Smart Tactics for Rising Above Supply Chain Challenges

The laggy supply chain is certainly making the news recently, with lots of headlines warning that consumers won’t be able to get the holiday decorations, toys, furniture, appliances and even favorite foods they want. Of course, supply chain and inventory issues have affected the decorated-apparel industry as well, putting pressure on print shops to get the goods their customers want.

We asked decorated-apparel industry experts and shop owners for their nine best tactics on how to handle product shortages and still meet your customers’ needs. “Shop owners need to realize that best practices that worked a year ago are no longer valid,” says Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe. “What worked in 2019 doesn’t apply now. Also, since every shop is different, you need to look at your unique situation.”

What’s Going On With the Supply Chain?

It’s been like a domino effect. First, according to shipping executives, it’s taking 80 days for a container ship to cross from Asia to the U.S. Coast ports, which is more than double the time it took before the pandemic. 

There are also container ships waiting offshore at ports all over the world to unload their cargoThis backlog of ships has impacted the U.S. market at three of the West Coast’s vital shipping ports—Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland, accounting for about one-third of U.S. imports from Asia—reaching as high as 40 waiting ships in February. Even with the number of anchored container ships dropping to the low 20s in the summer months, they’re still causing a big bottleneck, with 40 to 60 ships waiting at a time to pull into the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California. 

“If you want a different result you have to change, which is the hardest thing for people in the print industry. We have to change how we operate to solve the problem.” Marshall Atkinson, Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe

In late August, the ports hit an all-time high again, related to pandemic-related disruptions (like ship crews being quarantined due to COVID-19 cases) and holiday-buying surges, paired with a national labor shortage. The Port of Los Angeles reported that ships’ average wait time jumped from one day to between six and 8.5 days. East Coast ports also have reported backups and unloading delays.

Along with shipping and unloading delays, there’s been a global shipping container shortage. When COVID-19 hit the global stage, resulting in widespread lockdowns, lots of factories closed down temporarily, causing containers to pile up at ports. As fewer container ships went out to sea, many empty containers didn’t get picked up. 

Now, with a huge demand to stock and restock inventories, along with shipping disruptions, many thousands of containers are stranded at sea on ships docked near backed-up ports. Even more containers keep stacking up at inland freight hubs in America, Asia and Europe, as companies across most industries can’t keep up with increased cargo flows. 

“From a 30,000-foot level, the supply chain situation is a bit overwhelming and daunting when you consider the sheer amount of decoratorsfrom home-based shops to large shops—looking for blank goods,” says Tanya Doyscher, owner and graphic designer at Minnesota-based The Visual Identity Vault. “It’s scary to think about what if everything just dries up and we’re not able to get the apparel and supplies we need for jobs. The key is communication with customers and staying calm. Luckily, in our industry, we’re willing to collaborate and share.”

9 Tactics to Handle Supply Chain Woes

Debbie Mielke, owner of Illinois-based Sport Kids Couture, has seen the supply chain impacts on her shop. “It’s hard to get our most basic staple, the T-shirt,” she says. “Sport gray and black T-shirts have sold out across the country a few times. There are lots of other items that have low or no stock. This has affected my business since it takes extra time to place orders, as I go back and forth through multiple suppliers’ inventories to find what I need.”

Here are nine tactics that decorators are using to handle supply chain issues affecting their shops.

1. Build up your inventory.

Some logistics experts recommend stocking up on product SKUs you sell a lot of, along with essential decorating supplies, that can see your shop through several months. However, how you approach this will be unique to your shop. You may choose to just stock up on historically popular products. Another route is to work with suppliers to score similar items at the same quality level or price point.

The key is communication with customers and staying calm. Luckily, in our industry, we’re willing to collaborate and share if we can.” Tanya Doyscher, The Visual Identity Vault

For example, LaFave has placed orders for almost every supply his team uses in their day-to-day production for the last two months, but they’re not hoarding products. “We want to have enough on hand to get through three months of work,” he says. The NGA team has found alternative uses for their slower-moving styles that aren’t experiencing stock issues. “We use some of these shirts for PMS color matching screen-printing inks,” he says.

Throughout the pandemic, Mielke also has built up a decent in-house inventory of products. “My rule of thumb is to always add on some staple items like T-shirts and hoodies if they’re available,” she says.

Mielke also pays attention to her shipping costs when she orders from suppliers. “I try to meet the free shipping requirements whether it’s for blanks or spangle tape,” she says. “Shipping costs cut into your profit and add up quickly.” 

