If your Q4 resolution is to increase your apparel sales margins, we’ve got you. Industry pros spill their insider strategies for increasing your profits, while serving your clients at an even higher level. Here are 15 ways you can boost your sales starting as soon as today, and increase your bottom line.
1. Sell More “Premium” Apparel.
One of the best strategies you can start with is selling more premium apparel to your customers. (This is what is traditionally thought of as an upsell based on the quality of the product.) For instance, if your customer wants to order 100 T-shirts, you can put together three different options: good, better and brand. The good option is a basic tee that sits within their budget. The better option would be a shirt that’s the next step up in quality and the brand option would be the highest quality retail T-shirt, and may be at the top or slightly above the client’s budget.
These shirts may vary in quality based on the material (supersoft tri-blends or U.S.-grown combed and ringspun cotton) and other performance options (moisture-wicking, UV protection, or wrinkle and stain resistance). But by presenting these options and showing your buyer what’s available, you increase the chances that they’ll invest in better-quality garments that present their brand in a better light.
Jay Busselle, marketing director at Equipment Zone (@equipmentzone), notes that decorators often only present three options—good, better and best—and then try to show the value of a better or best option. “But now we have a fourth option, ‘give back,’” he says. “Find out what causes are important to your buyers and look for apparel brands that have similar built-in givebacks or support a more sustainable system with the materials used or the means of manufacturing. It’s an easy way to make a bigger impact for you and the buyer. It also gives the buyer an emotional connection and an additional purpose.”
2. Sell Higher-Margin Apparel Categories (Like Fashion Fleece).
Certain apparel categories have higher-end products that also have higher profit margins. By carrying these (both online and in person in your showroom) you can upsell customers who may have only been interested in a basic T-shirt or sweatshirt but who decide to go for something upleveled when they see it’s available.
For example, instead of just offering basic cotton and fleece garments, consider stocking outerwear, jackets, hoods, pullovers and joggers in higher-end Sherpa or French Terry fleeces. If you sell polo shirts, consider adding a line of name brands like PUMAGolf or Under Armour.
3. Increase the Value of Your Decoration.
When it comes to increasing sales margins, customization is certainly a big opportunity. But remember that you can increase the value of your decoration by trying a few different approaches.
“Focus on what you can do that others can’t. Are you willing to do one-offs or small runs? Do you have an expertise in a particular decorating technique? Are you willing to do bundles of garments and promo products for your clients? Find your niche, and then shout about that niche to the world.” Kristine Shreve, Applique Getaway
For instance, if your customer wants an elaborate piece of custom-designed artwork, ensure you’re charging appropriately for your time and effort for this creative design. Also, if they want a unique decoration method, such as a chenille patch or a multimedia stunner, this is an opportunity to add to your profits.
If your clients are used to simple embroidered left-chest logos and one-color screen prints on T-shirts, take them a few steps forward. “Decorators would be wise to create custom graphics that have central themes for customer’s campaigns and events,” Busselle says. “That immediately establishes your shop as unique. While everyone’s stuck in ‘logo-ville’ asking their prospects or customers if they have a vector version of a logo, you’re asking about their event theme. It immediately removes you from the commodity of the logo and repositions you as a marketer who’s interested in being creative and solving problems.”
Combining decoration techniques is one way to create both a unique design and a higher value piece. “Try rhinestones and embroidery, or embroidery and sublimation to create something that stands out and commands a higher price,” says Kristine Shreve, director of marketing and outreach at Applique Getaway. “Another option could be unique placements, putting lettering or decoration on sleeves, around the neck of the shirt or in other harder to decorate spaces. These processes might be more difficult, but that allows you to charge a higher price.”
Finally, remember that placement can impact price (and customers are used to this and often willing to pay more). Most shop owners simply center print on the front of the shirt. But you can charge more for front-and-back printing and “off-center” printing because of the unusual setup.
“Do a left-chest logo and then the company slogan down the sleeve,” Shreve suggests. “Add the company website on the back of the neck or the bottom of the shirt near the waist. The more unique the decoration you offer, the more the perceived value of that decoration goes up.”
Tip: For more decoration ideas, read our Inspo-Worthy Decorated-Apparel Designs blog.
4. Avoid Markdowns by Improving Inventory Visibility.
Too often, shops stock an item without selling enough of it and then mark the product down just to make room for better-selling inventory. Unfortunately, markdowns can really cut into your profit margins.
Avoid this issue by getting a better handle on your stock. Keep constant tabs on your sales data, knowing what you have in stock, what’s selling quickly and what’s hardly moving. This data will guide you when it comes to making decisions on ordering and marketing.
