The Weekly is Printavo’s weekly newsletter by Printavo’s content creator Luke Gardner.
Focused on the custom apparel industry, The Weekly takes a microscope to the topics that matter: from sales and marketing strategies that work for print shops to analyzing the state of the industry.
Each week we tackle one major topic and share our best resources, ideas, and curated content from dozens of conversations with print shops around the world.
The Weekly is how to get schooled in the print game without paying a dime of tuition.
What you can expect
- Actionable info. With insights from psychology, business, and print shops – we’ll give you concrete takeaways to help you improve your strategies and techniques.
- Unique perspective. We’re the only newsletter with a focus on thoughtful, long-form, informative content aimed at the custom apparel industry.
- No BS. The Weekly isn’t a sales or marketing pitch: it’s designed to give you a new angle on an important topic every week.
- Topics that matter. Pricing, sales, marketing, operations and more – we’re diving into the nitty-gritty details that custom apparel shops revisit again and again.
Don’t want to read The Weekly in your inbox?
Read each newsletter below.
- Folding, bagging, and tagging machines | Is it worth it? (September 2021) – Interviews
- Four print shops weigh in on their folding and bagging machines
- Cost breakdowns and brand comparisons
- Name Image Likeness deals and the NCAA (August 2021) – Interviews
- What to know about the new NIL bargain and the NCAA
- Printing merch for student athletes
- Why are there t-shirt and hat shortages? (August 2021) – Industry
- Why there are shortages and what you can do about it
- REPORT: Free Print Day draws thousands, boosts sales. Here’s how (July 2021) – Marketing
- What a Free Print Day is
- Why it works
- How to do it
- Three expensive lessons from running online stores (June 2021) – Online stores
- Having clear terms and conditions
- Getting popular clients to help promote stores
- Nailing fulfillment
- What is the future of the print industry? (June 2021) – Interviews
- Featuring interviews with:
- Kevin Oakley from Merchloop and Stoked on Printing
- 5 expensive print shop mistakes (and how to fix them) (June 2021) – Process
- Which processes to focus on to eliminate waste
- A simple trick for drying your screens much faster
- Lower prices are not the answer – here’s how to raise them (June 2021) – Pricing
- Learn the 6 methods any business can use to raise their prices
- How price elasticity is something you can use to your advantage
- How to actually get less competition and higher prices (May 2021) – Marketing
- Learn why “niches are the way to riches” for print shops
- Includes why customers need fewer choices to make more purchases
- How to get more sales (May 2021) – Sales
- How the internet is changing business forever
- Why sales are so difficult (and how to make it easier)
Last weekend, I took a trip to Rockford Art Deli – about 80 miles northwest of Chicago.
They’ve made a splash with their Free Print Day event and I had to see it for myself.
At 10 AM on a Saturday, the line stretched around the block.
By 11 AM, I’d folded a few hundred t-shirts…and seen hundreds of smiling faces full of local pride.
It was truly amazing.
In this newsletter, I’ll break down:
- What a Free Print Day is
- Why it works
- How to do it
- and some hard-won lessons from the RAD team.
You may be familiar with the hard-working owner, Jarrod Hennis – he’s linked up with Allmade and isn’t shy about going to trade shows and staying involved with the broader printing community.
Rockford Art Deli has made a splash by hosting Free Print Days.
At a high level, this is a powerful marketing technique: it earns Rockford Art Deli loads of publicity and exposure.
Thousands of people attend their Free Print Day events – the most popular being the 2019 pre-Christmas Baby Yoda print. It differentiates Rockford Art Deli from any other local print shop in the area.
What it is
Free Print Day is simple: bring a t-shirt and the RAD team will print a 1-color black plastisol design on it.
Don’t have a shirt?
Pay $10 for one of the options that RAD has on hand.
They choose the design ahead of time, post it on social media, and open the doors to the public at 10 AM.
They’ve printed on everything from jeans to bandannas to underwear.
The disclaimer is pretty simple, too: there’s no guarantee the ink will stick.
It’s a free print, after all. Get what you pay for.
Why it works
Without diving into the background of Rockford, IL – RAD has a great niche in the town.
They’ve got a focused collection of retail designs that leverage local pride: 815 (the town’s area code) and the local women’s baseball team the Peaches, legal cannabis, and even the shop’s mascot Pepper feature prominently on the shop’s retail side.
The line for Free Print Day stretched around the block on a sleepy July 3rd morning in downtown Rockford.
The long line draws attention on its own – there’s simply not anything in downtown Rockford that can compete with the spectacle.
A crowd draws a crowd no matter where you are, and free prints draw a crowd
But being the only game in town isn’t why Free Print Day is compelling.
The simple thrill of getting a custom printed shirt is still alive and well. The smiling faces and endless “Thank you so much”es said it out loud.
Free Print Day makes people feel like they’re part of something.
Rockford Art Deli’s ability to capture community spirit dramatically amplifies that experience.
You love how you feel at Free Print Day.
How to do it
If your creative juices are flowing, Jarrod definitely wants to encourage you to try it. “A lot of shops just don’t have the space we do,” he told me – though he urges small shops to at least try it.
RAD does a plethora of promotions ahead of the event, sharing the design on social media and drumming up attention through email for a few weeks before the event.
Jarrod and the team have learned a lot of tricks throughout the years of Free Print Day.
The biggest “trick”? If you’ve promoted the event heavily, be prepared for a strong response – and staff appropriately. “It’s better to overstaff for this event,” Jarrod said.
These were roughly the team’s roles:
- 2 at customer intake
- 2 printing
- 1 folding
- 1 in retail
- 2 for support
- 1 crowd wrangler
I came out to Rockford to volunteer and helped with the first hour crunch by folding a couple hundred t-shirts.
