I’m not trying to bore you with another 2021 look-back, but the truth? It was a very significant year.
Honestly, it seems like a year to grapple with for a while. Its effects are far-reaching. A lot changed, very quickly. The implications indicate real change is on the horizon (or already a reality).
But first, two predictions for 2022:
- continued consolidation in the custom printing industry and
- a massive opportunity in corporate and online merchandising.
An obvious lesson from last year is that the big are going to keep getting bigger.
Industry consolidation is an influential trend every shop owner should keep their eye on. It’s not going to slow down! Remember when TSC Apparel was acquired by S&S Activewear? Well, it’s probably worth noting the ultimate catalyst for that change: the acquisition of S&S itself.
The absolutely crushing demand for corporate merchandise is another pressurization event for the industry. There’s a ton of companies that want to buy stuff for their work-from-home employees. And it’s going to be a really big deal.
Custom Ink thinks it’s a $100B business, as you’ll learn in The Weekly below.
Maybe merchandise helps with employee retention. I don’t know! But I certainly like getting nice sweatshirts in the mail. And I really like seeing successful print shops.
From the supply chain to employees to new pressures in the economic environment at large, there are three themes every shop should keep top-of-mind.
But first: the Custom Ink acquisition spree
Did you hear that Custom Ink purchased swag.com and Printfection? I was totally puzzled by the Custom Ink acquisition spree. Until I read the press release. It says:
Custom Ink, the leader in custom apparel and accessories for companies, groups, and organizations, today announced the acquisition of Swag.com, an innovative platform for corporate swag and the emerging “gifting-as-a-service” category. The combination will help organizations of all sizes build meaningful bonds with their remote teams, customers, and partners through custom swag and gifting, and it will position Custom Ink for continued growth and success in that expanding $100+ billion market.
Emerging category! Meaningful bonds! Remote teams! $100 billon! That’s a lot of money!!
I would also like to participate in this vibrant and growing market. Wow, let’s go!
Then I realized the conversation in the Custom Ink C-Suite several months (years?) ago probably went something like this:
Custom Ink Person 1:
We are getting a ton of big orders for like…other corporations. They’re just sending their employees tons of custom clothing.
Other Custom Ink Person:
Weird. We always wanted to crack that market! So...who does that really well?
Person 1: *frantically Googling*
Hmm, it says here it's a $100B market and there’s this "disruptive platform" called Swag.com!
I wonder where we order our swag from…
Actually, uh, I think we do it in-house.
Oh okay, cool. I always wondered how Custom Ink orders its own merch.
Look, my point is we should consider acquiring these other businesses. Before they get bigger than us. By being really good at corporate merchandise.
Good idea! That’d be funny if a local business journal even wrote an article that was like, “oh those wacky Custom Ink guys, acquiring another corporate swag company!”
Anway, that’s probably pretty close to how it happened – though I am sure there were a few more details. The Custom Ink folks seem really nice! Hopefully this goes well for everyone.
We’re all supply chain experts now
Are you as sick of hearing about the supply chain as I am?
If you told me in 2019 that I would have an intimate knowledge of:
- What exact chemicals plastisol is made out of
- Where the components are made
- How weather affects the supply chain of ink
- Shipping container costs
- Cotton harvests in Xinjiang, China
- Floods in South America affecting cut-and-sew
- Moldy hats
- And a bunch of other really esoteric stuff
I would have laughed in your face. But now we know where ink, shirts, and hats come from. Or that hats can get moldy on cargo containers.
I know a little bit more about the world and also feel a little less certain of my sanity. Maybe you can relate.
The supply chain! What the heck is that?! It’s plastic resin manufacturers on the Gulf Coast. It’s Chinese cotton operations. It’s entire South American towns oriented around factories. It’s an intricate dance of trucks, boats, and people. If I’m being candid, I’m shocked at how well it all functioned in the first place – and truly thankful that it’s held up as well as it has given the multitude of pressures.
Entire factories froze last year when Texas got hit by the deep freeze. Shipping containers sat idle for months. Floods and storms shut down South American factories. Guess what? The supply of plastisol still hasn’t normalized. Cut-and-sew operations are still impacted. Shipping costs from China to the US are right near their all-time-highs.
