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Decoration Diversification Increases Service To Your Existing Customers

Are you looking for an untapped gold mine of business? Most likely, your current customers have needs that you can't fulfill with your current decoration capabilities. Most shops only offer one form of decoration, while the average customer has more than one decorating need.

By Jimmy Lamb, Manager of Communications and Education Consumer Division, Sawgrass Technologies

Are you looking for an untapped gold mine of business? Consider your existing customer base. Statistics show that it costs approximately six times more to create a new customer than it does to service an existing one, yet most businesses focus the majority of their energy on bringing in new customers. Why?

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  • In most cases, you maxed out on what you can offer your current customers, so you must look for new clients in order to expand your business and increase profits. While new blood is important for sustained growth, don't lose sight of the potential opportunities that can come from your existing clients.

    Most likely, your current customers have needs that you can't fulfill with your current decoration capabilities. Most shops only offer one form of decoration, while the average customer has more than one decorating need.

    For example, let's say you are an embroiderer who does a lot of work for schools. You likely produce caps, polos, sweats and a handful of other garment items with small embroidered logos. The question to ask is this: What else are your customers buying from other sources? Schools have needs for plaques, awards, ID products, spirit items, athletic uniforms, full-color T-shirts, etc. But if you are only an embroiderer or screen printer (or both), you aren't getting that business because you don't have the capacity to produce it. You are missing out on real income opportunities.

    The secondary issue, which is far more serious, is the total loss of a reliable client. When your customer looks elsewhere for the items you can't produce and finds another source, they may discover that the new supplier also provides the same services you offer. In that situation, the customer may use this new source for all of their needs. You lost a customer not because of anything you did, but because of what you can't do.

    Diversification is the key. In the past, you might have done well by specializing in one form of embellishment. In today's cost-driven world, however, it is almost mandatory that you provide multiple services. You don't have to invest a small fortune in new equipment, but you should review your options to determine what processes might complement or fill in the gaps based on what you currently offer. The most common forms of apparel decoration today are screen printing, direct-to-garment printing, digital transfers, sublimation and embroidery.

    Screen Printing
    Screen printing is considered to be the "standard" for printing logos and designs onto a wide variety of apparel products. The process is both simple and complex. First, artwork is broken down by color ("color separation") and second, a separate screen composed of fine mesh material is created for each color separation.

    Screen printing presses are either manual or automatic and are defined by the number of printing stations - four stations can print four colors. Manual units are very inexpensive, but require a great deal of labor to operate and typically can't produce more than 60 shirts per hour. Automatic presses are much faster and more expensive. However, they require less labor to operate and can achieve printing speeds of up to 1,000 shirts per hour.

    Most screen printers charge by the number of colors, since each additional color adds more time to the production process, and for art setup and screen creation. Screen printing works well for virtually any garment, and design size has little effect on the price. However, it has a lower perceived value than some other processes, so price can be a major issue in the marketplace.

    One weakness for screen printing is color designs on dark shirts. It requires a more complex production process and the quality of the final product will depend upon the skills of the shop doing the work. Though screen printing can be done on caps, in general, embroidery fits better for headwear.

    The main drawback for screen printing is that it's not an ideal short run production solution. All designs, no matter how simple, require a substantial amount of setup. Thus, on a cost-per-shirt basis, small runs are not nearly as competitive in price as large ones. Also, some things that would appear simple are not, such as adding personal names to shirts or jackets. A separate screen must be generated for each name. In contrast, an embroiderer can generate a name without any more effort than typing it on a computer keyboard.

    Direct-to-Garment Printing
    Direct-to-garment printing (DTG) - also known as digital printing - is a quick and easy method to print designs directly on garments using an oversized inkjet printer designed specifically for this purpose. Unlike screen printing, no color separations or screen creation is required. Theoretically, it's just point, click and print.

    The beauty of this process is that you can print relatively precise detail in a wide range of colors on as few or as many items as you want. The downside is that it is slower and more costly than screen printing. For example, a full-color print, 10 by 12, in a resolution of 720 dpi can easily take two to three minutes to print. In contrast, an automatic press producing 1,000 shirts per hour could produce 50 shirts in the same time frame.

    The benefit of DTG is the ability to quickly set up and produce small runs. In the time spent to prepare art, burn screens and set up a screen printing press for 12 T-shirts with a six-color design, you could produce, package and ship the same order using DTG.