The team worked seamlessly and crushed hundreds of prints – seemingly without breaking a sweat.
I observed a few simple techniques that were hard-won from past events.
In a nutshell, the Free Print Day strategy revolves around these ideas:
- Keep intake carefully controlled. They had one team member prepare shirts for the printers. Another took payment. And a third kept watch over the retail area.
- Use your space well, and lay it out effectively. The team had carved a narrow path for the line of people to walk through, culminating in the wide-open retail space. There were quite a few add-on purchases after people collected their free prints, and the line was clearly marked with bright orange arrows. There was no way for people to get close enough to the actual presses to disturb the pace of printing.
- Don’t rush. The pace was about as fast as a Potbelly sandwich shop – people have to wait on the ink to cure, after all. This calm pace helped the printers and staff keep tabs on everything.
- Use one color and one design. It seems obvious, but this helped them blaze through prints. One hit of black plastisol…and on to the next shirt. Most of the time is spent preparing shirts and curing ink.
- Have support. You’ll want a “free floating” person to help with ink, screens, and any other weird little things that pop up along the way.
It’s hard to come by practical info for executing online store sales.
There are a lot of tools, options, and choices – but what really matters is how the rubber meets the road.
After millions of dollars in Merch sales, thousands of successful stores – and some duds, too – we’ve got three simple tips for getting the most out of your online stores.
Use the right Terms & Conditions
Terms and conditions tend to spook a lot of shops.
They’re often written in legalese and seem like they need to be vetted by a top-dollar lawyer.
But they’re far more useful than this – and much easier to make. Why?
Because your terms and conditions are a user’s manual for customers.
This is an opportunity to set expectations, clarify important dates, and clearly outline the scope of the service you provide to your customer.
At a minimum, here’s what you should cover:
- All important dates and contact info
- Minimum order quantity
- How fulfillment works
- Your return policy
- Any caveats or details customers should know
A word about using minimum order quantities
Online stores are almost impossible to run successfully without minimum order quantities.
We see a lot of shops wind up in a situation like this: you have a successful store, but the orders drip in slowly over a long period of time.
Should you simply print one piece at a time as orders come in?
Set a minimum order quantity to fulfill.
How exactly you do this is up to you – but we recommend one of two strategies:
- Print and fulfill once the store reaches a dollar amount of sales. Set an arbitrary sales target – $1,000, for instance – that will act as a “trigger” for your shop to fulfill orders. You can substitute dollar amount for quantity. The goal: you only fulfill stores that reach a certain level of sales.
- Print and fulfill an agreed upon amount – then pick-and-pack as needed. This is a classic fulfillment model: you print and invoice a set quantity of items (let’s say 300 shirts) – then pick-and-pack as orders roll in. There’s more risk involved here for the customer, but much less risk for the print shop. The goal: you only fulfill actual orders, but you print in batches.
Use your terms and conditions to make executing this strategy easier. Don’t get soaked by online stores!
Timing marketing and promotions
Run toward: Mondays!
While year-over-year data is very noisy after 2020, we’ve noticed two persistent trends:
- Mondays are consistently great for Merch store sales. We’ll let the social psychologists dive into why this is – but it’s obvious: sales are much higher on Mondays. This holds true across all online sales platforms. Some other sources report that Wednesdays and Thursdays are lucrative, but our data shows Monday is still going strong!
- Some holidays aren’t great for online merchandise sales. We’ve noticed an interesting trend: merchandise sales dip around holidays, particularly Christmas. Avoid campaigns that are “crowded out” by big holidays and busy events.
What this adds up to: use Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays to go hard on marketing your online stores.
As always, the best advice we can give for marketing your online stores is this: use high-profile customers to help you promote.
We use the example of Lucky Prints.
They have 3k followers.
But their client, Half Acre Brewing, has 75k!
That’s potentially 2,500% greater reach and 2,500% more people visiting their Merch store.
Make a fulfillment plan – now!
The way that you prepare, pack, and ship merchandise matters a lot.
There is very little margin of error with online stores – particularly when you’re shipping hundreds of people their orders.
Spoilage is not an option!
The worst thing that can happen? A store is really successful – and you’re unprepared to capitalize on it.
It seems simple, but it isn’t! Your first few stores will be a learning process – so plan for extra time as you figure out the ropes.
There are a couple of hints that can help:
- Sort packing slips by size and quantity first – not garments. Put all of the single shirt orders together, and sort them by size (i.e. S, M, L). Lay the packing slips out and begin assembling the orders by size. Pack the most complex orders last.
- Have a plan for spoilage or missing quantities. “Someone always gets the short end of the stick,” Campus Ink manager and fulfillment expert Myla explained. “If a shirt is missing, you have to choose whose order will get screwed up – it’s better to have a person that ordered one or two items wait longer than to have someone with two dozen shirts get a messed up order.”
- Always bag-and-tag. Bagging and tagging adds a layer of cost and complexity, but it’s an important marketing tactic – and, more importantly, it acts as a final check against spoilage or misplaced orders.
Want more tips, tricks, and downloadable resources to help you sell more? We’ve got an in-depth guide.
Bonus: pressure washer life hack
Sick of buying a new pressure washer over and over?
You have two moves:
- Get the warranty, and hope you can replace it when it fails (more on that below).
- Get an industrial-grade pressure washer.
Whether you buy from Home Depot or Harbor Freight, most major retailers offer an extended warranty you can buy. ⠀
At Harbor Freight this is called Extended Service Protection, at Home Depot it’s called the Home Depot Protection Plan. These plans can last anywhere from a year to 18 months or more – you’ll have to dig into the specifics.⠀
Buy it! Pressure washers that get used a lot tend to wear out any time from 3 to 9 months after purchase – they’re just not meant for the abuse.⠀
“We call it the 3-for-1 Harbor Freight special,” Steven Farag from Campus Ink told us. They buy one pressure washer and the warranty, then return it for a new one when the pressure washer kicks the bucket. ⠀
At Home Depot they’ll even send you a gift card you can use to purchase another pressure washer and keep the cycle rolling!
