SOI 2015 – T-Shirts Rule Online Sales

The Undisputed King Of Promotional Products

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SOI 2015 – T-Shirts Rule Online SalesThe importance of T-shirts is expanding today as they’ve become so easy to customize and purchase online.

T-shirts are the undisputed king of promotional products these days. According to the State of the Industry survey, T-shirts alone made up 13.5% of distributor revenues in 2014, translating to nearly $3 billion worth of sales. While they’ve long been the most popular item, they’re still growing in popularity thanks to the ease with which they can be customized and purchased online right now.

Take one example: CustomInk. The DIY T-shirt provider is trying to simplify apparel sales by having customers design items right on the company’s website. CustomInk also floods TV airwaves with ads. In what almost feels like a campaign pitch against traditional distributors, CustomInk CEO Mark Katz insists that his products are not only reasonably priced and easy to order, but “have this incredible power to bring people together.”

In a marketplace of increased competition and tougher margins, retailers like CustomInk and Vistaprint would seem to be muscling in on precious business. Many distributors insist that they’re not competing against those businesses that have a strong presence online. But what many are really saying – without realizing it – is that they’ve already ceded one-offs and small orders to online companies. And that may be the first step to widespread encroachment.

Some, though, believe online sellers like CustomInk are actually doing them a service. Their mainstream ads are helping apparel sellers by shining a spotlight on promotional T-shirts. Plus, these Internet firms wind up targeting a very specific niche of the marketplace. That leaves distributors a clear idea where they can better focus their sales and marketing efforts in the corporate arena.

“I think CustomInk is the greatest thing that ever happened to the business,” says Rich Rosenthal, president and COO of Super TShirts (asi/570684), a distributor based in Ft. Myers, FL. “They bring awareness to the industry.”

A customer recently walked into Rosenthal’s shop with a design printed out from CustomInk’s website. He wanted to know if it could be done in a larger quantity and what the cost would be, in part because the online vendor’s prices were substantial. Apart from cost, Rosenthal insists some customers would “rather do it local” and “see it up close and personal,” as opposed to viewing online mock-ups without the chance to feel fabric before placing an order.

That’s particularly true for large corporate clients, experts say. With the belief that CustomInk and others like them target the “girl scout leader that wants to do eight T-shirts for a retreat,” many distributors say they’re not worried – yet – about infringement from Web-based apparel vendors.

“I don’t think they’ll be a threat anytime soon because online companies are curtailed to that type of market, and it doesn’t affect the rest of us very much,” says Jessica Johnson, promotional consultant with Production Creek Specialty Advertising (asi/299743), based in Lincoln, NE.

Competing With Service
There’s a simple set of strategies for competing with the growing number of e-commerce sites that offer customized T-shirts. And, according to Steve Lapensohn, it doesn’t require creating an e-commerce site of your own.

“I’m in the old-school wearables business, meaning we’re still all about service,” says Lapensohn, CEO of Lapgevity (asi/249351). “Yes, they have tools. Yes, they have live chat and people who can help you. But the way that we’re set up, we’re still going to help you design the order. We’re going to help proof. If you have time, I can get you a sample before the whole order is placed. From a pricing side, I think we’re very competitive, so that keeps us in contention, and I think we still provide a level of service that you don’t get dealing with the online companies.”

Lapensohn also believes traditional distributors can compete with online T-shirt sellers by providing a level of service that the online companies aren’t set up to offer. “I have a network of decorators throughout the country, so I can figure out where your order is going to ship and I can save you a bunch in shipping,” he says. “If the event’s in Atlanta, I can print it in Atlanta. There’s a wholesaler that I can buy the garments from that’s local, and I can do the whole transaction locally in your state and deliver probably at a much cheaper rate.”

Of course, the ability to compete with online competitors won’t matter if customers don’t know you exist. For Lapensohn, building that awareness begins with social media, especially Facebook, where he has been able to grow a following by making some initial investments. “I think it costs money to make money. There’s nothing wrong with doing a promotion like Free Friday. Maybe on Fridays, the first 100 people that like (a post) get a free shirt,” he says. “It’s an investment, but look what can happen: You give away 100 shirts or whatever the number is that you want to set, and you can get tons and tons of hits, you can get people following you, and then you start to build and adding on other products you want them to be aware of.”

From there, Lapensohn has the ability to get in front of customers and explain why his company is a better option than the growing number of e-commerce competitors. It’s something he and others think about regularly, as State of the Industry research shows that 42% of distributors say their biggest business challenge today is competing against cost cutters selling online.

“I like the online guys. I do think there are some pretty good companies out there,” Lapensohn says. “But I think if you break it down from a design side, we can compete with stock templates and custom designs, and we can compete with shipping and delivery. We just like to put the level of customer service in there. We still like to interact with people and walk you through your order.”

T-Shirt Dominance