    Much like screen printing, DTG struggles to produce multi-color designs on dark fabrics and most users of the equipment avoid this process altogether. Also, most machines do not support cap printing. In addition, many of the machines are limited to printing on 100 percent cotton and 50/50 fabrics. Find out what your supplier's capabilities are before making any assumptions, especially if you need to print on poly-performance materials.

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    Digital Transfers
    The term "transfer" has been used generically to refer to a lot of different processes, including heat applied graphics that are, in reality, emblems that are "welded" to the garment using heat to activate an adhesive. A digital transfer also requires heat, but no adhesive. The process begins with an image printed onto a sheet of commercial "release" paper using a supported inkjet printer loaded with special inks. The paper is placed on the garment and pressed with a heat press machine. The combination of heat and pressure causes the ink to transfer from the paper to the garment. At the end of the process, the transfer paper is removed and discarded, leaving behind an image that is embedded into the fabric instead of just on top of the garment.

    The digital transfer process is simple, quick and inexpensive and requires only an inkjet printer, apparel ink, a heat press and suitable design software such as Photoshop or CorelDraw. However, you can't just run down to the nearest office supply store and buy any printer you see. The companies that manufacture the inks designate specific printers that can be used with those inks. The printer doesn't have to be expensive; there are several models under $300 that work well. For little investment, you can print.

    For little investment, you can print T-shirts that are as high quality as those produced by a DTG printer. The main limitation is that you can't print dark garments with the digital transfer process.

    Sublimation is a simple but unique digital dye process used for printing graphic images onto polymer surfaces. The physical steps are nearly identical to the digital transfer process, but chemistry makes sublimation different from any other form of digital printing.

    Just like with digital transfers, you start by creating an image and printing it onto transfer paper using, in this case, sublimation inks. The transfer paper is placed on the substrate that is being decorated and heat is applied using a heat press. The combination of heat and pressure causes the sublimation ink to convert into a gas which then permeates and attaches to any polymer-based fibers it comes into contact with. The result is a high-resolution, permanent coloration that won't fade or crack, even after multiple washings.

    The limitation of sublimation is that it only works on polymer-based surfaces, which means some form of polyester. But with the surging demand for poly-performance apparel, sublimation is the ideal process to have in-house. Some DTG inks and screen print inks also work on polyester fabrics, but rarely do they have the vivid detail and color that comes from sublimation. And most of those inks are surface applications, whereas sublimation actually dyes the fabrics.

    Another advantage of sublimation is that it is a simple process for decorating non-apparel, including items such as plaques, awards, coasters, signage, clipboards, mugs, mouse pads and photo panels. In fact, the clarity and detail provided by the sublimation process makes it possible to produce photo realistic images. Many professional photographers use it to create portraits and other photo products. The startup and imaging costs are low for sublimation, putting it in reach of any shop looking to expand its capabilities.

    With embroidery, designs are stitched into the garment. Modern commercial machines typically have 15 needles which allow for designs up to 15 colors. Normally there is not a charge per color for embroidery like there is for screen printing. Machines are sized by the number of heads. A single-head machine does one piece at a time while a 12-head machine does 12 pieces at the same time (with the same logo).

    Artwork must be digitized specifically for embroidery before it can be run on a machine. This is not a "scan and sew" process and requires quite a bit of time to accomplish, much like screen printing art setup. Therefore, it is typical to have a digitizing fee for each design that may be based on the total number of stitches and is usually quoted in "cost per thousand stitches." More stitches means more time to produce and a greater cost. In the case of plain text, it can be generated from a keyboard quickly and easily and rarely involves a setup fee.

    While embroidery is more expensive to produce than screen printing or digital printing, it has an extremely elegant and three-dimensional appearance (when done properly). This higher perceived value leads to higher margins.

    Piecing it All Together
    Although there are numerous processes for apparel decoration, these are the main methods for getting the job done. It is not necessary that you be able to offer every process, but taking on one additional decoration method can bring in a lot more business for your company. Take the time to calculate the ROI for each, beyond equipment costs, and take into consideration versatility - which process will give you the widest range of decoration services, product options and the most generation of business in the long term. Be diverse, be creative and be profitable!

    Jimmy Lamb has more than 20 years of apparel decoration business experience including business startup, operations, techniques, marketing, sales, mobile, digitizing and management. He is currently the manager of communications and education for Sawgrass Technologies where he has been instrumental in developing their educational seminars and webinars.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, 1st Quarter 2011 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2011 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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