However, Doyscher doesn’t go this route. “Stocking up too much leaves money on the shelf at my shop and feels like a hoarder mentality, which makes the entire situation worse from my point of view,” she says.

2. See where your supply chain shows weaknesses.

This might take some work on your part. If you’ve been collecting observations and data, you’ve got a better head start on understanding your supply routes. For example, if you serve regular customers in certain regions, using certain supplier distribution centers to get your range of blanks, and using certain delivery carriers (like UPS), you might have an idea of how long your imprinted goods take to get to your client after they place their orders with you. When you’re armed with this information, you can make better decisions about which suppliers, carriers or supply routes to choose in different situations.

“We have to look at our current delivery systems,” LaFave says. “Everyone has the shipping companies they do and don’t like to use. However, from my vantage point, if USPS, UPS and FedEx don’t start being more proactive to improve their systems and processes, we’ll continue to feel the pains of the supply chain issues.”

You can even partner with a logistics expert or company that can help you diagnose supply chain issues. They can help you locate other shipping options, navigate extra fees and deal with other disruptions.

3. Short list additional apparel suppliers.

As you keep an eye on your supply chain’s vulnerabilities, branch out to other apparel and hard goods suppliers that you may not have worked with before. This can include looking for suppliers based in different geographic locations or those that are manufacturing in the USA. That way, you can ensure you’ll always be able to get some inventory during any disruption.

“Supply Chain is everyone’s biggest headache right now. Seeing suppliers add the ‘high stock’ option on their websites and being diligent about updating inventory totals throughout the day has been a huge help.” Austin Moody, Grapevine Designs

We’ve found alternate solutions to things that we need this way,” Doyscher says. “While we haven’t had to do it often, the option’s there now.”

Atkinson says more shop owners should diversify their suppliers for larger orders. “If you’re sending 300 employees each a 100% cotton black T-shirt, they could be Hanes or Jerzees,” he says. “That way, you could fill the order from the same warehouse, rather than from five different suppliers. Many shops are afraid that if they present this solution to customers, they won’t buy. However, when you explain the current supply chain situation, you can present a clear solution and usually get the go-ahead.”

Atkinson also recommends basing your quote on your highest price shirt. “If you need to fill in with other styles, you don’t lose money or need to charge more,” he says.

Quick Case Study: Recently, one of alphabroder’s customers wanted orange T-shirts, but  couldn’t find the supply they needed anywhere. You can see the thank you they posted to us on Instagram below, after we suggested they use our orange polos (and their end-customer was thrilled!).

Pro Tip: alphabroder added new features to our website to help our decorator and distributor customers serve their clients as efficiently as possible:

  • Inventory notification: If a style is out of stock, you can sign up to receive a notification when the SKU is available again.
  • Filter by High Stock: You can access styles and colors with a large inventory right on our website.

4. Hire purchasing agents.

If your shop’s sales people close deals and then place orders, you may be losing ground. “when your sales team is searching for those 250 pink T-shirts in medium across different suppliers, they aren’t selling,” Atkinson says. “If that’s the case, it’s time to hire and train one or two people who can act as purchasing agents. They can scavenger hunt for the apparel you need, so your customer-facing team can close deals.”

Atkinson forecasts that print shops will be dealing with supply chain issues for at least another year. “Invest in people now to solve your goods-sourcing problem,” he says. “Then, you can deploy these staffers somewhere else if the inventory shortages ease up.”

5. Make over your receiving department.

The way your shop’s receiving department functioned before may not be working now. For example, in the past you might have received one to two boxes for one order over a day or two. Now, as you source items from different suppliers for one order, you might get five or six boxes coming in over four days. “Instead of getting 50 boxes a day, now you’re getting 115,” Atkinson says. “If you’re not unpacking everything and logging it into your system the day it shows up, you’re already behind. That should be your number one goal.”

As an example, watch this video about the alphabroder Fresno, CA receiving team.

The fallout from disorganized receiving systems is a shop that doesn’t have efficient production schedules. “I tell shop owners that the production clock should start when they receive all the blanks, not when the customer places the order,” Atkinson says. “You should include that information in your customer agreements, so you can set clear expectations. Say, ‘We’ll get your order out five days after we receive your entire order of blanks.’ Otherwise, you’re not leaving your team enough time to do the work.”

6. Communicate consistently with your customers.

Right now, more than ever, being as transparent as possible with customers is key to weathering the supply chain issues. You can also share useful information about placing orders earlier or providing alternate product ideas. Some shops are incentivizing early or alternate-product orders with free shipping over a certain dollar amount or bundling certain items to get a discount. 