Using a smart online store interface can help decorators keep better tabs of what’s selling well and what’s in stock so their buyers can get the styles they want quickly. “Online stores are essential for handling inventory programs and help to eliminate waste, excess and spoiled inventory,” says JP Hunt, co-founder of InkSoft.
Hunt points two main inventory models when considering e-commerce online stores:
- Blank inventory for print-on-demand custom orders and rapid replenishment programs: Here decorators maintain basic inventory for the most common styles, sizes and colors to handle print-on-demand orders and rush-order, rapid replenishment scenarios.
- Prepaid inventory and fulfillment programs: Online stores are ideal for serving fulfillment programs where your clients prepay for inventory, and print shops use online stores as a means to release inventory. A good online stores platform will handle inventory on-hand, display inventory, and reduce inventory as orders are placed.
“Lean on your suppliers and supplier reps to gain insights into trending products and inventory advice,” Hunt says. “Suppliers and reps see data across all customers—these insights can be very useful in making decisions and planning campaigns and programs. Turn to the experts and get their advice and suggestions to help guide inventory situations. You’ll be glad you did.”
Tip: If you’re just getting started with ecommerce, there are several industry-specific vendors that can assist you in creating your platform. These include: InkSoft, Printavo, OrderMyGear, DecoNetwork and Spirit Sale.
5. Elevate Your Brand and Increase the Perceived Value of Your Merch.
In sales, especially apparel, it’s amazing how much is driven by the perceived value of your merchandise. If your customers think of you as a “high-end” shop, they’re going to expect to pay more for the better quality of your work.
“If you want to level up your branding: give more value, more often to the audience you want to connect with the most.”
Jay Busselle, Equipment Zone
Likewise, if you get a negative perception of your brand, it’s hard (if not impossible) to improve that perception. You can do this by building a close relationship with your clients. If you’re stocking a business’s online store, you can also “feed” them ideas that will get their brand noticed, such as gifts for their sales team at the holidays.
“In our savvy marketing world, it’s imperative to be real and stay genuine,” Busselle says. “I’m not suggesting that business owners create a false perception that they’re bigger than they are to impress online prospects they don’t know. That would be a mistake. If you want to level up your branding, give more value, more often to the audience you want to connect with the most.”
That’s why effectively sharing your shop’s unique story in a digital environment is more than a passing trend or posting an attention-grabbing headline. “Your brand story works when it keeps a buyer’s attention and inspires confidence,” Busselle says. “When properly positioned with themed social assets, not sales flyers, your story will be inspiring and attractive to your target audience.”
For decorators, the perceived value of their business as a “higher-end shop” depends a lot on how they socially present and sell themselves. Here are three tactics that work for upping the ante on how they present their brand to prospects and customers on social media:
- Take high-quality photos. “‘Bad photography’ will make any shop look unprofessional and less than artistic,” Shreve says. “Good photos accurately showcase a shop’s work and present the most capable and professional appearance. Plus, the work you’re selling is visual. Clients are less likely to trust your abilities if your product photography is substandard.”
- Don’t sell; tell. Any shop can post an image of a decorated hoodie or joggers with a price and ask people to buy. “That’s bush league and basic,” Shreve says. “Explain why you decorated the garment that way and how the decoration process works. Explain the trend this particular garment follows or sets. Let people know why this particular shirt or jacket is worth the price you’re charging, due to its construction and durability. Tell people about the value they’re getting and make them want what you have to offer. Educate to make the sale.”
- Use all your tools. It’s not enough simply to have a Facebook page or an Instagram feed. “So what are you doing with videos?” Shreve says. “Have you made connections with writers at magazines and newspapers so your shop appears in articles? Do you have a presence on LinkedIn? Are you reaching out and making connections on all the social media platforms you’re on and forming communities, or are you just posting in a vacuum? If you want attention, pay attention to others. It’s no longer enough just to post and then walk away.”
- Take advantage of free assets from your suppliers.Check out alphabroder’s Digital Lounge,full of beautiful grab-and-go images and exceptional videos you can use in your social media posts and online marketing. Plus, you’ll love our recently launched Sales Builder tool, where you can create your own wow-worthy content in minutes.
6. Create or Update Your Online Store.
Create an online store if you don’t already have one, with an online designer feature and real-time inventory numbers. “Your store needs to maintain customer expectations,” Hunt says. “It can be frustrating if a customer places an order for a product you can’t access and fulfill. Beyond a poor customer experience, this creates unnecessary labor and opportunity for failure.”
