Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on our sister publication’s website, Promo Marketing.

Who doesn’t love a good T-shirt? It is, after all, the ideal item to promote a favorite band, sleep in, wear to work, wear to the gym, advocate for a cause, serve as a uniform — the uses are endless. Because it’s such a well-loved garment, a T-shirt is often the go-to for any branded campaign or family reunion, making it a common order for decorators and distributors.

But not even these highly produced garments are immune to the supply chain challenges currently happening. As everyone struggles to piece together orders and track down inventory, the good news is there are some things distributors and decorators can do to improve their chances. Here are eight ideas.

1. Try New Colors

If you’ve had to fulfill a T-shirt order over the last two years, you already know that a lot of inventory is hard to find. Either it isn’t made, it hasn’t shipped, or it’s sitting in a harbor somewhere. “Core colors are always being chased — black, navy and white are always in chase mode,” said Summer Scott, director of merchandising for Gildan Activewear, Montreal.

That can make it frustrating to source blanks. And if you do see the black T-shirt you want, jump on the opportunity and buy a little more than what you need. But, in current conditions, other colors may suddenly be more viable.

“What’s easier to find are the odd, wacky colors that most people may not love, but would consider making work,” said Scott. She added that decorators and end-users alike may be surprised at the cool outcomes achieved when working with different colors, such as army green or taupe.

“The opportunity is to be creative in color choices,” she said. “If you’re used to using black, explore other opportunities in neutral colors, like slate with a little different artwork.”

2. Vary Your Sourcing

It’s also important to explore other avenues beyond a single supplier or manufacturer.

“When it comes time to locate blanks, the first place that I like to look are the usual suppliers,” said Nathan Belz, chief operating officer of Impress Designs Inc., Carrollton, Texas. “When our usual suppliers do not have the appropriate inventory, the next step for us is to utilize brand product locators. Larger companies often have a section of their website dedicated to locating inventory, and these are some of the least utilized tools in the industry.”

There’s another route that decorators can take, but it goes against the norm. “Just jumping onto Google, Amazon and Walmart can be an option,” said Belz, though he stressed that these sites shouldn’t be your go-to solution. But in a pinch, you could find a selection of smalls in a black shirt to help fill in when needed.

It’s also possible to piece orders together. For example, if you’re used to getting your entire order from one supplier or manufacturer, you should now look at multiple brands. “What used to be a shipment from SanMar is now two shipments from SanMar, one from alphabroder, and two from Gildan,” Belz shared as an example.

That can cause stress in other areas of the business, such as sales ensuring the right product is ordered or shipping receiving multiple shipments, then in turn making sure all items get put in the right order to the right customer.

3. Prioritize Customer Service

Because of that additional stress, it’s crucial to step up customer service.

“Plan as far ahead as you possibly can, then get your customers to plan ahead as far as possible,” said Scott. “If you need something six months out, order it nine months out. You can also add a buffer to a larger order, then use the overflow for a smaller order. It’ll save you down the road because you know you have your goods.”

By upping their customer service game, shops can also address the issue of rising costs with their customers.

“Price increases are happening and may continue to happen,” said Mary Bostwick, vice president of customer engagement at Delta Apparel, Duluth, Georgia. “Prepare your customer, communicate often. I have found some will be initially shocked at the rising costs, but when you bring to their attention that even the basic needs like gas continue to increase in price, they understand.”

4. Be Transparent

When it comes to specific blanks that customers may be used to getting, Belz had a few suggestions to fulfill these orders.

“Nobody wants to change from something that they’re used to,” he noted. “It’s important to offer customers samples when making changes because their sizing expectations and color variances need to be agreed on before a customer makes a substitution.”

Luckily, in regard to T-shirts, when one item is not available, it’s generally easier to locate a similar product weight and color that is in stock. The key here is transparency, according to Scott.

“Anyone stuck to a brand will only be hurt in the long run, so until we get back to consistency, explore the [new] brand,” she said. “Be as transparent and upfront with your customers as possible.”

5. Consider Alternative Products

Belz expanded on that point, especially when it comes to branded merch.

“[Here] you can push customers in different directions in things like giveaways,” he noted. “If someone is giving away a white T, you’re more likely to get [that] customer to switch to a white golf towel. … Consider reviewing your customer’s previous orders and see if there are any trends and any stock shortages. If a customer is repeatedly ordering the same product, talk to them about placing their order before their stock gets critical and possibly placing a larger order.”

6. Experiment

There is a chance to push the boundaries, too.

“I think there are opportunities to sample, doing mock-up graphics, posting them on your social and seeing what kind of feedback you can get,” Scott said. “Explore something with your graphic artist, then do social media voting. Really use the platforms where decorators are selling, talking about their shops as a testing ground.”

7. Be Flexible

As the entire world learned when the pandemic first hit, it’s all about being flexible and exploring the opportunities to pivot, especially since it appears that this challenge won’t resolve any time soon. “I definitely anticipate this to be an ongoing problem through at least mid-2022 that could push through until the end of 2022,” Belz said. “Communication is critical. … That’s the big differentiator between a happy customer versus one that thinks you aren’t taking care of them.”

Bostwick agreed that while this isn’t going away as quickly as everyone had hoped, the key here is adaptability. “Being open to a new product other than your norm is key,” she said. “Make buying decisions quickly, as those options may disappear.”

8. Communicate

“I encourage people, as they try to find products, to take a look at some of the things that brands are up to that you don’t normally follow,” Scott suggested. “The inventory is going to be what it is. … People can appreciate you warning them — they understand if you communicate.”