8 Time-Saving Tips For Apparel Orders

Boost your profitability and wow clients with each apparel order by implementing these time-saving tips.

The need for speed is here to stay. Today’s consumers expect to get just about any product or service at lightning speed. You could blame Amazon Prime, Instagram or the rise of gourmet fast food. But you’d be wasting your (increasingly limited) time.

The same demand is true in the promotional product industry. According to the most recent data from Counselor’s upcoming State of the Industry report, nearly 40% of orders placed with distributors require turnaround times of five days or less.

“I’d say it’s almost an old trend,” says Ty Cannon, national business development manager of apparel supplier Cutter & Buck (asi/47965), which is based in Seattle. “It’s something we’ve been dealing with and investing in as a company to get to the end client as quickly as we possibly can.”

The dilemma: how can promo product companies achieve high-end speed while not slipping on quality standards? Complicating the matter further, how can distributors speed up apparel orders that are historically slow, due to complications like sizing and complex decoration that elongate the supply chain?

The answer: Eliminate needless time-wasters and implement helpful shortcuts in the order and production process. To do that, here are a collection of time-bending tips from suppliers, distributors and decorators.

1. Process the PO
“Do you know what it takes to get PO [purchase order] numbers from companies?” asks Jeff Becker, president of Kotis Design (asi/244898), a custom apparel and promotional products distributor based in Seattle. “Orders don’t happen in five days because usually the customer isn’t ready.”

Becker says that while companies may want a fast order, they often take days presenting ideas to a committee, waiting for a boss’s approval and getting POs signed off by accounting. So this seemingly simple step frequently stalls orders from moving through the pipeline.

In addition, POs all too often have inaccurate or incomplete information. Marshall Atkinson, a veteran decorating consultant and manager with 23 years of experience, says that although these forms are filled out using a variety of processes, the most fool-proof method is with a computer program which doesn’t allow data entry to continue until each field is completed.

“I can’t tell you how many times they leave off the shirt color, or size specifications or the shipping address,” says Atkinson, who is based in Milwaukee and consults with screen printers and apparel decorators under his Atkinson Consulting firm. To combat PO related delays, he recommends proofreading them as soon as they come in because it can waste time tracking down the right people who can answer the missing facts. Also, if sales reps double-check their POs and turn in completed ones, that helps rush orders move forward.

2. Analyze the Order Process
Companies that are poised to successfully handle orders, especially ones with tight timelines, deploy ongoing process improvement efforts. Whether an order takes days or months to complete, the process is exactly the same. The steps are simply condensed – so they’d better be efficient steps. “Whatever someone in our industry needs for a regular order is the same thing that you need for a rush order,” says Becker.

Becker says the key to speed isn’t anything unique – it’s developing a solid business model which can handle any type of order. To accomplish that, Kotis analyzes its processes on a daily basis. Part of this effort includes recording how employees spend their time to assess what tasks take too much time. “The fewer people who touch orders,” Becker says, “the less likely that something’s going to go wrong and, theoretically, the orders should be able to get processed quicker.”

Last year, Kotis processed an order of 1,000 pens in about six minutes. The customer emailed the order, the order was entered into the company’s system, the art department posted a proof, the customer approved the job and the salesperson sent the invoice. Says Becker: “There’s no doubt that because we have made every piece of our business better, rush orders are just not that big of a deal.”

3. Get Educated
Stephanie Woods, founder and owner of Limelight Branding (asi/143717) in Irvine, CA, highly recommends visiting a decoration facility to learn first-hand what it takes to make the finished product. That education will help distributors talk with the customer about the time involved in creating high-quality apparel. They can manage expectations and have a better sense of the necessary timing by pushing customers if they want to meet key deadlines. In addition, distributors can save time by eliminating the back-and-forth between customer and decorator about logos and ideas for decoration by knowing immediately what will and won’t work.

“A lot of times, we take it for granted and ask, ’Why can’t something be done so quickly?’” says Woods. “We don’t realize all of the different steps that it takes to be completed. Embroidery can be a really complicated process, especially all the trimming and packing.”

4. Trust the Decorator
If distributors have to micromanage every step of an apparel order with their decorator, it adds up to scads of lost time. The best decorators can be given the essential information and then counted on to do the job right. Woods has formed relationships with a few trusted decorators, and by working with them for many years, it gives her peace-of-mind they can handle quick turn-around projects. With these extended team members, there’s “a good flow” and an understanding of the clients’ needs and time constraints. “Having a local resource that you can really work hand in hand with as more of a partnership makes a huge difference,” says Woods.

What are the hallmarks of a reliable and swift decorator? Structure is crucial, says Atkinson, because apparel decoration isn’t simply making a million of the same widget. Instead, every order is unique with different art, shirts, locations and due dates. He says the key feature that “separates shops that really know what they’re doing versus shops that just fumble around” is having standard operating procedures where each employee knows their role and apparel is routed through the well-defined steps for every order. “Organization, attention to detail and craftsmanship make things go faster,” Atkinson says.

These shops have well-trained staff that are also cross-trained across multiple jobs and disciplines, enabling the teams to move fast and maintain speed. These valuable employees should also be inclined to plan ahead and be skeptical when necessary, says Atkinson. For example, when a shipment of goods arrives, it shouldn’t be assumed there are 100 medium shirts in the box. Instead, the employee should count it as soon it’s received. The sooner the three missing mediums are reported, the sooner that error can be fixed.

