Tales From the (Unprecedented) Trenches: These Shops Survived and Thrived

Last spring during the middle of COVID-19, a lightning strike hit Say It In Stitches in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Unfortunately, the bolt from the blue took out the contract embroidery shop’s commercial surge protector and two of its four 15-head machines. “This happened just as our state was opening up and customer demand was firming up,” says Alex Fernandez, president of Say It In Stitches.

The shop’s domestic machine parts supplier sent Fernandez a long list of parts, like circuit boards, encoders, servo motors and more, so they could identify and fix the problems. “It took us two months, along with a team of local and remote technical experts, to isolate the issues on each machine and to source the hard-to-find replacement parts,” Fernandez says. “We even had to go as far as South America to get a needed part from a used machine.”

In the meantime, the Say It In Stitches team didn’t miss a beat. Fernandez’s staff turned out jobs intended for 15-head machines on four-heads and even single-heads. “They worked all kinds of crazy overtime hours and weekends so our clients wouldn’t be affected by this event,” he says. “This is a testimonial to the lengths we’ll go not to let our clients down, especially during a pandemic.”

If the post-pandemic’s here and now has got your head spinning, you’re not alone. That’s why we asked embroidery and print shops that survived and thrived during the past year to share their success stories. 

You’re about to be inspired by their lessons learned around ecommerce, switching niches, online selling print on demand, and more—and how you can use these strategies and tactics to be more successful this year.

1. Elevating the E-commerce Experience

While e-commerce and online stores aren’t new to decorated-apparel providers, they took on a new significance during the pandemic, as people relied on online ordering and direct delivery. 

“Providing customers with a great shopping experience through video took our online experience to the next level. We created a virtual showroom experience by creating videos of our products, where we talked straight to the camera as if actually speaking to our customers.”  La Tonna Roberson, T-Shirt Shop Dallas

While online stores have been Wear Your Spirit Warehouse’s bread and butter since 2017, the shop adapted how they communicated with clients to develop their online stores. “Prior to March 2020, most of our consultations were in person in our showroom where our customers touched and felt products, and we stepped them through the store-creation process,” says Alison Banholzer, owner.

Now, Banholzer’s team is very skilled at providing online catalogs and sample programs for select merchandise to customers nationwide. “We’ve also improved our shop EOP (Educational Opportunity Program) to automate online store creation, artwork approval and fulfillment,” she says.

Like many other shops, The Visual Identity Vault joined the Here for Good movement, where decorators put up online stores with T-shirt designs that supported local businesses. When someone bought a T-shirt, portions of the proceeds went to a local business and also back into the print shop. Tanya Doyscher, owner and graphic designer at Visual Identity Vault, worked with another shop across the street on their own local Martin County Strong effort that raised funds and awareness.

The community nominated businesses whose logos appeared on the back of every Martin County Strong shirt. “The webstore allowed customers to choose what businesses they wanted donations to go to, and it was a fantastic experience,” Doyscher says. “Each of our shops took on parts of the workflow from design to social media, webstore, screening and then bagging and tagging.”

Doyscher reports that as a result, her shop has amped up its online stores business. “Our customers are so much more receptive to e-stores now, than before the pandemic,” she says. “These e-stores are much more convenient than order forms and collecting money.”

Tip: There are several industry-specific e-commerce vendors you can reach out to if you want to set up your own store or offer them to clients. Check out: InkSoft (this is Doyscher’s provider), Printavo, OrderMyGear, DecoNetwork and Spirit Sale. And of course, if you set up an online store for a customer, provide them with images, social posts and email copy they can use immediately to promote their store to their patrons or members.

Like Banholzer’s and Doyscher’s shops, Kyle M. Perkins, owner and technical director at Big Frog Custom T-Shirts & More, always had the ability to create online stores for customers and causes, and created a fundraiser for small businesses to help support the community during the downtime. “While this fundraiser was a great success, and got a lot of people interested in our e-commerce option, it also required us to take a hard look at how we marketed our e-commerce option,” Perkins says. “We also quickly integrated the ability to accept online payments for our in-store and phone orders right before, and soon into, the pandemic. Many of our customers really liked that.”

However, Perkins also learned that if customers weren’t familiar with online stores, they often had grandiose expectations of making millions overnight, or selling everything they could imagine. Neither scenario played out very well. “That’s why we assisted customers with choosing the right items to offer, and a smaller variety—too many options paralyze the decision,” he says. “By narrowing down designs or garment options, our customers’ patrons could easily choose what they wanted, fast. That allowed us to offer a higher quality product and a faster turnaround, especially with our print-on-demand model.”

