Target Audience

With so many possibilities, what markets should you pursue for apparel sales? We narrow it down to three potentially lucrative sectors.

You could argue any company would benefit from apparel-related promotions, but firms and brands in certain sectors are natural fits. For example, school pride lasts a lifetime, with memories imprinted on minds and letterman jackets. With leisure travel making a comeback, resorts and hotels are happy to sell guests logoed polos as parting gifts. And don’t forget about the live events market, which includes much more than just 5k runs and golf tournaments.

How can you appeal to ready-to-buy customers in each of these three sectors? Read on for tips in planning your winning strategy.

Education: Back to School

Raise your hand if you still sometimes wear that comfy hooded sweatshirt with your alma mater’s logo across the front, years after stepping into the real world. And just how many custom T-shirts did you amass over those four years on campus? With the new school year right around the corner, it’s a good time to think about how many opportunities for decorated apparel a typical semester brings.

The key is to not wait – pitch ideas when dorms, ball fields and playgrounds are empty and your competitors are distracted by other orders. Of course, each year brings in a brand-new batch of students and new possibilities, says Brad Graff, co-owner of Wall of Fame, a screen printer in Sioux City, IA. “It’s a fairly captive customer,” he says.

It’s not unusual for schools to give out T-shirts to the entire freshman class during orientation week, says Sue Wilcosky, marketing manager of Transfer Express (asi/91804). And often, that’s only the beginning. “When you think of all the different types of events that go on throughout the campus, all of them involve T-shirts,” she says. Wilcosky’s company works with a number of bookstores that have their own heat presses, printing shirts on demand using designs provided by Transfer Express.

With college bookstores selling fewer books, many are seeking to increase revenue by offering more custom apparel, Wilcosky says. Another factor indirectly helping the custom apparel market is higher-ed inflation, says Eric Hamlin, vice president of Kotis Designs (asi/244898). Students are realizing that they need more than just a degree to land their dream job, so they join more campus organizations to help with networking and to get an edge on their resume, he says. That translates to more custom T-shirts, with each group wanting to distinguish itself, maybe holding a fundraiser or having an event it wants to commemorate.

Selling apparel at the high school level can also be quite profitable. Wilcosky works with one high school with just 400 students. The school still buys about $20,000 of materials a year from Transfer Express, translating into hundreds of thousands of dollars in apparel sales, she says. School officials expected to handle shirts for freshman orientation or for sports practices, but were surprised when smaller groups, like the physics club, ordered custom tees, Wilcosky says. “It’s been a greater source of revenue than the high school expected,” she says. And the timing is especially important, as year-long clubs and fall sports teams get organized at the beginning of the school year.

Trends do come and go with spirit apparel, so be flexible and prepared. A few years ago, Kotis saw an increased demand for neon-colored shirts, a movement that hasn’t yet lost steam. “Neon is still very much alive,” Hamlin says. Wilcosky has noticed interest in “a little bling,” with rhinestones and glitter transfers gaining popularity. The classics, however, never go out of style. Brent Beatty, manager of the University of Calgary bookstores, says hoodies bearing the school logo are perennial best-sellers.

There are a few things to think about before getting into the college market, though. “It’s pretty heavily regulated from a social standpoint, and there are a lot of hoops that you have to jump through,” Hamlin says. Many schools belong to a licensing group, such as the Collegiate Licensing Co., which requires things like public disclosure of the factories that produce the items sold, he says. Kotis has one employee whose entire job is compliance and managing licensing agreements – something that might not be possible for smaller companies to replicate.

Hamlin cautions distributors not to dive into the college market without first researching and understanding everything that might be involved. Clear that hurdle, though, and school can be the most fun it’s ever been.

Live Events: Money on the Move

Want to make money? Go where the customers are. Some apparel decorators are taking that adage quite literally, traveling to events to perform on-site embellishment that includes direct-to-garment (DTG) digital printing and even screen printing. For some, the market for on-site embellishment is their primary business. For others, it’s a niche add-on to their brick-and-mortar operation.

Regardless, practitioners say good margins and growing demand make on-the-spot imprinting a good game to be in. “We’ve been experiencing explosive growth – about 125% last year,” says Troy De Baca, owner of Denver-area TCT’s Mobile Screen Printing Lab.

De Baca performs point-of-purchase screen printing at happenings that range from networking events and corporate outings to private parties and fundraisers for nonprofits and worthy causes. The serial entrepreneur does the printing on a four-screen manual press that’s fitted into the back of a 1985 Grumman Kurbmaster truck. He customized his ride to accommodate the machine, supplies, T-shirts and, for bigger events, a small conveyor dryer. “You need a good truck,” De Baca says, “and you always have to test your equipment prior to an event.”

De Baca conceived the business concept based on the belief that buyers don’t want to get stuck with boxes of worthless inventory. As a remedy, De Baca creates one or a number of screens with predetermined shirt designs for clients and then shows up at their events to silk-screen on demand for attendees. “We usually sell to 20% to 25% of people at an event,” says De Baca.

