For apparel decorators who have been in the field for years, it is likely they are comfortable in their craft. They know when to use a poly blocker, how to fix the quirks of their machines, which ink brands they like best, and which tags are not tearaway.

Learning the basics of apparel decoration can be an undertaking. Now, imagine learning the idiosyncrasies of decorating thousands and thousands of different items.

While at first that probably sounds like an absolute nightmare, the benefits of partnering with promotional products distributors, specifically those who are knowledgeable about the products they decorate, greatly outweigh the costs. While the number one benefit is a beefed-up bottom line, qualitative side effects include better relationships with current customers and the ability to market to new customers who otherwise would be uninterested.

Why Should Apparel Gurus Branch Into Promotional Product Distribution?

Increased Value for Current Clients

If customers are already buying promotional apparel, chances are high that these same customers also need other forms of promotional products. You may even already have the necessary art and branding files for those adjacent projects in your system.

Imagine for a moment your friend, let’s call him Kevin, is an electrician. He did a great job hooking up your new hot tub and installing some overhead lighting. Your sink breaks and Kevin tells you he now offers handyman work and plumbing services. The chances you’ll hire Kevin if only for the sheer trust and convenience factors are high. Kevin becomes indispensable when it comes to services needed around the house.

It is far easier to gain more value from existing clients who already have a relationship with a company than to recruit new clientele. Furthermore, by creating more value for that client’s time, their lifetime value increases along with their brand loyalty. Even if you are their favorite shirt decorator, it is possible that a client will settle for second-best in quality with a different company if it means they save time and receive a consolidated invoice for all of their projects.

Attractive Marketing Benefits for New Clients

In fact, time is such a valuable marketing asset, that many potential new clients are only searching for a one-stop solution for their promotional and branding needs. Having a single contact for all their branding projects is essential for keeping organized. The larger the company, the more likely they are looking for a promotional and apparel partner rather than a one-time shirt project.

By only offering apparel options, companies are shutting out the highest paying and most professional clients. Often, the scale of these companies means your job is made easier by their own in-house designers and organization skills.

Merchandise Lines and Curation

Partnering with promotional product companies gives you an almost unlimited arsenal of products from which to curate multiple options for your clientele. This allows you to turn a small project into an entire merchandise line, providing substantially more money for proportionally less work.

What is Necessary to Know When Making this Leap?


Credit: Jeremy Picker

Industry Basics

There are associations within the promotional industry like PPAI. Promotional distributors often require an industry account number from one of these to place an order at all. Attending a trade show put on by any of these associations will give you a better idea of the scope of the industry. They also allow for networking and the opportunity to gauge the quality of specific products in person.

The Good

Unlike the apparel industry, the companies that stock an item are also typically the ones that decorate it. Promotional decoration machines sometimes have to be built for, or calibrated to, specific blank products. Distributors often have a line of products they offer for decoration and everything will be handled in-house.

An apparel decorator can offer any of these products without investing in costly machinery, paying for warehousing space, or storing blank products.

The Bad

Promotional pricing involves a secret spy code that you’ll have to learn. Yes, seriously. The R’s and S’s and C’s after product prices all denote a different cost. The learning curve for the terminology here is relatively steep and takes a bit to grasp. Some places account for the first “run charge,” others don’t. Some include a base layer for dark products, others do not. Some charge a set-up fee per color, others use four-color process decoration techniques and build in the set-up charge.

You’ll be expected to calculate prices on your own POs more often than not, so asking for a formal all-inclusive quote is never a bad idea, especially if a vendor web page seems outdated. The spy code is consistent, but the pricing structure for add-ons and services differs between every company, along with how they handle invoices and proofing, how they want POs submitted, and in what order these processes occur. Keep notes per vendor. Terminology within the industry can be confusing and just as in apparel, can take time to learn.

The industry also requires some blind trust and trial and error with projects. Your first water bottle project and first pen project are equally as daunting until you have a go-to list of reputable and consistent vendors. Reviewing industry ratings and personal websites of a new promotional company can give you an idea of their professionalism and trustworthiness. If their site looks like it was designed in 2002, the photography is blurry, and every form is broken, chances are your project is going to have some hiccups.

Another point to consider is that the promotional products industry can cause a lot of waste from cheap, poor-quality tchotchkes. When putting together offerings for a client, it may behoove you to consider your company’s stance on offering eco-friendly, quality products, because there is a ton of plastic junk to wade through before you can find the good stuff.

The (Can Be) Ugly

With the benefit of not having to store or run expensive machinery comes the risk and downfall of not having ultimate control over the timelines and process. Even the best distributors make mistakes, and ultimately the blame lands on your company. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows.

In fact, some promotional companies will exaggerate timelines, forget to tell you that a product you ordered wasn’t in stock until the day the final project is supposed to ship, provide a poor-quality print, or just royally mess up an order. Maintaining a solid process of accountability and constant communication with your vendors is essential.

I also recommend keeping a black-list of vendors to avoid and only starting out with small/test projects when vetting a new promotional distributor or running a pre-production sample when the timeline allows. This is “the ugly,” and the truth is that there is an element of risking current relationships with your clients in the event the sourcing process goes awry. Have a process in place for what to do when it doesn’t go to plan, because there will be a time when that happens.

A Final Word

Even with the inherent risks involved in outsourcing promotional decoration projects to a distributor, the benefits are undeniable. There are also risks to not offering these options when local competition may be. With careful navigation, a solid production communication protocol, and a bit of upfront time and effort, an apparel-focused company can successfully diversify into promotional product offerings.