And speaking of online stores, this is a good time to switch to 100% upfront payments, if you haven’t already. Lots of decorators struggle here, as they still do 50/50 payments, and even wait 30, 60, or 90 days to get paid for an order they’ve already delivered. Big Frog has always operated on a payment-before-production model since day one. “We’ve invested money into our client’s project, and need to have the commitment that they’ll pick it up when it’s ready,” he says. “We use purchase orders for some established customers and businesses, such as schools, but the majority of our customers follow this process: decide on the garment, quantity, and sizes; decide and finalize the artwork; and then pay, making pickup (and shipping) easier and faster.”

2. Cornering (and Switching) Niches

Lots of decorators served niches that suddenly shut down overnight during COVID-19. That meant they either needed to learn new ways to serve their customers or expand into new niches. Some shops, like Big Frog, have remained niche agnostic to date, offering its print-on-demand services to a wide swath, including medical transports, roofing companies, schools, financial sectors, tech companies, small sole proprietors and even families, for birthdays and memorials. “We cast a wide net and see what sticks best for us,” he says.

“Our team worked all kinds of crazy overtime hours and weekends so we wouldn’t let our clients down, especially during a pandemic.” Alex Fernandez, Say It In Stitches

While Wear Your Spirit Warehouse also didn’t need to switch niches, Banholzer did a data dive into the niches her team served, asking the questions: What percentage of business did each niche fulfill for the shop? Which of these niches were weathering the pandemic and still operating? For her shop, those niches included hospitals, first responders and construction.

“Rather than go after a new niche we may not be well-versed in, we worked to increase our business in our niches that seemed pandemic-proof,” Banholzer says. “For strategic planning purposes, and to ensure the health of our shop into the future, we’re balancing our niches so no one niche makes up the majority of the business.”

In Doyscher’s case, The Visual Identity Vault moved to more of a B2B model, but also geared up for more custom school designs for herr area using DTF (direct to film). “Because schools were out for so long, we’re getting rid of inventory by having a sale with boutique-type designs on their webstore,” she says.

Ultimately, Banholzer’s best advice related to niches is to stay in your shop’s lane. “Ask yourself what your shop does well and consistently,” she says. “Once you’ve identified what you’re really good at, guide your customers to those products. Look at items you can produce on-demand easily and be willing to say no to customers or products that don’t meet that criteria. If you stretch yourself or take on projects you know are outside of your area of expertise, you’re simply setting yourself up for poor reviews and disgruntled customers.”

3. Cultivating the Online (and Offline) Showroom & Sales Experience

During the pandemic, Banholzer didn’t make any changes to her showroom. However, the team did establish a line-item budget for samples they shipped to their larger customers. “We took advantage of marketing dollars from our apparel suppliers and put the physical items in our customers’ hands,” she says. Banholzer also took  advantage of suppliers’ personalized websites and online catalogs to provide her customers with online browsing options. 

“We created a fundraiser for small businesses to help support the community during the pandemic downtime. It was a great success, and got a lot of people interested in our e-commerce option.”  Kyle M. Perkins, Big Frog Custom T-Shirts & More

Beyond shipping samples and online browsing, Banholzer’s team set up many Zoom calls where they’d grab and show products from the Wear Your Spirit Warehouse showroom. “Today, we continue to offer both online and in-person sales calls,” she says. “This has helped expand our business further outside of our geographic area.”

Big Frog also has a fully staffed retail space with lots of decorated garment samples for the best in-person experience. “We encourage customers to come in and work with a ‘Custom Garment Decoration Consultant’ and browse through our physical samples to make a more informed decision,” Perkins says. “Customers can never know the difference between a ring-spun and loom-spun cotton shirt unless they feel it. Some people prefer the feel of polyester over cotton, or need to see pique in person, rather than an online description.”

Since Big Frog was a retail location first, and then offered the online experience, the team still encourages new clients to come in. “The showroom helps customers to understand what they’re purchasing, rather than just buying it online,” Perkins says. “We find that they place their trust in us after they’ve seen our DTG printer in action, tried on apparel and seen decoration samples.”