In addition, Hunt says, you can use low stock and limited inventory to drive demand and urgency. “Consumers hate the notion of missing out, so inventory levels can be a powerful way to motivate customers to create and finish their order,” he says. “This is magnified with the current supply chain and inventory issues impacting the industry. We continue to see this reflected in print shop marketing efforts: Place your order now and well in advance to ensure goods are ready when needed.”
And of course, it’s equally important for shop owners to then offer to create, maintain and fulfill online stores for their customers. To make these online stores a reliable profit center for your shop, they should be “special” and provide value:
- Special: Online stores are unique, Hunt says. “A branded online store feels special and adds meaning to the relationship and customer experience,” he says. “Plus, it makes ordering easy! Compare other ordering methods, like hand-written order forms, and invoices to an online store and the difference is clear.”
- Provide value: Online stores provide value to both the consumer by making it simple, fast and easy to place orders, resulting in high levels of customer satisfaction and experience. “Because online store orders are electronic, print shops receive immediate digital payment, and all order data is recorded and trapped providing the ability to scale sales volume without having to hire more employees,” Hunt says.
Finally, online stores become a profit center as result of:
- Sales volume scalability
- Expansion into new markets without a physical presence
- Ability to compete against any rival
- Reducing mistakes and mistakes that impact profitability
- Increasing efficiencies without new or added costs.
7. Streamline Your Operations and Reduce Operating Expenses.
Another way to raise profits, according to Krista Fabregas, a retail analyst at FitSmallBusiness.com, is to start by taking a close look at your operating costs. If you can, cut back on the overtime and extra personnel. But you should also eliminate wasteful items that eat your profits. For instance, don’t worry about expensive shopping bags or tissue fillers that will get thrown away later. Make sure that if you buy something, you have an opportunity to make a profit off it.
“Online stores provide value to the consumer by making it simple, fast, and easy to place orders, resulting in high levels of customer satisfaction and experience.” JP Hunt, InkSoft
To that end, consider investing in a computerized point-of-sale solution that can help you better track sales and inventory. This way, you can see exactly what you have, what’s selling, and how efficient you are in running your shop.
Julie Bateman, creative director and founder of Asskicker Activewear, learned how important it is to manage her operating costs and to be aware of profit margins way back when she worked at a copy shop and attended a Canadian government-funded course about writing business plans. “During that exercise, I became aware that my bosses at the time thought we generated the most profit from color printing and photocopying, while we actually lost money on that service because the costs were so high,” she says. “The owners of the company had no idea—they saw how much revenue the service generated and assumed that meant it was making the company money.”
8. Embrace and Upgrade New Technology.
Technology is all around us, and to a certain degree, we take things for granted. Spend some time auditing your shop’s internal technology to see if there’s something better or more effective on the market. There may be a new consumable, apparel supplier, piece of equipment, software, app, or even a macro function on a spreadsheet that could make your life easier.
Here are three that can get you started, but there are literally hundreds more to stay abreast of:
- Free background generator
- Track your time with Timeular
- Measure and dial in Pantone colors with a Color Spectrometer from Spectro 1.
9. Know Your Math.
Don’t panic, but you do need to keep two numbers in mind at all times. First, you should know the number of products your shop can produce on your different decorating machines in one shift. Second, you need to know just how fast you can finish a typical job.
For instance, you should know how many T-shirts you can print in an eight-hour shift and how long it would take you to finish printing 500 shorts. If you don’t know these two numbers, you’d better learn them fast. And then, once you know them, figure out a way to improve on them.
When Bateman launched Asskicker Activewear, she immediately wrote a detailed business plan and created systems to monitor things like profit margins. “I’m a fan of good, old-fashioned spreadsheets for that because it’s so easy to add line items for all associated costs, materials and overhead,” she says. “Then, you can add formulas that will track how those profit margins change when you offer discounts or increase expenses like advertising or packaging.”
10. Get Leaner With Your Labor.
During the pandemic, many shop owners faced the difficult decision to furlough or lay off employees. That led to developing teams of employees who could perform multiple job functions or had expanded roles. Many of these leaner shops learned that they could actually do more business with fewer employees.
Now might be a good idea to take a look at your team. See if there’s a key new role you could hire for, like a killer salesperson or project manager. Review your staffers’ responsibilities and see where you can cross-train employees or promote a staffer to a management position. “How can we do more with less labor” will be a theme for the upcoming year.
