How to Choose the Right T-Shirt for Your Client

From thousands of T-shirt options, distributors are expected to find the perfect one for their clients. Here are the factors you have to consider.

Marketers at Nintendo aren’t stupid. (They better not be when the company spends well over $400 million a year in global marketing.) They know their street teams – young hipsters assembled to promote the company’s games and hardware – need to look as appealing as the wares they’re hawking at malls, concerts and public events nationwide. What they wear to represent the gaming company is often as vital as what they’re promoting – and sometimes as desirable. (One Twitter thread two years ago included demands from followers wanting a certain garment worn by Nintendo reps, never mind the Super Smash Bros game Nintendo was trying to showcase.)

So the gaming company doesn’t just adorn their street team members in any old cotton shirt, says Rich Patterson, owner of Patterson Brands (asi/291582). The Vancouver-based distributor works frequently with Nintendo marketers to find just the right T-shirt on which to imprint, say, Mario or Luigi. Often the gaming company wants hipper brands and products, such as the popular 2001 Jersey T-shirt from American Apparel (asi/35297), a product that offers “good durability” with “great color selection,” Patterson says. As a gaming company, Patterson adds, Nintendo needs a T-shirt that can match up to the “game graphics that have to be replicated,” not to mention the hipness the company is trying to portray throughout its branding and marketing efforts.

More Than Cost?
In fact, for many companies today, just pulling any old T-shirt off the proverbial rack won’t do. Instead, clients are telling distributors that, while price matters, they are equally concerned with T-shirt quality, durability, decorating potential and perception among end-users. And that’s just for starters. The list of demands on today’s tees is as lengthy as the T-shirt options themselves. How to pick the right one can be an onerous task – one that often falls on distributors because clients are mostly unaware about differences in pricing, fabric or fit. “Hardly ever do I get a request from a client who knows of a specific brand or item that they want,” says Amanda Potter, owner of A&P Master Images (asi/102019), a distributor based in Utica, NY. “They more or less come with, ‘Hey, I think I want a color.’ That’s where we do our due diligence and start asking questions about project and scope. Budget is of concern, but not the first place we go.”

Still, Steve Wineburg, owner of Bernard’s Custom Logo (asi/138173), in Cortland, NY, says price certainly has its place. “Ninety percent of our business is with Gildan, just because of price and the market,” Wineburg says. And Bernard’s is not alone. Repeatedly, distributors say they turn to traditional T-shirt mills like Gildan (asi/56842) and Hanes (asi/59528) that are trusted for the quality they provide at a very low price point. It gives distributors peace of mind that what they’re selling won’t fray and tatter on the backs of end-users a month later. “If I won’t wear it, I won’t sell it,” Wineburg says, referring to his comfort level with Gildan. “We have really good luck with it.”

To a large extent, customers are cost-conscious too when selecting a particular shirt for an order, Wineburg and others say, with limited budgets often dictating the choice. Steven Schneidman, owner of Solutions Ink (asi/329824), says there are typically two major factors to choosing a shirt: cost and durability. Schneidman, whose distributorship is based in Montreal, always asks two questions without exception: “What are you looking to get from the shirt? Is it a one-off or is it to be used over and over?” A shirt for one event is all about cost and should be treated as such, Schneidman often advises clients. If the hope is that end-users will wear it over and over, then a more costly item that incorporates fashion, function and fit should be selected. For Schneidman, it’s almost formulaic, with cost the number-one concern.

Distributors do find there are other factors increasingly in play. At the top of that list is wearability, says Jason Robbins, CEO of ePromos Promotional Products (asi/188515), a Top 40 distributor. And that’s being driven largely by the fact that T-shirts are a ubiquitous work uniform these days, Robbins says. Employees working in landscaping, construction, sanitation services and other outdoor jobs have been wearing shirts for years, he says, but now others are starting to don shirts for office jobs. That grants new considerations to style, fit and longevity, particularly as it relates to office culture. “You see tech companies with typically younger recipients go for the fashion fit and fabrics,” Robbins says.

Those generational preferences are often driven by what they love and buy at retail, says Bob Kronberger, sales account manager at Top 40 distributor Geiger (asi/202900). While it’s rare for clients to come in with an exact shirt brand and style, they often have a general retail brand or fabric in mind – which Kronberger says doesn’t always match up with their budget. “If they have a budget for a $10 shirt and what they want is a $20 shirt, that has to be addressed right up front or there’s no use going any further,” says Kronberger, who is based in Trevose, PA.

Still, the promotional product industry’s wealth of T-shirt options means that the industry is matching up more with what customers are seeing in retail. Soft fabrics (such as tri-blends and poly/cotton blends) and thin-neck collars define today’s most popular industry T-shirts. Suppliers have reshaped even their roomiest cuts to a more fitted silhouette. “No one wants to wear a cotton shirt with a thick neck band that fits like a box,” Robbins says.