La Tonna Roberson, owner of T-Shirt Shop Dallas, took her clients’ online shopping experience to the next level via video. “We created a virtual showroom experience by creating videos of our products, where we talked straight to the camera as if actually speaking to our customers,” she says. “Lots of apparel suppliers have a vast video library of content about their products. These videos are a free tool that shops can easily use to create buzz with customers.”

(At alphabroder, we offer a huge array of free assets, like images and videos, for you to use in your marketing in our frequently updated Digital Lounge, so check it out!)

In addition to product videos, Roberson’s team also created a step-by-step “how to order” video that showed them exactly how to navigate the shop’s ecommerce store. “We also added an online chat feature so customers could ask questions while on our site in real time,” she says.

Finally, Roberson advises other shops that accept online orders to have a good backend process to keep customers informed about what’s happening with their order. “You should automate emails that get sent daily to your customers and team members to ensure the order keeps moving forward,” she says. “This keeps your customer informed and happy, and you avoid printing delays.”

Similarly, since more than half of Big Frog’s customers are ordering and paying online, Perkins is integrating his shop’s online payment system with a more intricate customer experience system. “This system makes it easier for customers to check in on their orders, approve or adjust proofs, see past orders, and make it easier on the staff to reference customer notes and projects, and create new orders faster,” he says.

4. The Rise (and Staying Power) of POD

Three years ago Big Frog opened as a successful print-on-demand shop. Perkins has earned the reputation for lower-quantity orders on a fast turnaround, and one-offs and custom services, but aimed for more during COVID-19. “It’s easier and more reasonable to offer 100 black shirts with a one-color screen print, than a single black shirt with a full photograph print, especially as things pick back up,” he says.

During the pandemic, Big Frog offered to create and fulfill online stores for clients, after working out a few bugs in the offerings. “As soon as we guided our customers to a more concise offering, and had less for their customers to become overwhelmed with, the more orders came in, and faster,” Perkins says. “It’s also easier to offer a smaller selection of products and decoration options to customers with a higher profit point for them, rather than offering 100 items with a 1% to 2% margin.”

If you’re thinking about offering POD, Perkins advises knowing how to price it correctly. “A black shirt will always cost more than a white shirt, if you’re using the standard printing method like screen printing or DTG,” he says. “Plus, always order plenty of extra blanks, whether for scrap or just to have on hand, and have a ready-to-go supply of stock for much faster turnaround.”

Finally, keep your customers in the loop at all times. “If your customer places an order and doesn’t hear anything for two weeks, they’re going to be worried,” Perkins says. “Be transparent with each step of the order and production process. In this age of instant gratification, the more information you can provide to your customer, the clearer they’ll see the goal.”

Today and a New Tomorrow

Like the lightning strike at Say It In Stitches, shop owners across the country have dealt with the pressures of COVID-19, and then some—and are still coming out ahead, in good spirits. 

Prior to the pandemic, Doycher’s husband, Jay, suffered a massive heart attack while setting up to be a vendor at the College Gridiron Classic in Fort Worth, TX (the couple lives in Minnesota, so they were far from home). “We spent the first three months of the year from getting him home from Texas, to several major surgeries to make his heart bionic,” Doyscher says. “Between that and the onset of COVID-19, my online decorating community was my rock.” 

The Doyschers have made lifelong decorator friends over Zoom calls, Messenger conversations and countless video lives—a testament to the resiliency and stick-togetherness of the decorated-apparel industry.

And back at Say It In Stitches, Fernandez continues to be passionate about his people. “Besides serving our clients, there’s nothing I love more than training my team, bringing stability and predictability to their lives, and bringing some modicum of satisfaction, if not joy to their days, through the work we do here,” he says. 


Now that we’re getting back into the swing of things, consider making over your showroom as people come back in droves. Big Frog Custom T-Shirts & More’s showroom has specific areas set up based on typical client needs, with lots of brands on display, like Gildan, American Apparel, Anvil, Threadfast, Core 365 and Team 365

“We have a ‘color wall’ with an in-stock supply of shirts for quick turnaround, our ‘professional’ wall with examples of embroidery, vinyl, and transfers, and our ‘sports’ wall with polyester and breathable materials,” says Kyle M. Perkins, owner and technical director. There are also women’s, youth and unisex apparel displays.

Perkins added a decoration wall that shows off the different decoration techniques the shop offers. “We also have a Brother GTX DTG printer in the showroom, along with our vinyl cutter,” he says. “That way, customers can be part of the experience seeing the GTX in action printing a full photograph in seconds rather than burning and scraping screens.”

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