Editor’s note: readers pointed out a couple caveats to this hack that you should heed.
If there is one thing that the future is – it’s difficult to predict.
2020 compacted ten years of change into one.
It’s like the future has been pushed toward us.
When I think back to March 2020, I remember the difficulty.
Forced to move away from what made them successful, whether it was retail or live printing or orders for big events, shops began inventing.
We find the best use for technology long after it has been invented.
The boom of online stores showed this vividly – they became a lifeline for local businesses and print shops alike.
The t-shirt. Sold online.
A literal lifeline to thousands of people.
As M&R’s CEO Danny Sweem said long before any of this happened: “The t-shirt is the ideal e-commerce product.”
This week I talked to Anatol, M&R and someone I like to think of as a futurist in the space: Kevin Oakley from Merchloop and Stoked on Printing.
I wanted to get their take on where the industry is going, so I asked them 5 simple questions:
- What machines are most important to stay ahead of the curve?
- What sales channels are winning right now?
- Who’s falling behind – and why?
- How does the ideal shop look?
- What’s the ideal future from your perspective?
“It’s easier to invent the future than to predict it” – Alan Kay
These aren’t easy questions, even if they are simple!
Everyone was a great sport, and shot me super in-depth replies that covered a lot of ground.
Let’s dive in.
Is technology the answer?
The print shop of the future is probably more like a tech company than the screen printing shops of old.
A lot of the details are fuzzy. But what’s obvious is that they’ll have:
- Custom software integrations and build-outs.
- Automated labor on many repetitive tasks.
- A research and development program to learn about and scope out new technology.
This isn’t mere speculation.
This is what’s already happening in the shops that seized last year to overhaul how they operate.
The technologist: Kevin Oakley
Kevin has been a longtime friend to Printavo and hit me up right away when I asked him to participate.
I like to think of Kevin as someone who has an uncanny ability to look into the future.
He’s building something special out in the Nevada desert: an end-to-end experience for customers where the merchandise is just part of a complex “on-demand” equation.
What’s the ideal future from your perspective?
“Complete automation from the way the order comes in and to the way it is produced and out the door! If we can build tools that allow our customers to order how they want, where they want and when they want, they will be happy, and we will too – as we are controlling how that data is then received. Ultimately leading to fewer mistakes and faster turn-arounds!”
How does the ideal shop look?
“Having a human-first approach to business is going to be crucial moving forward. What I mean by this: have extreme empathy for your customers and look at your business to make sure what you are working on is improving the way that they are working with you.
You can’t go wrong with this, as we all exist to make customers happy and for them to pay us money. So before starting a new internal project, we ask ‘Will this make life easier for our customer’?”
Who’s falling behind – and why?
“At points we have focused a little too much on what other people were doing instead of improving what we were doing. At certain times you have to put the blinders up and focus on executing the business plan you have made and disregard your competition.
This isn’t to say to always disregard competition, you want to ensure that you are keeping up, but at the end of the day you have to run your own race.”
We ask: “Will this make life easier for our customer?”
What machines are most important for a print shop to consider now to stay ahead of the curve?
“Any type of automation is going to be critical to be able to stay ahead of the curve. With labor costs continuing to rise, being able to rely on a machine to take the place of a human is going to be key.
On top of this, it allows humans to do more meaningful work. There is way more value a human can bring to a business instead of cleaning screens!”
What sales channels are you seeing clients have success in – who’s winning?
“The move to ecommerce has been huge. More and more customers make their way there, as they can be open 24/7 and utilize pre-existing technology to elevate their brand or business.
We are seeing even small to mid-size companies take their company apparel online. We can now ship directly to their employees instead of having someone in the business collect sizes and then divvy them up.”
Anatol’s take on the future
When we jokingly pitted “green” versus “blue” on Instagram, the Anatol crew chimed in with one of the funniest comments we’ve seen:
I knew they’d be perfect for these questions: they’re hungry and pushing hard on a lot of fronts.
They’ve got a crystal-clear vision for where the industry is heading and are making some really impressive headway.
What’s the ideal future from your perspective?
“If screen printing is going to remain the number one method of textile decoration, the industry must continue to reduce its environmental footprint and strive toward maximum sustainability.
The ideal future we envision is a printing industry dedicated to developing ecologically-friendly consumables, reducing waste, and engineering the most efficient printing equipment possible.”
How does the ideal shop look?
“They offer diverse capabilities to customers and do so proficiently. Offering a variety of different services (screen printing, embroidery, DTG, sublimation, etc.), and backing them up with top-notch customer care, gives a shop the flexibility it needs to be successful and keep customers coming back for more.”
Your shop can handle increasing demand as the economic climate returns to normal and business picks up.
Who’s falling behind – and why?
“Shops that aren’t continuously monitoring their processes and revising them as needed to ensure they are working intelligently and efficiently.
In today’s climate, a successful shop needs to have lean, streamlined operations. Investing in shop management software can help you stay on top of every step of the printing process and spot weaknesses and inefficiencies that may be costing you time and money.”
What machines are most important for a print shop to consider now to stay ahead of the curve?
“Automation is the key to staying ahead of the curve.
Even if you’re not able to make a big investment like an automatic screen printing press, automating any step of the screen printing process – from reclaiming and coating screens, to folding and bagging shirts – can help save time and allow your staff to focus their energy on the most essential tasks.
