5 Ways To Deal With Screen Print Spoilage In Your Shop

Business Lessons

Let's talk about screen printing spoilage.

What is spoilage?

In the garment decorating industry, spoilage simply means production errors.

Spoilage becomes expensive, fast – so it's very important to develop a strategy for minimizing spoilage in your shop.

You will lose clients and money if you don't plan for and actively control your spoilage.

When Does Screen Print Spoilage Happen?

In my experience at Campus Ink, spoilage is an inevitable part of doing business. That doesn't mean you should just accept spoilage and go about your business.

Here are the most common types of spoilage situations I've encountered:

  1. Damaged wholesale goods. You intend to run a perfect order – but a few shirts arrive at your shop damaged. Since the order is on a tight deadline, you disregard them in the order and refund the customer.
  2. Screen damage. Issues with emulsion, screen tension or flaws in the mesh cause you to print a few shirts incorrectly. While you try and catch this by carefully managing and inspecting your screens, it's often the case that the shirts are not fixable.
  3. Off-center printing & bad registration. Your auto press is pumping out 400 shirts an hour –and later, your team alerts you that a few are off center. If you're fortunate, the order is large enough that you're able to discard those shirts and omit them.
  4. Equipment failures & malfunctions. Your DTG printer decides it will have streaks on an order midway through printing a garment. If you're lucky, you catch it in time – if you're not, you ruin an untold number of perfectly innocent garments.

There are a lot of variables in the garment decoration industry: apparel styles, colors, garments, ink colors, screens, fabrics, processes, tools, machines – each and every one of these can introduce spoilage!

Producing consistently high-quality goods that thrill your customers? That's an ongoing challenge for every print shop, whether they're making $10 million or $10,000 a year – so don't fret if you're having spoilage issues.

Mistakes and errors do happen. It's inevitable!

So how do you handle spoilage correctly? 

Here are the 5 most successful ways to deal with spoilage.

1. Have A Visible & Explicit Spoilage Policy.

A visible spoilage policy looks like this:

  1. It states your targeted production spoilage rate. A 2% spoilage rate is a reasonable industry benchmark.
  2. It explains how you’ll handle manufacturer spoilage. You don’t want to be responsible for a wholesaler’s errors.
  3. It shows the exact process for reimbursements and replacements. You have to be specific about the amounts involved. Show that you have a clear process for resolving errors.

It’s very important to educate your customers about spoilage. If you explain that mistakes do occur, it makes breaking the news much less damaging.

Customers don’t like negative surprises.

Be up front with your spoilage policy, even if it's an uncomfortable conversation.

Creating a spoilage strategy works best with specifics. Here’s an example:

You get a 24 piece order for a sports team, with custom names & numbers. If you have one spoilage event, you’re at 4% spoilage. Worse, one missing jersey damages your relationship with your customer and hurts their team!

It’s easy to see that when you’re printing small custom orders, spoilage becomes catastrophic.

The best way to handle small orders is to guarantee a perfect order up to X number of pieces – the extra effort will keep your customers happy.

You must have a strategy for mitigating misprints with small orders!

For larger orders, the numbers become even more challenging!

2% spoilage means 10 ruined garments for a 500 piece order. But here's the carrot: 10 lost garments could be negligible if you’ve guaranteed 90% of the pieces and set customer expectations appropriately.

2. Communicate With Your Customers To Create Reasonable Expectations.

Harry Gordon Selfridge coined this phrase in 1909:

The customer is always right.

So how does that relate to communication?

It’s not just “the customer is always right," so they can walk all over you.

It’s your job to create reasonable expectations, then fulfill your promises!

If you’re keeping clear and open communication about a customer’s order, it’s far less likely you’ll deal with an irate phone call when they discover something misprinted. It’s important to manage their expectations.

Tell the truth about spoilage as soon as you know about it. Be proactive in discussing problems. It’s harder to react to an angry customer than it is to proactively demonstrate what they should expect.

If you communicate often about the risk of spoilage and inform customers when it happens, they’ll trust you. If you’re not clear about spoilage, you’ll create customers that don’t trust you and are paranoid about getting ripped off.

