Back To School

New students mean new opportunities to sell decorated apparel.

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 school year brings.

It’s no secret that the education market remains an ideal target for distributors and decorators. (Education has been ranked the number-one market each and every year of the Wearables Sales Forecast.) But the timing is especially ripe now and into the fall because from college all the way down to grade school, each year brings in a brand-new batch of students, 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 that’s often only the beginning. “When you think of all the different types of events that go on throughout campus, all of them involve T-shirts,” she says. A number of bookstores 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 ever-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, or holding a fundraiser or having an event they want to commemorate.

Apparel at the high school level is also lucrative. Wilcosky works with one high school with just 400 students. The school buys about $20,000 of materials from Transfer Express a year, translating that into hundreds of thousands of dollars in apparel sales, she says. The school expected to handle shirts for freshman orientation or for sports practices, but was 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 adds. And the timing is especially important, as year-long clubs and fall sports teams get organized at the beginning of the school year.

Trends come and go with spirit apparel. A few years ago, Kotis saw an increased demand for neon-colored shirts, a trend 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. 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.