So now, we’re all supply chain experts.
I didn’t want to be one! You didn’t either.
But here we are.
The hidden vulnerability for an entire industry was right in our faces the entire time.
Oh, and by the way. The weather forecast is looking pretty cold for Texas by January 27th, and that’s exactly how some of these problems started.
Cheap, fast, easy. Pick two. That’s the choice you’re faced with in today’s supply chain.
We’re all under a lot of new pressure
I’ve talked and written about this before: the typical “print shop” model is under a lot of pressure from a lot of directions. Shops are getting squeezed by suppliers’ requirements to raise prices and customers’ demands to keep prices low.
A huge number of shops have told us that customer behavior is getting worse: more complaints and much less kindness.
This change in behavior is corroborated by lots of other service industries.
Kicking customers to the curb is probably going to become more familiar. Getting a script for firing customers might be valuable, I guess? I feel a little slimy actually typing that. But if they’re a drag on the business or employee morale, maybe it’s worth it?
When the supply of raw products faces this kind of pressure, there’s usually a recessionary environment. But that’s not what is happening this year.
Shops are under such pressure because the actual underlying productivity can’t keep up. This is a good problem to have, as Jamie Dimon (he’s from a tiny company called JP Morgan & Chase) notes:
So it’s very, very weird. I don’t even think I need to explain how weird it is, right?
On-demand merchandise for the internet is probably going to be the largest single growth opportunity in the space. But it’s not like there’s some push-button system for online ordering. That’s still years away. Human hands are involved with every step of the process by necessity.
So, big picture, there’s a ton of opportunity for the right shops. Other interesting models for print shops are starting to seep into the space and Custom Ink is sending a pretty clear signal.
Think streamers, musicians, memes, NFTs, or that $100B corporate market, won’t be someone’s bread-and-butter? Think again. The money really does seem to flow – pressure just moves the money around a lot.
We all need to hire and retain employees
$15 an hour is about $30,000 a year, before taxes and everything else (assuming you work 40 hours a week for 50 weeks). Is that a lot? A little? It seems to depend on who you ask, where they live, and a lot of other baggage.
I’ve seen a lot of…let’s call it hesitance…around big wage increases in the industry. This makes sense. I just finished describing how the entire business model is under pressure and there’s all kinds of increasing costs.
Labor is the biggest cost for most shops. So hesitating because of increasing labor costs while makes sense. Everything is unpredictable. Margins are thins. Why pay?
That was the case until the past year happened.
Now, it seems like any serious shop owner has had a real epiphany: good workers are not something that are easy to come by. Screen printing isn’t a career that 16 year olds covet. It’s really hard work. People seem to think you press a button and get a t-shirt, and they’re pretty surprised when they learn what’s really involved.
The lesson seems clear. If someone loves the job and the process and the shop, hold onto them for dear life. Employers are planning some robust wage increases in 2022, and I would guess that print shops are increasing their wages at a higher rate than the average business.
The “great resignation” hit this industry hard. People left bad wages, bosses, and working conditions – or had other circumstances that knocked them out of the workforce. Higher wages for the workers that have been reliable and stuck it out? Seems like one way to mitigate turnover.
I’m definitely going to dive deeper into how exactly to train, retain, and compensate employees this year. This is a tough, industry-wide problem that’s going to last for years.
The r/antiwork crew aren’t going away. Haven’t looked at the hair-raising tales of employees quitting? It’s a gut check.
Themes for 2022: supply chain, pressure, employees
I don’t want to be repetitive in this newsletter, but I’ve got to be honest: the strength of these themes (supply chain, industry under pressure, employees) is enough to run an entire newsletter off.
There’s so much going on at each layer of the onion right now that it’s impossible to cover it all. Sometimes I’ll zoom in on what a specific shop is doing, what a specific person is teaching, or what’s happening in some niche.
Other times I’ll try to relate the big economic picture to what’s happening in our industry and (hopefully) make some bizarre connections.
The goal? Keep you up to date with my own weird spin to it all.
Want me to cover something specific? Drop me an email.