It would be a massive understatement to say that the business world as we know it experienced a seismic shift in the past two years. From everyone working in an office to working from home—and now back again—a lot of employees feel like they’re on a precarious see-saw.
As we head toward 2022, still in a pandemic state of mind, work-from-home is shifting into return-to-work (RTW). Whether employees will work in-person part-time or full-time, apparel decorators and distributors should take advantage of this major change. This shift is likely to go on for a while, as some companies are headed back to work now, while others are delaying due to COVID variants.
“What’s acceptable in the workplace has evolved over the last year. Traditional business casual has taken a hit. Now, people want casual workwear like a fashion T-shirt to a short-sleeve woven to an untucked shirt style.” Gabriel Jordan, alphabroder
Plus, people have mixed feelings about going into the office. They love having no commute, but want to have lunch in person with coworkers. They’re going to miss their lunchtime walks with their pets. Yet, they’re excited about getting back to their regular office for a change of scenery. The sweet spot turns out to be a hybrid schedule: three days a week in the office, according to a new survey by a Harris Poll of more than 1,100 U.S. workers.
If you were servicing your clients during the WFH shift, now it’s time to help them out during the RTW, or return-to-work, sea change. “Branded corporate apparel works well as an overall inclusive, positive and morale-boosting tool, often viewed as a thoughtful gift of appreciation,” says Erin Leinhauer, outside sales executive, Missouri, at alphabroder. “The opportunities are endless for decorators.”
As employees return to their offices, even just a few days a week, corporate clients are using branded apparel and other products to motivate and keep them loyal. We lay out how you can help ease the RTW transition with branded apparel and other products—and jump on a new revenue stream for your shop.
“This is the biggest opportunity the promo industry has seen in the longest time,” says Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe. “We’re not going back to the old way, so this will be a hybrid of in the office and at home. People need interaction and human connection, and they miss it. You can connect on a Zoom call, but it’s not the same.”
Branded Apparel Motivates Employees & Creates Team Unity
According to Blue Fox Branding, “branded merchandise isn’t something you buy. It’s a strategy you invest in.” That’s an important distinction for you to help your customers keep in mind as they consider buying branded decorated apparel or other promo products in their team-building efforts.
“This is a great time to use branded corporate apparel to remind employees they’re part of a larger team,” says Kristine Shreve, director of marketing and outreach at Applique Getaway. “During the pandemic, working from home was isolating for some and now being surrounded by fellow workers is a good boost. Branded apparel is a visual sign that they’re part of a team.”
Your corporate buyers need to see purchasing logoed hoodies or tumblers as an investment in their people because these products can:
- Increase their brand recognition: If a company can get more eyes on its logo and brand messaging, they’ll see a major uptick in their brand impressions. As employees wear and use the apparel and coffee mugs, more people will see the logo. In fact, industry stats estimate that branded outerwear or a hoodie gets seen an average of 6,100 times.
- Improve staff morale: Employers should inspire their team, while also motivating them to become invested in the corporate goals. (Otherwise, it’s just a paycheck to them, and they’re likely to be job hunting.) One tangible way to increase morale is with branded apparel that’s both comfortable and trendy.
- Promote staff cohesion: Branded apparel helps employees see themselves as part of a team. They can form a bond from a shared identity that extends to their shared purpose at work. By extension, branded apparel reinforces the feeling of being responsible for the company’s successes, as people outside the company recognize them as the professionals they are.
“Branded corporate apparel works well as an overall inclusive, positive and morale-boosting tool, often viewed as a thoughtful gift of appreciation. The opportunities are endless for decorators.” Erin Leinauer, alphabroder
“For decorators and promo products distributors, it’s key to understand the hybrid work-from-home-and-the-office schedule,” Atkinson says. “We still have to help our clients build corporate culture and morale to retain employees. We build culture by having shared experiences, and that happens with branded apparel and promo products.”
What Are People Wearing to Go Back to Work?
Many workplaces are moving away from the khakis-and-polo casual dress. Instead, we’re seeing the advent of even more casual workplaces that allow employees to wear nice T-shirts, hoodies, fleece vests and joggers.
What’s acceptable in the workplace has evolved over the last year, notes Gabriel Jordan, territory account manager at alphabroder. “Traditional business casual has taken a hit,” he says. “Now, people want casual workwear, like a fashion T-shirt, a short-sleeve woven or an untucked shirt style, as well as outerwear.”
Add to that, employers want to retain their best employees and are actively looking for new and different ways to do this. Making staff feel valued and important as well as part of their “work family” is vital right now. “For apparel, gifting workleisure and activewear has a definite appeal,” Shreve says. “Companies are looking at clothing that encourages employees to get out for a run or a walk, or pieces designed to attract others’ attention and promote social interaction.”
During the pandemic, companies gifted their employees with WFH cozy wear like logoed hoodies and comfy pajama bottoms. “Relaxed casual wear is trending and taking off in the office as well,” Atkinson says. “You can still gift those relaxed bottoms, with a repeating logo or a logo on the hip, and throw in a T-shirt or trucker hat.”
As a decorated-apparel shop owner, the idea here is to expand your brand to include workleisure apparel. You can sell them with personalized logos for business employees, especially those who have ordered work uniforms and similar products from you in the past.
“Return-to-work kits are a great idea to help employees feel welcome in a space they haven’t occupied in quite a while. Kits can also serve as a celebration piece, marking the fact that while we may not be back to full normal, we’re taking steps toward it.” Kristine Shreve, Applique Getaway
For instance, look to these big retail brands for inspiration about the types of apparel you can pitch to corporate buyers:
- Betabrand’s great yoga-to-work pants and casual but office-appropriate tops and blazers.
- Lululemon’s urban, stylish layering pieces, comfortable dresses and skirts, work-appropriate pants, and sleek fitted shirts and hoodies.