“Communication is probably our number one thing,” Doyscher says. “If we find out a style won’t be restocked until December, we contact the customer and find out if they want to wait or choose another option. So far, everyone has been super gracious.”

“The supply chain issues are pushing the decorated-apparel industry to adapt how we run our businesses.” Shawn LaFave, NGA Promotions

The Visual Identity Vault team also lets their customers know that they may not receive an entire order of the same exact polo shirt SKU or shade. “Of course, we do everything in our power to ensure the goods are exactly what they want, but we tell them we may improvise,” Doyscher says. “Sometimes as we’re placing an order, what we need literally disappears from our chart before we’re finished.” 

Similarly, honesty is the policy at Sport Kids Couture. “We don’t sugarcoat, so if stock’s available, we encourage customers to order immediately,” Mielke says. “However, we all have the customer who’ll wait a week to email their order, but then all the stock’s depleted.”

LaFave also tells customers upfront that if they don’t order right away, their chosen styles might be out of stock. “We let them know that we may need to use alternate options to meet the in-hands date,” he says.

NGA Promotions is also transparent about delivery dates. “In our estimates and invoices, we include a line that says we may not always be able to meet the listed in-hands date due to the supply chain and labor issues happening,” LaFave says.

7. Set up online ordering (if you haven’t already done so).

If your online store allows customers to quickly and easily place orders, you’ll speed up that part of the process. Doyscher, who fulfills a lot of online stores for her clients, again offers the disclaimer that they may have to substitute brands or styles depending on current inventory levels. 

Similarly, Mielke stopped offering certain hard-to-get items, and instead shows other comparable or even better styles online. “While this can work with some customers, it’s more of a hurdle with others,” she says. “Some team coaches aren’t as adaptable and always request the same styles, so we try to balance that with waiting for the styles to come in.”

To keep your cash flowing, you can also accept credit cards for immediate payment. It’s a good idea to start asking your customers to pay 100% upfront when they place their orders. 

There are some other things to offer clients when they place their orders online:

  • Free shipping: If you can swing this for orders over a certain amount, you might sway customers in your shop’s direction.
  • Discounts on your site: You can offer a sitewide discount or one based on order volume. You can also provide customer loyalty discounts for customers who hit a certain order volume with your shop.
  • Create bundle deals. This tactic works well if you want to steer customers away from certain styles and toward others more readily in stock. You can bundle complementary products, which is a great idea especially around the gift-giving season. If you don’t want to offer a sitewide discount, you could offer one on a bundle.

8. Increase prices where it makes sense, and communicate options to your clients.

Like most imprinters, Mielke has had to pass on price increases to her customers. “Thankfully, they haven’t complained too often, as they’re seeing this everywhere they shop, too,” she says. “If shipments are coming from multiple warehouses, transit times are longer, thus resulting in longer turnaround times for the customer.” 

This is also where you can raise prices on shorter-supply items, and reduce prices of styles you’ve got in stock to shape customer demand. That way, customers feel that if they choose an alternate item, they win out with a slight price reduction.

9. Pay attention to your marketing.

If your head’s spinning about the supply chain situation, imagine how your customers feel, especially during the holiday and gift-giving season. They’ll be encountering fewer product choices and working under even tighter deadlines. That’s why it’s important to stay in front of them: on your website, in your emails, on your social media accounts and in your regular personal touchpoints with them. That way, they’ll view your shop as the solution to their branding problems.

Like most imprinters, I’ve had to pass on price increases to my customers.Thankfully, they haven’t complained too often, as they’re seeing this everywhere they shop, too.” Debbie Mielke, Sport Kids Couture

Plus, as you craft your marketing message, think about how to address your buyers’ biggest concerns. Jennie Livezey, owner of Z Shirts in Indiana, clearly communicates to her clients’ pain points so they know what to expect. “We tell our customers that they might receive a different brand or slightly different shade so that we can fulfill their order on time,” she says. “When we quote an order or create online stores, we also state that delivery dates can be delayed due to delays from backorders, supplier delays, shipper delays and so on.”

Pro Tip: alphabroder added Sales Builder to our website, putting the power of an entire graphic design department in the hands of your marketing team and sales reps.

Create custom-tailored marketing pieces for a personalized and impactful customer experience.

Ultimately, the best plan is to stay alert, aware and agile. At NGA Promotions, LaFave and his team continue to monitor the supply chain situation. “We make adjustments where we need to and keep our team and clients informed,” he says.

SHOP alphabroder USA,  alphabroder CANADA and Prime Line BRANDS TO FIND PRODUCTS OF THE MOMENT.

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