Your shop can handle increasing demand as the economic climate returns to normal and business picks up.”
What sales channels are you seeing clients have success in – who’s winning?
“Whoever is taking advantage of e-commerce and providing fulfillment services.
This doesn’t have to be done on a massive scale; even the shops that have started small and gotten their feet wet in these areas have experienced growth and success.”
M&R looks ahead
M&R’s Thomas Trimingham took the time to answer my questions and gave super insightful and detailed answers.
I’ve always looked to M&R as a leader in the space (and have toured their facility several times) – so I’m thrilled they would volunteer.
What’s the ideal future from your perspective?
“M&R has always been fanatically committed to our customers’ success. So the ideal future of printing for M&R would be meeting and anticipating our customers’ needs through continual innovation, technological integration, and building solutions that maintain their value while maximizing their benefits to the printer.”
How does the “ideal shop” look and behave?
“This industry is probably unique in that it almost totally reverses that question. There is NO ‘ideal’ shop in garment decorating! The well-run shop has to be adaptable, customer-focused, yet also willing to differentiate into a specialized niche if the demands are there.
So the ideal shop is that one that helps the customer find the best solutions, while taking care of its employees and providing its owners with what they need.”
Who’s falling behind – and why?
“Companies that haven’t automated and have a lot of dependency on direct labor for taskwork are suffering right now. Dependable labor for manual tasks is very difficult to find.
Some companies who don’t have a reach outside of their local regions have found the prolonged restrictions especially hard.”
There is NO ‘ideal’ shop in garment decorating!
What’s important for a print shop to consider now to stay ahead of the curve?
“It depends on your niche, your current shop size, your environment, your available space, etc. etc. But, there are trends to consider. Things like improving efficiency, reducing waste, and maximizing output are fundamental considerations as well as environmental issues.
In pre-press, there is an increase in demand for screen making and reclaim machines to reuse chemicals, reduce water consumption, and improve working environments (i.e. the Uni-Kote, Eco-Rinse, and Eco-Tex Modular).
There’s demand for faster, more efficient screen printing machines that use less energy (such as the M&R Cobra). Many printers are now considering incorporating digital printing, and we have seen a tremendous increase in demand for the Digital Squeegee, a hybrid printing solution that is paired with an M&R automatic screen press.
With hybrid printing, a shop is able to create high-volume, digital quality prints at lower consumable cost because the bulk of the ink is screen printed. Other advantages of a hybrid printing solution like the Digital Squeegee is that it will print on all fabrics like 100% polyester, the press setup time is very low, and the digital-quality prints have high durability without pretreatment. There are shops adding additional Digital Squeegees since retail brands now ask them for hybrid printing.
If a shop is oriented to DTG solutions for JIT (just-in-time) printing, there is an increase in demand for printing quality, throughput and durability. Stay tuned to M&R on this side, because big things are coming!”
What sales channels are you seeing clients have success in – who’s winning?
“It’s no surprise that shops who are strong in the e-commerce space are doing well.
Now that everything related to events and teams is coming back online, those who are positioned to take on a lot of capacity quickly are likely to have a busy summer!”
Bonus: the power of computer-to-screen
Want to take a leap into the future?
Take a look at the options you have for computer-to-screen machines. I visited Campus Ink last week and the team raved about how much of a game-changer their Douthitt CTS unit has been.
Computer-to-screen (or direct-to-screen, or laser-to-screen..) is probably the single best investment and “Star Trek”-like piece of equipment a shop can make now (and we have the math to back up that claim).
Douthitt, M&R, EXILE, SAATI (and more) make exceptional units.
Before you invest in a second automatic press…think about modernizing how you make your screens.
It’s one of rare products that allows you to invest and immediately see a material return on investment in terms of quality, speed, and efficiency.
Read our article about CTS to see how much you can save.
No one wants to dwell on mistakes.
But they’re an opportunity – particularly when money, time and your reputation are on the line.
We’re not talking spoilage.
We’re talking process.
Time and time again, the same 5 wasteful and profit-killing problems pop up:
- Wasteful screen reclaim
- Bad setup procedures
- Bad press operator support
- Sloppy scheduling
- Lack of standards and processes
But nailing just one of these expensive mistakes can save you thousands of dollars over the next year.
Finding small ways to improve that don’t take much effort or investment is high value.
It’s almost certainly higher value than ripping out your entire workflow and starting over.
A great shop owner is always asking: where could I save the most time for the least money?
Don’t look for minutes. Start looking for seconds.
5: Reclaim – the vacuum wand
Don’t overlook your screens.
They are the core of every screen printing shop. A vacuum wand to expedite drying is an easy win that you can implement today.
This $10 trick is a huge boost:
- Screens dry faster. Time spent waiting for water to dry off your screens is the definition of waste!
- Dust and pinholes disappear. Water is like a magnet to dust. The sediment and dust in your shop can contaminate your screen mesh.
Use PVC pipe, a saw, and attach it to your favorite wet vac. A fun weekend project!
4: Bad setup
White ink on a cold Monday morning might as well be partially dried cement.
40 minutes of waste up front reduces your productivity for the entire day.
Get your white inks ready for the press and pre-heat your platens and flashes.
And…try using a drill on your ink.
The friction and heat from the drill (use a low speed!) ensure that white ink prints the same on the first print as it does on the 500th.
So who does this prep work? The production manager.
Mixing ink and warming platens is not printing, and it’s not the most productive use of a printer’s time!
3: Bad press ops support
This is so easy to overlook. But it’s the easiest and fastest way to increase profitability.
Here’s a powerful exercise for your shop: schedule the first 2 hours of a shift to shadow your best (and hopefully highest paid) press operator. Carefully watch what they’re doing, but don’t interfere.
