Learning — and Earning — With T-Shirt Printing
Pradeep Mishra is an educator as well as an in-plant manager. His in-plant’s venture into T-shirt printing has been serving both purposes with equally satisfying results.
As an instructor in graphic communications for Arkansas State University’s Department of Media, Mishra saw in T-shirts an opportunity to train his students in a process that represents yet another example of convergence — the adoption by in-plants of products and services outside their traditional range of offerings.
“Customers prefer to do everything in one place,” observes Mishra, director of A-State Printing Services in Jonesboro, Ark. This includes shopping for “niche personalized” T-shirts. Providing them has added revenue and reputation for the nine-employee in-plant, and convinced the campus population that Printing Services is the best place to go to get them.
Colorful shirts printed as one-offs or in small batches have been on the in-plant’s menu of services for about three years. Mishra says he conceived the idea during a trip with his students to a trade show, where he saw the inkjet printing device he would ultimately purchase for the project.
Tool for the T-Trade
This was an Epson SureColor F2000 direct-to-garment printer, a unit that Mishra says “does an excellent job” on the 100% cotton T-shirts he sources from Cotton Heritage, a supplier of premium apparel blanks. Supplementing the Epson printer with a George Knight heat press and a pretreatment machine for dark tees gave the shop everything it needed to begin promoting the new offering.
Customers have included individuals as well as academic departments, teams and clubs, and the university’s network of fraternities and sororities. Spring break usually brings a flurry of orders from the latter organizations as they seek custom-designed shirts to commemorate their revels. State agencies and state schools without their own T-shirt printing capability can place orders as well, Mishra says.
He emphasizes that despite this diverse customer base for T-shirts, printing them is and will remain a low-volume activity for the in-plant. His rough estimate is that other than one-offs, orders typically run from 25 to 40 shirts at a time, with the workload averaging about 25 shirts per week.
The largest order ever handled was for 100 shirts — a job Mishra says the in-plant agreed to tackle because the customer, a club, wanted white shirts that could be turned around quickly without the need for pretreatment.
It makes more sense, he says, to focus on printing small quantities of specialty designs for which the in-plant “can charge a little extra.” But he notes that printing T-shirts has been profitable even on this modest scale, adding the equivalent of about 5% of the shop’s total revenue each year. The margin, he says, “is pretty good,” and it gets better as the customer asks for more areas of the T-shirt to be printed, such as the back and the sleeves.
Priced ‘Pretty Close to Market’
“We stay pretty close to market” in terms of retail price per shirt, Mishra reports, noting that if university employees want to buy shirts from an outside supplier, they have to obtain three bids first — a requirement that usually makes A-State Printing Services the more convenient choice. But, he adds that this isn’t an advantage the in-plant tries to leverage for the sake of extra profit.
Orders originate as walk-ins at the in-plant’s front office and as submissions via email. The shop accepts .png files that it converts to printable artwork, cleaning up the images for output as needed. Not acceptable, says Mishra, are hard-copy originals or anything created in Microsoft Publisher, which the shop’s Mac-based prepress workflow doesn’t support.
Printing a T-shirt takes only a little time “if the machine is on,” he says. (The Epson SureColor F2000 needs about 20 minutes to come to full function once it is powered up.) Then, the customer can have his or her shirt within half an hour of giving the shop a print-ready file.
Inkjetting T-shirts on the Epson device “is a very clean and neat process,” according to Mishra, who adds that it’s much preferable to screen printing for the kind of volume the in-plant is handling.
Something to keep in mind, he says, is that it’s necessary to pretreat dark fabrics prior to printing with a surface solution for proper ink adhesion and holdout — otherwise, white ink and the colors printed over it will look dull and muddy. (White and light-colored shirts can be printed without pretreatment.) Mishra says he’s experimenting with already-pretreated T-shirts which, if they prove compatible with his equipment, should remove further time and steps from the process.
T-shirts: A Great Fit
T-shirt printing has fit comfortably into the routine at A-State Printing Services, which has been serving the university and other state entities for more than 60 years. Operating with nine full-time employees as well as student workers in a 10,000-sq.-ft. production facility, the in-plant has a cross-section of printing equipment that includes a four-color Heidelberg Speedmaster SX 74 with a coater; a Xerox Color 1000i digital press; and an HP Latex 360 wide-format printer. Folding, saddle stitching, cutting, and trimming are all available in the bindery.
The shop offers a full gamut of the products that would be expected of an in-plant serving a campus population of more than 15,000. Like every other academic in-plant, Printing Services hopes that selling one type of product will drive the purchase of other products — a reciprocal flow of business that T-shirts complement very nicely.
“It happens all the time, both ways,” Mishra says, explaining that the I-didn’t-know-you-did-that reaction can prompt a T-shirt buyer to order print or a print customer to request a T-shirt. This is why the in-plant is considering adding promotional products to its one-stop shopping inventory, he reveals.
Just Steps Away
Mishra says word of mouth has done an effective job of letting people know they don’t have to go off campus to buy high-quality, competitively priced T-shirts. The shop also promotes this and its other services by taking part in the school’s annual vendor fair, where it exhibits alongside external suppliers like AT&T and OfficeMax.
In-plants that want to operate as full-time T-shirt shops are free to do that if they’re prepared to invest in screen printing systems and other equipment for high-volume output, Mishra observes. Printing Services, however, has found its sweet spot in the “niche market” it serves on the Arkansas State campus with its boutique approach.
But, marketing doesn’t overshadow education, which remains the in-plant’s co-equal reason for embracing T-shirt printing in the first place. Both as a sellable commodity and as a teaching tool, the T-shirt has proven itself to be something “that can improve and enhance the experience of our graphic communications graduates,” Mishra declares.
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