Essential Questions
Despite their awareness of the variety within the retail sector, clients can’t be counted on to know what style, brand or fabric they prefer. This is where distributors like Patterson step in. The owner of Patterson Brands runs through a series of questions that helps narrow down what owners want and why: What will be done with the shirt? Where is it going to get worn? How often? What types of people are wearing it? These are typical and important conversation starters that Patterson uses with all clients. The idea is to make sure the T-shirt they end up with isn’t just functional and financially feasible, but is the most appropriate for the company’s marketing purposes.

This is often where distributors are the most helpful to clients – helping customers sort through a huge field of T-shirt options to find just the right one at the right price point, says Kevin Wollney, production manager and owner of Island Screen Print (asi/232949), a distributor in Holbrook, NY. Helping clients determine decorating needs, price points, sizes and other objectives for a shirt can whittle down the overwhelming options fairly quickly, Wollney says.

Others say supplier relationships can play just as big a role in where they buy their shirts, if not which product they choose. Potter, for example, says she has received so many defective shirts from one popular T-shirt company that she is extremely wary of ordering that brand anymore. Since every imperfect shirt (let alone a whole box) means time and money lost for her company’s production schedule, she has learned to rely on key suppliers and manufacturers. “We have a hierarchy of shirts,” says Potter. And though some of the industry standard tees may not meet Potter’s criteria, she is committed to meeting the client at his budgetary needs, like most distributors. “If I’m selling them a Next Level (asi/73867) tri-blend and they want a three-color front and back and only want 12 T-shirts, that’s not cost effective,” Potter says. “Those shirts are over $25 a piece.”

In fact, many distributors say they feel an obligation to guard against overspending by clients, unless they have a specific request or need for higher-end T-shirts. Often the least expensive, highest quality garment is the first one considered. That holds true even though supplier incentives and relationships offer additional considerations to distributors. SanMar (asi/84863) offers free shipping on items over $150, for example. Quick delivery and even packaging from suppliers can also play a huge role in T-shirt vendor selection. Knowing a particular type of T-shirt will always be in stock is a crucial concern, Potter says, as is a guarantee that a range of sizes will be available as well.

A supplier’s customer service – sending direct to clients, making good on damaged merchandise, providing order processing and tracking quickly – are often greater factors in selecting a supplier than price or incentives alone. For Bryan Lawson, a 20-year industry veteran at Brand Fuel (asi/145025), something as simple as getting a swatch of color is “a big tool for us,” and a significant reason to pick one vendor over another. Color swatches or books “are hard to come by, believe it or not,” says Lawson, senior account executive for the Morrisville, North Carolina-based distributor. “Samples are huge in making decisions for clients.” So suppliers who are willing to send swatches or, better yet, actual shirt samples, are sometimes more likely to land Brand Fuel orders for that very reason.

Samples are important in determining how a shirt fits and feels, and also how it will be perceived by both wearer and viewer alike – both key to increasing its marketing power. For clients who want a comfortable shirt that will be worn more than just for a single event, a fitted tri-blend may be the best choice, Lawson often tells clients, so that end-users are more likely to think of and select it when looking for a comfortable weekend shirt.

Ultimately, whether it’s price, comfort, longevity or some other factor dictating which shirt is chosen, the marketing power of the T-shirt is at the center of a distributor and client’s choice. “Apparel is one item where we all want [a shirt] to be worn as often and as long as possible, because it’s all about the number of impressions and sight views where your brand gets to be in front of” a wider audience, Potter says. “That’s the goal. So you’ve got to make it something that’s appealing and inviting and comfortable for them to reach in that drawer on a Saturday morning and pick up your shirt.”

Decision Precision

Stuck between suppliers? Don’t know what style shirt to choose? Take these factors into consideration for your clients:

T-Shirt Quality: Is the fit right? How does the fabric feel? Is the shirt durable, and will it last through multiple washes? (Test it yourself to find out.) Be sure to maintain a standard of quality.

Cost: Price matters to clients, especially when it comes to T-shirts, which is often the most bargain-basement item in the apparel arsenal. Find your best quality, most affordably priced shirt and then offer clients scaled-up options from there.

Decoration: Don’t forget this hidden factor. Is the shirt versatile enough to handle different types of decoration (screen printing and DTG for cotton, sublimation and screen printing for poly)? Get feedback from your decorator or supplier before going through with that 500-piece order.

Supplier responsiveness: Perhaps the client won’t care, but a good relationship with the supplier will ease your headaches. The supplier should be handy with samples, offer seamless tracking and have inventory always at the ready.

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