What are they doing during that crucial first 25% of their shift?
- Walking from department to department to get information they need
- Hunting for ink
- Hunting for squeegees or other tools
- Searching for garments
If they’re doing anything besides setting up a job, breaking down a job, or printing, then it’s time to update your procedures.
Treat your press operators’ time like the precious and valuable resource it is.
Because a printer that’s doing something other than their most productive tasks is wasting wages and diminishing the potential earnings of the press they’re operating.
This isn’t the press operator’s fault. But it is your problem!
Support them, prime them to do their most valuable task, and ask them how you can help keep them printing instead of doing a less valuable activity.
2: Sloppy scheduling
Imagine that a print shop has two jobs happening simultaneously. The shop has two automatic presses, one conveyor dryer, and a few manual presses.
The first job is a sensitive polyester job for an upcoming athletic event.
The second job is a water based print.
The shop doesn’t have a split-belt dryer.
One automatic press is printing the athletic wear. The other automatic press is off. In the corner, a press operator is manually printing the water based job.
You ask the press operator why he’s printing the job manually and he tells you “I can’t print these shirts while he prints those.”
Guess what? The press operator is 100% correct.
Because of poor job scheduling, the shop is paying someone to be less productive. Your printers are stuck doing the best they can, but any profit the jobs had is rapidly diminished.
- Leave 3 days of wiggle room in your schedule. Always finish ahead of the Customer Due Date.
- Schedule jobs that are alike together. If jobs have similar requirements, use similar substrates, have the same printing process, or otherwise are similar – group them together for maximum productivity.
- Know when to schedule jobs in your workflow. Example: always print hoodies at the end of a shift. Printers don’t have to re-tape their platens to start a t-shirt job.
- Plan platen changes toward the end of the day. If jobs have similar platen requirements, group them together. Don’t print on a sleeve, then run a job with a front chest print, then later print another job with sleeves. Instead: put all of the jobs that require sleeve printing near each other, then plan for a platen change, then print the front chest print.
When do you have downtime, ask your printers how they could be more effective – or to reflect on any mistakes in scheduling that have happened recently.
1: Lack of standards and processes
This one – it’s tough.
But it’s the dividing line.
If you’re leaving things open for interpretation, you are setting your staff up for failure and ensuring you will be disappointed when an employee doesn’t exercise perfect judgment.
How do you combat this?
- Rock-solid processes. Capture every process that happens in your shop and document every part of it.
- Clear visual aides. Create clear and usable guides for your printers and employees to follow.
- Checklists and documentation. Utilize checklists and documentation to root out errors perpetually.
- Define common problems and how to resolve them. Create a “if this, then that” workflow for common problems.
- Easy to understand job descriptions. Define the exact tasks that are most valuable for that position.
- Clear roles for every employee. Define boundaries, expectations, and their exact role in the shop’s operations.
Printers should print, managers should manage, and everyone should collaborate to remove blockers and boost productivity.
The small errors in process management add up to expensive mistakes over time.
Bonus: what the pros said
Way back in 2019 we interviewed some industry experts on the biggest mistakes they had seen. It’s a great video and worth re-watching (or watching for the first time).
Here’s the rundown:
- Alan Howe: “They don’t have a business plan. They don’t have procedures, processes in their shop. They don’t invest back into their self. They see screen printing as a DIY or as an art. But it’s a business. […] Do what you can do, better.”
- Brett Bowden, Printed Threads: “Trying to grow too fast. It takes a lot of cash to grow fast. And it makes you susceptible to huge mistakes. You have to build a house from the foundation up. If you have giant customers, you won’t really know how to service them. You’ll make costly mistakes that will put you out of business.”
- Ryan Moor, Ryonet: “Systems. Not investing. Trying to cut corners. Put in systems and processes.”
- Charlie Taublieb, Taublieb Consulting: “You have a degree in business, and you’re hiring someone. Your production manager, even if they have a degree, it isn’t in screen printing. And you’re not willing to spend the money to get them up to speed? That doesn’t make sense. Most owners are front office people. They put more emphasis on their sales people and not enough on their production people. Production people shouldn’t have to struggle. They should be compensated fairly.”
- Greg Kitson, Mind’s Eye Graphics: “Most owners try to grow too fast. They try to do things they’re not comfortable doing. They get away from their core competencies. […] The majority of our industry, especially with screen printing, as you grow it’s much more about the logistics and data management than the decoration.”
- Rick Roth, The Ink Kitchen and Mirror Image: “The biggest mistake I see – and it’s corroborated by other friends that go into a lot of shops – is that most people don’t adequately cure the ink. Just because it’s dry to the touch doesn’t mean it isn’t going to wash off.”
- Pete Junior, New Era Apparel: “It’s very important when you buy a [screen printing] machine that you do your research. Check the UCCs. Get a bill of sale. Get a receipt. If you don’t know about the machines, contact somebody who does. Don’t buy anything sight unseen unless you’re very handy. It can cost you a lot of money.”
- Richard Greaves: “The biggest mistake is not really understanding the process or procedures. They get to where they’re too busy to work on it. […] If you don’t stop and work on the process, you’re busy being busy, that’s a catastrophe.”
Adapted from our popular article published in 2019.
In case you missed last week’s newsletter about niches, we’re going to build on some themes and ideas in it to discuss why you should raise your prices.
As Bruce discussed in his video on what inflation means for print shops…higher prices are coming.
The bullwhip effect on the economy means that small changes in consumer demand have huge consequences. And the changes in consumer demand have not been small.
Check out this graph of how a really small shift in consumer demand changed everything down the supply chain:
That doesn’t mean that we’re bearish – hardly. But we think it’s time to get serious about regimenting regular price increases.
By the way…don’t take our word on the bullwhip effect.