- prAna’s pretty, high-performance blouses, breezy sweaters, and hoodies to take you from your yoga class to the office, and high-quality tanks suitable for layering under a casual blazer.
Also, because so many people are now working a hybrid schedule—working at the office some days and from home others—it’s important to keep those at-home days in mind. For those employees, consider items like hoodies, joggers and even pajama pants. The idea is to keep employees comfortable, so they enjoy the work experience more.
Add-On Products to Bundle With Apparel
“Return-to-work kits are a great idea to help employees feel welcome in a space they haven’t occupied in quite a while,” Shreve says. “Kits can also serve as a celebration, marking the fact that while we may not be back to full normal, we’re taking steps toward it.”
And in case you haven’t noticed, right now, decorators are making bank with these kits or subscription services. Leinauer has seen a lot of interest in kitting from corporate buyers. While it doesn’t have to be an elaborate affair, a kit containing two to four thoughtful, useful pieces can have a wow effect. “Employees will say, ‘Wow, I work for XYZ and they did this! How awesome,’” Leinauer says. “Your customers know that they’re boosting morale, and their employees become happy, walking billboards.”
Kits make a bit more of an impact than a single T-shirt or tumbler. “Giving employees a curated set of goods stands out and also allows companies to recognize employees who’ve stayed the course through a tough time,” Shreve says.
A rule of thumb is to gift employees with items they can use. Choose items that have a function, instead of logoed products that just sit on a desk. “Think of things like tumblers, journals or USB drives,” Shreve says.
Plus, if your clients are focused on promoting a better work/life balance for their team, you don’t have to stop with logoed apparel to promote a healthier lifestyle among employees. In addition, print shops should consider offering (and promoting) healthy lifestyle accessories. These can include blender bottles, gym bags, cooling towels, blankets (for outdoor events), baseball caps and socks.
If some of your clients have a sense of humor, Shreve suggests a RTW gift of a high-quality tumbler and a selection of coffees or chocolate for people who are waking up earlier to make their commute again.
Tip: Get set up to offer kitting before you jump right in. “If you’re a decorator or distributor offering these kits, it’s definitely an added bonus for your clients,” Jordan says. “However, you should partner with suppliers who have pre-packaged kits, if you’re new to this.”
You may not be able to offer “custom kits” to each client, but there’s a solution. “Offer kit options ranging from basic to elite,” Leinauer says.
Use Incentives to Keep Employee Retention High
Your corporate customers can also offer branded apparel and other products for employees as incentives. These can include logoed hoodies and desk accessories.
“This is a great time to use branded corporate apparel to remind employees they’re part of a larger team. During the pandemic, working from home was isolating for some people, and they like the visual sign via branded apparel that they’re part of a team. Being surrounded by fellow workers is another good boost.” Kristine Shreve, Applique Getaway
Jordan has seen corporations offer quarterly or even monthly logoed apparel and hard goods incentives. “Employees who stay on board for a predetermined period of time get to select certain shirts, shorts or vacuum bottles,” he says. “After six months to a year, these team members might be able to select a higher-end piece such as a retail jacket, vest or padfolio. This is incentivizing employees like you would with bonuses, but with high-quality promotional apparel or promotional products.”
Print shops have also been setting up and fulfilling corporate brand stores for their clients. These e-stores get branded merchandise into employees’ hands by letting them select the items themselves. You can even encourage employees to order two of each—one for work at the office and the other for WFH.
These online store credits can be for a job well done, a holiday, a work anniversary or for any major milestone. Branded corporate stores are great because they offer the following benefits:
- Help companies maintain a budget for each employee’s branded merchandise
- Give employees the ability to choose what they’d like
- Stay open 24/7, so it’s always convenient for browsing and buying
- Online, quick and convenient, since the print shop takes and fulfills the order.
“It’s a great idea for shops to setup online stores to allow a company’s employees to buy company merchandise on their time and when they choose to do so,” says La Tonna Roberson, owner of T-Shirt Shop Dallas. “This is a win-win for the print shop and the client company. An easy solution for allowing company stores to offer a wide range of products in their online store, is for shops to take advantage of using companies like Stahls’ Transfer Express or FM Expressions to provide screen-printed plastisol transfers. This allows a printer the freedom to quickly print on various merchandise, but it doesn’t slow the shop’s production—thus creating maximum efficiency and ease of filling online store orders.”
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.
Tips for Pitching Styles and Bundles… Today
As with any new apparel style of decorating technique that you offer, your success all depends on how you pitch it to customers. Start with presenting full outfits (either virtual mock-ups with the company’s logo on them or in-person samples).
If a customer can see the item (or even touch it), they can recognize its value and will want to invest in the item. The idea is to think ahead. Look at the brand—colors, vibe and aesthetic—and employee demographic. Then pitch styles and colors that make sense for that brand. Reach out to your clients’ human resources team, since they’re often in charge of building corporate culture and creating themed experiences.
Now’s the time to be proactive in pitching decorated apparel and kits for RTW efforts. “What product ideas do you have that you can hand-deliver or send to your clients right now?” Atkinson says. “Don’t wait, since there are three dozen other shops about to do the same thing. Right now is a gold rush for this industry.”
Tip: If your clients want to know how they can get even more brand exposure if they invest in decorated apparel, suggest that they set up Instagrammable moments. “For example, you’ve just sent 1,000 of their employees a cool T-shirt or hoodie,” Atkinson says. “Now, on Dec. 1, ask everyone to post a picture of themselves in their branded apparel with the hashtag #awesometoworkhere.”
As COVID-19 continues to reshape the world, it’s important for branded merchandise shop owners to stay current with new trends in the business world. By offering these new clothing styles and logoed items, you can ensure you stay ahead of the competition.
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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