11. Increase Your Average Order Value.
If you get an order for a low- or medium-quality shirt for your customer’s employees, educate that customer on the longevity of higher-quality fabrics and performance features, and how they’ll actually spend less in the long run by buying better-quality apparel upfront. That means they’ll also get more brand impressions if wearers choose to wear the garment more often. Not to mention, employees will know the difference and feel more valued.
Tip: Try cross-selling with every sales pitch or consultation. Instead of just a T-shirt or polo, suggest a cap and fleece. If it’s a gym order for uniform tanks and joggers, suggest custom towels and sports bottles. Buyers look to you for branding suggestions, so don’t ever feel that you’re what they can do and appreciate you having the knowledge and ability to go above and beyond.
12. Implement Savvier Purchasing Practices.
Negotiate with your vendors to get the best price. If you’re a good customer in good standing—meaning you pay on time and have regular orders with the vendor—ask for free shipping or to add a couple of products for free.
You can also increase order quantities for popular items that are at low risk of not selling out to get the best price. If possible, you can go in with another shop to order so you can make a bigger order and get a better price. Plus take advantage of specials and sales from your suppliers.
One of the Canadian apparel suppliers Bateman works closely knows she sells activewear and casual clothing to women of all body types, so products that come in extended sizes are important to her, yet challenging to source. “The sales rep at that supplier company keeps an eye out and will email me directly whenever they receive inventory that she thinks my customers will like,” she says. “That’s very helpful and saves me a lot of time.”
13. Increase Your Shop’s Prices.
This can be a tough decision, but it’s necessary to keep your shop in the black. Start by evaluating your competitor’s products and see if there’s room to raise your prices and still stay competitive.
“As soon as I started my own business, I wrote a detailed business plan and created systems to monitor things like profit margins.” Julie Bateman, Asskicker Activewear
“Too often, businesses see a price increase as a negative and something to fear,” Hunt says. “Instead, think of a price increase as: What’s required to maintain a profit level that allows my business to thrive so I can maintain a financially healthy business?”
One option is to raise your rates a little at a time instead of one giant increase all at once. Finally, you can increase the perceived value of products you’re raising the price on. Remind the customers that the premium apparel is made from better materials and is worth the price.
“If you’re fearful that you’ll lose customers over a slight or moderate price increase, then you might have greater problems like poor customer relationships and loyalty,” Hunt says. “If you’re serving your customers well, and solve problems and adding value then you should be able to monetize this.”
Hunt says now is the perfect time to introduce price increases, given supply-chain issues, inflation and economic conditions. “Consumers are experiencing price increases at the grocery store and at retail so they’re accustomed to and understand pricing changes as a necessity,” he says.
Tip: Consider hiring a financial professional to coach you through ways to optimize your financial performance. “The right expert will help you reduce costs and enhance profit to bring maximum value to your entire business and economic engine,” Hunt says. “A financial planning expert will make you money.”
14. Don’t Leave Money on the Table.
Be certain you aren’t letting money slip through your fingers by not charging properly for your work. For instance, many apparel shop owners give away work and features, like custom packaging, to bring in new sales.
Make a list of everything you do to complete an order—from the artwork to the setup to the order fulfillment and shipping. All of that should be factored into the final bill. Don’t give your work away.
“I generally create bundles that include consultations, customer artwork, packaging and so on,” Bateman says. “When a customer inquires about those extra services, I can pull from pre-existing quotes and templates. That helps streamline the process and helps make sure I don’t forget anything.”
As you can see, there are a lot of options out there for those who want to increase their profit margins. Sure, raising your prices is always an option. But the savvy shop owner will look at all angles to help maximize profits without losing customers.
15. Promote Your Unique Niche Hard.
Focus on what you can do that others can’t. “Are you willing to do one-offs or small runs?” Shreve says. “Do you have an expertise in a particular decorating technique? Are you willing to do bundles of garments and promo products for your clients? Find your niche, and then shout it to the world.”
Your differentiator may be the very thing that attracts customers to your shop. “However, they can’t do business with you if they don’t know what your unique selling proposition is,” Shreve says.
Julie Bateman, creative director and founder of Asskicker Activewear, does all of her own decorating in-house, primarily using heat-applied graphics. “If you’re using a heat press to apply graphics, take advantage of gang sheets to bundle those graphics together, and then order as many pages as possible every time you need to restock,” she recommends. “Due to economies of scale, it costs much less per graphic if you order higher quantities.”
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Laurie is part of the marketing team for the leading supplier in the industry, alphabroder. During her free time, Laurie likes to ride horses, sail and spend time with her husband and her two children. Reach her at Lprestine@alphabroder.com