Even SanMar agrees, as they’re struggling with the “stop-start” effect the past 15 months have inflicted. Check out this email they sent:
- How to raise prices without customers blinking an eye
- Why price increases are a way to get rid of bad customers
- How to make sure you have no easy substitute
- …and more!
What makes customers pay more
Economists, entrepreneurs, statisticians, and businesses of all types are obsessed with a fairly simple question: how do you set your prices?
It’s one of the most common questions we see at Printavo. Our pricing article drives tons of traffic because it’s such a challenging question.
All things considered, most t-shirts will fulfill the same function.
So why can some shops charge $30+ while others are printing for pennies?
Price elasticity: 6 principles you can use
The answer lies in 6 principles behind price elasticity – a fancy way to discuss how price affects demand.
When the price is elastic, customers are very sensitive to price changes.
When the price is inelastic, people will pay virtually any price.
So what makes prices inelastic?
Or, in other words, what makes customers pay more?
Let’s outline each well-known lever you can pull.
6. Get someone else to pay
This is an amazing pricing trick that companies use all of the time.
They figure out a way to get “someone else” to pay for the bill.
Ever heard of the “corporate expense account”?
Maybe the better way to think of it is the slush fund.
Airlines, hotels, restaurants, and yes…print shops…all use this technique to raise their prices without customers blinking an eye.
On average, people will spend more when they’re not personally responsible for the bill.
Ok, this seems obvious and like a “so what” sort of insight – but use it to your advantage.
Capitalize on people who are shopping:
- …for uniforms they’ll use, but don’t pay for directly
- …for a business or corporation’s account
- …for something “a little nicer” to impress the boss
- …on behalf of a trusted group or organization
These are the ideal candidates for higher-end, higher-priced merchandise, and they’re (on average) far less price sensitive.
5. Build a brand (and use others)
Brand loyalty is a huge factor in price considerations.
Consumers will spend more for brands they’re familiar with.
They believe the higher price is justified based on their past experiences.
They’ll simply be happier if they purchase from a brand they love, because brand loyalty is highly associated to customer satisfaction.
And this is a huge opportunity for print shops: you can use other large brands or build your own.
Here’s what we mean:
- Sell high-end apparel brands. Use their brands to enhance your own. This is a “perpetual upsell” opportunity: “hey, do you want
- Carefully curate the brands you carry. Choose an image and style that suits your shop. Use social proof (like including the logos of the brands) on your website.
- Know what your customers think “high-end” brands are. We’ve seen a lot of instances where customers think that a rock-hard Gildan tee is the luxury brand – so know your audience.
- Start your own brand. It’s easier than ever to start a website and build online stores, and great designs are accessible to all.
- Use advertising and retargeting. The more you can be seen on the web, the stronger your brand will be.
4. Don’t budge on prices
If you decide to raise your prices, stick to your guns.
The longer a price increase is in effect, the more people accept it. The era of the $30 custom t-shirt is nigh.
Some consumers will even change their behavior when the price tag goes up, and there’s one behavior that you can leverage: stand firm on price increases to shake out the worst customers.
Price sensitive, flighty, and otherwise challenging customers can be turned away (or, for instance, turned into a profit center with high-priced one-off DTG prints) just by bumping up your prices and minimum order quantities.
Price increases are a great way to politely get rid of customers that are a drag on your business.
3. Become a need, not a “nice to have”
They might not identify custom products as foundational to their hierarchy of needs, but the fact is that custom printed goods do often fall into the need category.
Think about it – companies need branded merchandise. It gives everything they do an air of legitimacy and professionalism.
How you orient your services matters.
Make people need merchandise:
- Keep a calendar of 6 to 10 events that your biggest customers rely on. Hammer home how you can help long before this event and be proactive about reaching out to help.
- Curate everything with VIP service. From the garments to the ink to fulfillment, provide a top-notch experience that totally removes any thinking, math, or hard work on their part.
- Predict what they’ll actually need. You’re the expert: will the restaurant need embroidered aprons with stain guard – but they’ve totally overlooked it?
- Partner up, don’t just sell. Don’t be another business – be a partner in the success of whatever event, service, or people are involved with the transaction. Go beyond the merchandise and into helping them succeed.
2. Narrow your products and service
We know you’re tired of hearing that you need a niche.
But it’s true.
A niche lets you charge higher prices and provide better service.
The broader a market you serve, the more competitors you have.
Worse still? Your customers have more substitutes.
When you think of something commoditized like t-shirts, you know (and customers know) that there are hundreds of options.
Some dos and don’ts:
- Do focus on providing one type of service or product. Whether it’s a style or a technique, you want to make sure there’s no easy substitute.
- Do choose one customer type to pursue. This generates expertise and narrows efforts.
- Do provide specific promises you can fulfill with examples. How fast is your turnaround time, what does your packaging look like, how much do customers usually make when they partner with you (for instance). These build trust.
- Don’t try to be an “all-purposes” print shop. This makes it almost impossible to compete on price.
- Don’t just give a customer the SanMar catalog and ask them to choose from hundreds of styles. You’re supposed to be the pro.
Don’t just give a customer the SanMar catalog and ask them to choose from hundreds of styles. Curate!
1. No suitable substitute
Make sure there’s no suitable substitute for your shop’s services or product.
This introduces the concept of the switching cost. You want it to be hard for your customers to leave.
When you’ve nailed this, your shop is the only game in town.
You’re not a commodity. You’re not just printing t-shirts. You’ve got something special and your customers (no matter who they are) know it.
The “substitution effect” is when customers have an easily available and more affordable option. Whatever you do, don’t be a shop that can be easily substituted.
Swimming in your lane
Differentiating your shop through excellent service is the scalable, lowest-cost way to raise your switching cost.
