them," Marks says. "They'll say, ‘I hate to ask you again, but you did those 100 shirts for me in two days last time. We want another 24, and we need them tomorrow. Can you do that?' " A disconnect will often carry over into price, where the client drives a hard bargain on the product but then happily pays for the expedited freight.

Distributors can try to set expectations and instruct clients on the benefits of planning. But the truth is they need to be prepared to thrive in rush situations. That requires asking a lot of questions upfront to eliminate snafus later. Camera-ready art needs to be available – either submitted by the customer, or converted quickly by an in-house graphic artist or the supplier. Credit terms should ideally be set up beforehand.

Most importantly, the client has to be responsive. A proof should be approved quickly, or the customer should be willing to waive his or her rights to a proof to meet deadlines. Trimark Sportswear (asi/92122) offers it both ways on its embroidery rush orders. "As soon as you eliminate an approval," says Trimark President Will Andrew, "you can control the timeline from start to finish."

Even Faster
Some in the market believe that rush apparel service has reached a critical point. Orders are being picked immediately. Planes and trucks can only travel so fast. Time, it seems, has its limits.

Except when it comes to the wearables business model. In comparison to hard goods, decorated apparel by nature takes longer to produce – a few days, a week, even more. Sizing, fit, and far more variety and complexity in decoration than a simple pad print must be considered.

Yet, even faster apparel service could be on the horizon. Last year, Polyconcept North America purchased Trimark Sportswear, marking its entry into apparel. Trimark officially launched in February its own one-day decorated apparel program. The program is currently available in a limited format for embroidery orders – under 100 pieces and 10,000 stitches, with orders placed and artwork approved before 5 p.m. ET.

Andrew makes no secret that Trimark and Polyconcept have shared best practices, and the latter has played an integral role in setting up the system. Trimark has future plans to expand the quantity limits and make it available for other types of embroidery. Andrew is enthused, particularly because the Ontario-based supplier can capture the one-day business that had been owned by hard goods.

"I think there's going to be a market shift back to apparel," he says, "primarily because the speed is there, and the end-customer doesn't have to worry about getting it in time."

Clearly, there is still room to grow. And just when you think suppliers have squeezed all the juice out of the orange, they find something else to shave seconds and minutes. Reviewing turnaround times and processes are standard procedures. "We continue to look at efficiency. How can we make it better?" says Richard Weisbrod, Bodek's director of warehouse operations.

And everyone – distributors and suppliers – will have to get up to speed. Consumer habits are changing. There is no going back. Distributors can preach long-term planning, but in a service business, the mantra is the same: The customer says jump and distributors say how high. "At the end of the day, you've got to get it done," Barreca says. "The rest are just guidelines."

And in the future, the industry may look back on this point and wonder: Why did everything take so long?

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