If decorators are repeatedly catching red flags and notifying distributors only when it’s too late, they can’t be trusted. “Employees and decorators get tripped up by not doing things early enough in the process,” says Atkinson. “Stay ahead of the game. As soon as you wait until tomorrow, it’s too late because the turn times are ridiculous.”

5. Start One-Stop Shopping
If the goal is to save time, distributors can consider using a supplier that also does in-house decoration. Cutter & Buck, for example, offers embroidery, heat transfer, 3-D emblems and woven and twill appliques.

“The distributor places an order and we provide them the goods, as well as the decoration, and they don’t even have to touch it,” says Cannon. “It gets shipped directly to their end customer – we’re a one-stop shop.”

Apparel suppliers are increasingly adding in-house decoration to meet industry demand for streamlined supply chains. Data from the most recent Wearables Sales Forecast found that 80% of distributors (without in-house decoration capabilities) have used a supplier to decorate apparel. Overall, 37% of apparel orders from distributors are decorated by the supplier – numbers that practically match the percentage of corporate orders that Cutter & Buck decorates in-house (36.25%).

That demand spurred Cutter & Buck to make a variety of investments in equipment, staff and hours. The supplier expanded its decorating platform, increased the number of embroidery heads, added staff, improved the process on its website for filling both blank and decorated orders, and extended shipping hours. Before expanding its customer service hours, orders arriving at 4:59 p.m. wouldn’t have been entered. Now customer service is busy until 5:00 p.m. Pacific time to get orders ready for the next work day. “We had to make investments to maintain that two-day turn time despite the fact that we were growing and increasing, not just our business, but the number of orders being decorated,” Cannon says.

Cannon estimates that most distributors can save “a few days” on their shipping times by using Cutter & Buck’s in-house decoration. Distributors also save on paying double for shipping if they use a decorator that isn’t local. The company also stands by the quality of its work. “We have an exceptional staff of decorators – they’re the experts and we have complete trust in their decision making,” says Cannon.

6. Think Local
Woods has clients across the country, and she’s worked to build a good network of suppliers from coast to coast. She takes into consideration where the end-user needs the product delivered and chooses from her network in that region if the product category fits within their offering. “That way, we can alleviate any extra costs that could be associated with expedited freight,” says Woods, who adds some of her preferred suppliers will ship air at a ground rate.

As an affiliate of Boundless, Woods has “a lot of the major players” on her preferred list. She’s learned suppliers’ skill sets as they’ve evolved through the years so she can find the right fit in the right location. “I feel like I have a good knowledge of who is best to use for certain projects,” she adds, “and have built those relationships with those vendors so that we can work together effectively.”

Those local affiliations extend beyond shipping times and geography. Local decorators make it possible for Woods to hand deliver samples to the customer to proof and then discuss changes in person with the client or decorator if necessary. “You can get direct feedback versus trying to translate an email,” says Woods. “Speaking to them in person is just another safeguard.”

The close proximity saves on shipping costs and also helps to avoid rush orders in the first place. And when Woods takes the time to deliver the order in person, her clients are, in her words, “overjoyed … knowing I’ve taken the care to make sure they have what they need in the time they need it.”

7. Don’t Cut Corners
One of Cannon’s favorite quotes is, “If you don’t have the time to do it right, when are you going to have the time to do it again?”

Cannon says skimping on quality is likely to result in mistakes which can cost “more time, energy and money in the long run.”

Saving time means that distributors, suppliers and decorators should have high standards in place from the start. It can begin with something as simple as a logo. Cannon says when distributors try to save a couple bucks up front on cheap logos, the result is often editing or re-creating the file because the proof didn’t get approved with the subpar logo. “We have two full-time digitizers on staff who are very busy,” says Cannon. “If you’re in a rush, make sure it gets done right the first time.”

Woods says pre-production samples and swatches are essential to maintaining quality even though they can take 24 hours to a week depending on the complexity of the design. Samples allow clients to make sure the look and feel of the fabric is in keeping with their expectations. “You don’t want to run into any issues when you’re doing 10,000 T-shirts,” Woods says, “and all of a sudden the color isn’t exactly what it should be.”

8. Embrace It!
“To be honest, I wish we had 500 rush orders every single day,” says Becker. If your business is a well-oiled machine, any order can be handled with ease, while a rush order will be no cause for stress. Instead, it’s the most profitable kind of order to have. “If a customer wants to call in a rush order,” says Becker, “that’s the best order we can get because that means we can process the order and move on.”

Try a Bonus Pool to Improve Accuracy

Speed is important, but distributors and decorators can’t rely on that trait alone to distinguish themselves from competitors. “Speed is now the ante to the poker game,” says Mark Ziskind, chief operating officer at CSE (asi/155807). “You have to overlay that with great ideas, quality and customer service.”

And, never sacrifice accuracy on the altar of speed. CSE, for example, builds quality control into its pick-pack process, using a digital system that shows an image of the items to be pulled to help workers. Plus, the people who pick the items aren’t the ones who pack them, meaning there’s an extra set of eyes on each order leaving the warehouse, Ziskind says.

Another way the distributor ensures accuracy is through a recurring bonus program. Each quarter, CSE reserves $50,000 to be split evenly among workers. However, every mistake that’s made during that period deducts from the total, and mistakes that the client sees cost double. All errors are shared at company meetings, though individual names are not mentioned. “It forces people to slow down ,” according to Ziskind. “We saw dumb mistakes go down 64%.”

An added benefit? The program encourages a team mentality, because nobody wants to be the one to cut into the bonus pool. “Everyone looks out for everyone else … all for one and one for all,” Ziskind says. – Theresa Hegel

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