3. Don't Justify Spoilage To Your Customer: Do Your Best To Fix The Order.

If you want to get ahead of the curve, address spoilage internally. Anticipate spoilage and have a process for resolving it before it reaches the customer.

Demonstrate to your production team that it’s important to openly discuss spoilage and that you won’t fly into a fit of rage if something goes wrong. If your team is afraid to talk about errors, you’ll spend a lot of time managing frustrated customers.

Spoilage must not be hidden. If it’s hidden, you’re going to get extremely unpleasant phone calls from really pissed off customers. They’ll badmouth your services to their friends and leave terrible reviews online.

Damage to your reputation is far more expensive than printing a few extra shirts.

When spoilage does happen, immediately make a plan for contacting your customer:

  1. Apologize, even if it isn’t your fault. Don’t justify the error, just explain what you’ll do to fix it.
  2. Find out how they’re most comfortable solving the problem.
  3. Offer a reasonable solution.
  4. Show exactly how you’ll go above & beyond to resolve the issue.
  5. Ensure the solution doesn’t jeopardize your other jobs. Don’t create more angry customers!
  6. Follow up and make sure the customer knows you did everything you could to resolve the spoilage problem.

The most important thing? Catch spoilage before it gets to the customer. If it does slip past, carefully manage the outcome for the customer and signal that you’ve done everything possible to make it right.

4. Deal With Spoilage Differently For Contract Customers & Retail Customers.

In the garment decoration industry, we’re all in this together.

You’d hate it if you contracted a job & were completely blindsided by spoilage.

You open up your DTG order and find that the count is miserably off – and the quality of 15% of the order is bad! You’d have to scramble to replace and reprint everything and almost certainly wind up needing an extension on delivery. Your huge order is ruined and a profitable customer never returns.

That sounds terrible. It is terrible!

So don’t do that to shops you’re contracting for.

Printers are reasonable people. They know the process is tough and spoilage is just part of reality. However: if you offer contract printing, you need to be just as clear & upfront about your spoilage policy as you would be with retail customers.

Don't assume that another shop "just knows about spoilage." How they handle it might be very different than how you handle it. Communicate & set expectations!

That doesn’t mean your spoilage policy has to be the same for contracted work. Your business may rely more on retail customers than contract work – so determine who gets priority in resolving spoilage disputes. It’s worth having a different set of rules for replacement & refunds with contract work: press time is your most valuable resource.

Remember: word travels fast in this industry. Don’t create a negative reputation by taking on contract work that you can’t actually fulfill.

5. Incentivize Perfect Orders. Document & Evaluate Failures.

Replacing goods is expensive.

If you put a dollar in a jar every time your team printed a perfect order for an entire year, that amount will be much less than it costs to fix one job with a high spoilage rate.

Creating a culture of success in your print shop means consistently doing things right.

Doing things right requires totally transparent goals & a willingness to revise your process.

Set daily, weekly and monthly performance goals for your team. Offer metrics about those goals. Show your team what happens when spoilage occurs. Some shops even send their printers a weekly email documenting the spoilage rate and explaining exactly what went wrong & how to avoid it.

Documenting problems is a shortcut for avoiding them in the future. Learn from spoilage events and figure out how to avoid them in the future!

The rewards you choose for perfect orders are up to you – but it’s important to highlight when things go well. Reward workers that preempt spoilage events!

Want To Defeat Spoilage? Refine Your Process & Be Honest.

You can work hard to reduce spoilage, but you'll never totally get rid of it.

The most important thing you should take away from this is that spoilage can spiral out of control – so it's important to manage it.

Making small changes in how your shop operates can generate big returns.

  • Refine your spoilage policy and keep it visible.
  • Educate your customers about spoilage so they understand it.
  • Fix spoilage when it happens.
  • Know whether your business thrives off retail or contract jobs and treat them differently.
  • Give your workers incentives for great work.

Don't wait until spoilage ruins a great relationship with your favorite customer to get serious about dealing with it: start today by refining your process and making a clear-cut plan for handling your next spoilage event.


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