But there’s no limit to how you go about differentiating yourself.
It can be everything from your winning personality to your super specific design niche.
It can be a printing technique or a YouTube channel.
It can be a community, a team, a brand, the way you write emails, events in your shop, the colors you use, even the smell that customers get when they come into your building or open your packages.
That’s the beauty of the entrepreneurial market that print shops are in.
It’s your choice and there’s infinite ways to do it.
But you have to differentiate.
Hello Print Hustlers!
What does a “niche” do for your business anyway?
Niches aren’t magical success-generating boxes.
They’re really a strategy for creating less competition and getting a higher price.
Takeaways from this newsletter
- You can’t be everything to everyone
- You can be something to someone
- How to nail your niche
- Why customers (often) want fewer choices
- 5 super cool niched print businesses
Looking deeper at niches
First, a story about selling jam at the grocery story.
In 2000, some researchers from Columbia and Stanford Universities did an experiment on consumer choice at a busy supermarket.
They asked a simple question: does more choice equal more sales?
They had one table that had 24 jams, and another with 6.
They controlled for time of day and myriad other variables so that they’d get a good representative sample.
At the table with 24 jams, 60% of the people that walked by stopped. 2% went on to make a purchase.
Not bad. A little boost to the store’s jam sales.
Over at the table with just 6 jams, 40% of the people that walked by stopped.
The jam just doesn’t attract the same interest.
But a whopping 30% of the visitors bought something.
By comparison, the 2% purchase rate seems abysmal.
Customers with limited choices are more motivated to purchase…and businesses with niches are more motivated to succeed.
The counter-intuitive nature of niche business
Working in the custom print industry without a niche (or several) is a bit like coming up to the table with 24 jars of jam every single day.
When people have too many complex choices, they tend to simply shut down and avoid making choices.
Choosing a niche tends to feel like choosing a jam when you have too many options.
There are simply so many opportunities for a print shop. Everybody wears t-shirts, right? Anybody could be your customer. You’re at a limitless buffet of potential customers!
But there’s a HUGE catch.
Choosing not to have a niche is a recipe for disaster in our industry: you have to differentiate your business in a market as commoditized as custom apparel.
You might agonize over the choice, but it’s not like buying jam: you have to pick a flavor. Any flavor.
What print industry niches look like
Yes, everyone wears t-shirts. But print shops tend to cluster around a few specific niches.
Customers: they choose a very specific niche customer base.
Techniques: they are the very best at a specific in-demand technique (like printing on nylon).
Technology: they have implemented powerful technology at some (or all) parts of their process (like hybrid printing).
Service: they can serve a specific market or customer better than anyone else (due to location, relationships, packaging, etc.). Night Owls have built a super tight-knit relationship.
Marketing: their business is a brand unto itself. Could be everything from educational content to posts and imagery that the brand uses.
The worst thing that could happen? Someone says: “Oh, they just print shirts.”
5 niched-down print businesses
The Yetee in Aurora, IL has capitalized on niche customers in a fascinating way: by using technology and service to connect niche gamers, music lovers, designers, and fans. Cruise their website to get a feel for how they’ve focused in on an audience that knows exactly what it wants (and uses merchandise to self-identify). We visited them for an interview, too.
Systematic Automation isn’t a shop, but they’ve taken a different approach: find the niche and build for it. From printing on license plates to pens, the spirit of the niche is alive and well at Systematic Automation.
Night Owls in Houston have combined customers, techniques, technology and marketing to create a hard-nosed brand that’s bright and impossible to overlook. The “merch logistics” moniker is no exaggeration – they’re not just water-based masters, they’ve shipped everything from massive crates of vinyl to pins.
Oklahoma Shirt Company wears its niche right in its name: they’re the shop from Oklahoma. Combining service, customers, and technology, they’ve grown rapidly. The locale-first attitude focuses all marketing and sales efforts, and keeps the mission contained. If nothing else, be your state’s first favorite print shop. (Rockford Art Deli could also write a book about building a shop and brand around a city.)
Nor Cal Screen Print Supply isn’t a print shop, but they’ve made a killer niche for themselves by providing service and marketing that fits in with their target market perfectly. From advice to the hook-up on equipment, it’s cool to see a supplier really focus in and love on the print community.
How to choose your niche
If you don’t know your niche yet, don’t panic.
The “common thread” between print shops with niches is that they have found a consumer base with an unmet need and executed a focused strategy to serve that customer.
If you hear “unmet need” and think that’s a daunting, expensive task – stop.
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Simply define:
- What you do
- Who you serve
- The unmet need you help with
- Your strategy
Serving a niche is primarily about being in the right place for your customers, saying and doing the right things for them, and understanding exactly how you can help them – then forming your strategy.
Where are your favorite customers already spending time and money? That’s your closest niche opportunity.
Hello Print Hustlers!
An evergreen topic for print shops. This PrintHustlers Newsletter is jam packed. Get ready.
We recently updated our post about 5 ways to sell more.
It’s what we’ve learned from observing the most successful shops.
But what struck us is just how “simple and difficult” the advice is.
Simple and difficult is a great way to think about sales, too.
After all, it’s simple: get someone to buy something.
But that simplicity makes it extremely difficult.
We originally wrote this article some time back in 2018.
In just three short years, life has been transformed. But much of the advice has stayed the same.
Sales is still a tough game even if technology has made it easier than ever.
- Make sales hurt less: get off the “hedonic treadmill”
- Why focusing on your niche is like steroids for your business
- How to actually think of your customer base
- How the internet is changing business forever
- A super simple trick for getting more sales in Printavo
…and a whole lot of interesting connections we made while revisiting this sales article.
Sales: a “hedonic treadmill”?