For one huge networking event at the Denver Convention Center, De Baca printed 1,300 shirts in four hours. On that job, he brought along an additional press that was set up next to his truck and manned by experienced friends. De Baca has also printed at the Denver Broncos cheerleaders’ Spirit Showdown – a competition centered on youth dance – as well as fundraisers close to his heart, including relief efforts for flood-ravaged Boulder County. “I want to use my company to help people,” says De Baca, adding that he’s interested in franchising. “I’d love to have a fleet of trucks doing this around the country.”

As De Baca scores success with mobile screen printing, other decorators are achieving excellent results with point-of-purchase DTG printing. For about 10 months a year, Sue Asplin and Gene Wodzicki are on the road digitally printing garments at state and county fairs and other events. The partners behind Color Image Designs/Road Warrior Graphix use an Anajet mP10 digital printer to produce stock and custom graphics on T-shirts. “People will take a pic with their cell phones and we’ll print it,” says Wodzicki, noting the 100% ringspun cotton shirts he embellishes sell for $15 to $20. “There’s a very high markup.”

Working from a 24-foot enclosed trailer with an awning window for servicing customers, Wodzicki and Asplin also provide signs and stickers, while using a dye-sublimation printer to imprint keychains, mousepads, coasters and more. Being on the road so much, logistics can be an issue, but these traveling pros have it down, coordinating with trusted vendors to ship necessary supplies to events and towing extra shirts in a cargo trailer. “Last year,” says Wodzicki, “business was up and our costs were down.”

Meanwhile, Seattle-based Chuck Northcutt uses DTG to print T-shirts at everything from local car shows and festivals to soccer tournaments. The on-site pop-up exhibit from which he operates helps significantly bolster revenue at his company, Creative Promotions Inc. “At car shows,” says Northcutt, who trumpets the importance of printer maintenance, “24% to 26% of people exhibiting will buy a shirt from us with a custom image of their car.”

What should you consider when on location with DTG? Finding a spot next to the power to plug in directly is better than running a generator. Tie printers down when travelling, and keep a field repair kit with you so problems can be fixed on the spot. Worry more about cold than heat, but keep the printers out of direct sunlight. And as Northcutt says, “Low humidity is only a problem if you are not printing. When we travel to shows, we are so busy printing that any wet ink on the heads never has a chance to dry out.”

Hospitality: A Host of Opportunities

With tourism and business travel rebounding from the listless days of the Great Recession, resorts and hotels are experiencing revenue growth that makes them increasingly attractive clients for sellers of imprinted apparel.

The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) reports that the lodging industry generated $39 billion in pre-tax income in 2012 (the most recent year for which figures were available) – a 14.3% increase over the prior year. Additionally, total industry revenue in 2012 topped $155.5 billion, an $8.1 billion rise. The AHLA also reports that U.S. states planned to beef up promotional spending on travel and tourism by 4.5% in fiscal year 2012-13, with the allocation for domestic marketing jumping 4%.

Resort revenue and hotel reservations are poised for an uptick over the next few years, too, according to IBISWorld. “I see the potential with hospitality industry customers continuing to grow,” says Nina Shatz, director of sales with Red Ball Promotions (asi/346567).

Shatz is already capitalizing on that potential. She counts among her clients a large hospitality group for which she has provided everything from dip-dyed ties for front desk staff to special T-shirts for hotel openings. She has also come through with higher-end jackets for potential hotel investors and loyal customers, while delivering branded scarves for destinations in cold-weather areas. Recently, she put together a package of apparel and other products for a hotel brand’s franchise owners who embarked on a wine tour of Napa Valley. A fleece vest was the centerpiece item. “They loved that it was a layering piece that could be worn in most any locale,” Shatz says.

Red Ball isn’t the only firm securing orders within the lodging industry. Based in Las Vegas, Steven Raucher has built a thick book of business with casino resorts. The owner of Proforma GPS Global Promotional Sourcing (asi/300094) has delivered decorated polos, T-shirts, jackets and more for resorts that use the apparel for everything from gifts for employees to incentivizing customers. In a recent sale to a casino resort, Raucher provided 6,000 hooded sweatshirts that featured a print of the Vegas skyline across the chest.

“We had the print run across the zipper,” says Raucher. Intended for resort visitors who played to a certain dollar level on casino machines, the hoodies were a hit. Says Raucher, “There wasn’t a single one left.”

If you need a leg-up on connecting with buyers at resorts and hotels, Shatz suggests tapping into your current network of clients from other industries. “Corporate travel is really opening up,” she says. “Ask your clients where they’re going and who they’re staying with. Ask if they have a contact there.”

Once you gain a contact, Shatz recommends that you position yourself as a marketing partner. In an early meeting with the large hospitality group, she started with a frank discussion, asking about what had worked for the business in the past, what they liked and if buyers were open to new ideas. After getting to know the company and its objectives, Shatz developed a personalized presentation that showcased fresh concepts. Buyers were impressed, and she was soon installed as the go-to firm for imprinted apparel and more. Says Shatz, “You have to ask questions, keep an open mind and be creative.”