If you’re not familiar with the idea of the hedonic treadmill, here’s the gist: you will always default to some base level of satisfaction, no matter what you achieve.
People talk a lot about sales requiring a certain personality.
Usually, this is a “gritty” person that’s comfortable taking no for an answer and being on the phone a lot. They can ride the hedonic treadmill and have the ups and downs roll right off their back.
People with these characteristics do exist, but it’s a “needle in the haystack” situation.
How exactly do you test and evaluate someone on grittiness in a short interview, anyway? Besides…work environment and culture can literally change personalities. Sales skills aren’t something we’re born with.
This isn’t a problem you can tackle head-on. You can’t snap your fingers and make sales a smooth ride. It requires some diagonal problem solving and building a culture that actually works.
Riches are in the niches: focus in
Mark Coudray hammered home a profound point in 2019 at our annual Print Hustlers Conference.
Most print shops get the lion’s share of their revenue from just 20% of their great customers.
You can probably think of your “20% great customer” off the top of your head: a franchise, a college, or maybe something like a snowboard company?
They’re the customer you know you can rely on to pay on time, order big, and make your life easy.
It’s the Pareto principle in action. Virtually all businesses have a powerful niche that powers a bunch of their yearly revenue.
The effects of the 80/20 rule are hard to overstate, and even harder to intuitively understand. But the net effect is this: chase your 20% customers hard. They determine your fate.
“It’s troubling if a startup insists that it’s going to make money in many different ways. The power law distribution on revenues says that one source of revenue will dominate everything else.” – Peter Thiel, PayPal and Palantir co-founder
Narrowing sales focus to those really impactful revenue sources slows the hedonic treadmill effect significantly.
The Internet Rainforest concept: big, or small?
COVID accelerated a bunch of trends by ten years or so, but internet sales in particular.
There’s this idea called the Internet Rainforest that every entrepreneur should understand. The internet eliminates the middle.
A rainforest has ample water, air, and sunlight. But how does life adapt there? It grows absolutely massive trees – and a host of small, specialized niche species adapted to life on the floor below.
But there are few “mid-sized” organisms: things are very big, or very small, and the middle is mostly eliminated. Differentiation is survival.
The internet is a “rainforest for business.”
Anyone can develop a niche and set up an online store, and more and more people are. If you’re in business, you should always have something for sale on the internet now.
But a few big trees (think Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple) control much of the ecosystem. Their niche is being big, and they are very good at it.
The same logic applies when we preach that shops shouldn’t try to compete with Custom Ink. They serve a completely different type of “great customer” than you do.
Even if customers bring you something they sketched up on the Custom Ink designer, a great designer tool is not a replacement for a niche.
“Pick one: print the most, print the best, or make the most money.” – Rick Roth from Mirror Image
Sales: service and sweeteners
Capitalizing on your niche is mostly about targeted service, not raw sales talent.
Developing that relationship is essential. We’ve seen this over and over and over: if you print for a niche that you really love, whether it’s motorcycles or cars or skateboarders or local hotspots…and double-down on that community…it pays off.
It’s difficult to disentangle sales and service and community building, even if they’re all separate departments: good sales usually facilitate better service.
Sales, after all, are step one of the custom printing production process.
And, like a flywheel…good service tends to make sales even easier.
That’s why we’ve always believed that service is really an opportunity for print shops. The majority of print shops run custom jobs that are more akin to what a local barber does than what a company like Amazon does.
Embrace that service-oriented niche: really top-notch service is your most achievable differentiator.
Sweeteners: an easy win
Sweeteners are no or low-cost goodies that you give to customers. That doesn’t mean just stickers or other trinkets. It means giving your customer dollars – or at least seeming like you are.
We love this idea from Jon Ladd at Terminus Tees: add a note to your Printavo Invoices that points out you’ve waived setup fees.
Did you really waive setup fees?
Maybe. That’s up to you.
The point? Provide some sweetener – some value – that’s blatantly obvious.
Whatever you do, don’t be in the middle
The midwit meme is something you’ll probably see (or have seen already). It looks like this:
While the meme is based on junk IQ science, it’s really a joke about the Pareto Principle, power laws, and differentiation. The thing you’re mocking goes in the middle, while the “genius” and the “dummy” hold the same opinion.
There’s some bizarre universal truthiness to this meme, particularly in an environment where joke cryptocurrencies are bringing in billions of dollars.
Being a couple standard deviations outside of the norm can have tremendous, outsized effects. Just don’t be in the middle. Differentiate.
This is all a really long way to say:
If you’re trying to be everything to everyone, you get stuck in the inhospitable middle. Your sales predictably become a stressful and unpredictable disaster.
But what if you go to either extreme? Focus in? Build the customer base? Say no more than you say yes? Implement structure and get off the hedonic treadmill?
You get out of the middle.
A (brief) sales to-do list
There’s a lot to chew on here.
So let’s just identify a few action items.
Do one, or do them all. There’s value here.
- ID your top 20 customers and focus on them hard. They get White Glove Treatment. Here’s how.
- Set up a strong follow-up email sequence.
- Incentivize word of mouth. It’s the most valuable form of marketing.
- Sponsor an event. Low-cost, uncertain ROI, but huge if you can find the right event. Look at how it propelled The Yetee.
- Firm up your Quote process. You can do this with Printavo. It’s absurdly powerful, and one of the first things we get shops to do when we consult with them.
- Add a sweetener to your Printavo Invoices. Follow the lead that Jon Ladd at Terminus set. It’s a quick and easy change you can do right now.
- Name your niche. Write it down. Firm it up. Everyone in and out of the business should know it. Make a list of the dream clients in your niche and figure out exactly what you need to do to land them – or serve them better if you already do.