From the Editor: Garments: Opportunity or Albatross?
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I talk so much about the need to add new services that sometimes I’m taken aback when someone tells me “We tried that and it didn’t work.”
Case in point, when I was running an in-plant breakfast forum in Las Vegas last October during PRINTING United Expo and one of my panelists, Dave Earp supervisor of Print and Mail Services at Lake Land College, told me, in front of a roomful of in-plant managers, that despite my recommendation, garment printing just wasn’t for his shop.
“The margins that we were achieving just didn’t make sense for us,” he reiterated on a recent Zoom call – especially in light of the much better profit his shop was making from its wide-format printing business. “I’m making 20 bucks a banner versus making $1.10 on a T-shirt. Does that make sense?”
The question of where to devote your resources for the best result is a crucial one to ask for any in-plant eager to add new services. In Lake Land’s case, expanding wide-format services was the right direction due to skyrocketing demand. The in-plant generates about $500,000/year from this business, so clearly it’s been a good call.
Yet other in-plants have developed thriving garment printing businesses. Encompass Health Print Services gets about 10% of its business from apparel decorating, says Danny Kirkland, national director, who notes that the in-plant saves the company $200,000 per year for this work while keeping control of the branding. Arkansas State University Printing Services gets the equivalent of 5% of its annual revenue from garment printing. The in-plant uses an Epson SureColor F2000 direct-to-garment printer to print about 25 shirts per week.
Sacramento State University Print & Mail just bought a Stahl’s Hotronix Fusion IQ 16x20" heat press at PRINTING United Expo, intending to get into the apparel-printing business. Director Laura Lockett sees a good opportunity in garment printing. The campus theater department, she points out, does three or four productions a semester and orders 20-50 shirts for each. She intends to provide these shirts.
“I think it will really resonate with our student life people, especially all the Greek clubs and organizations,” she told me. “The entry point to it is really reasonable.” The heat press cost about $3,000, Laura said, and the in-plant will buy transfers from Stahls’ Transfer Express.
She plans to have a new employee handle the garment production, and is also working to expand the shop’s wide-format area.
“Doing T-shirts is not going to slow it down,” she said.
Laura has encountered some challenges, though, such as getting shirts. Not all suppliers will sell directly to her shop. Supply issues have thwarted others too. Charlotte - Mecklenburg Schools’ in-plant got into the garment business with gusto years ago using a direct-to-garment printer. But then it backed off.
“It came down to an inventory control issue. Too much trouble chasing down the different sizes and colors of shirts,” said Alvin B. Griffin, director of the Graphic Production Center. “We found it was more profitable to partner with 4Imprint,” a promotional products company.
There are other perils, too. One in-plant, which I won’t name, had its garment printing operation shut down by the university after printing a shirt design that some found offensive. So there’s that.
And if your plan is to print and sell school logos on shirts, you’d better make sure the licensing and purchasing departments are on board. Those rights may have already been doled out. Debbie Cate came up against licensing issues at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center that restricted use of the logo. Purchasing also had rules governing T-shirt sales. The in-plant found it too complicated to navigate all this, so it never even started printing apparel.
“My only advice is make sure you know your institution’s rules before you invest,” she advised.
Dave Earp of Lake Land also recommended in-plants be prepared before opening their wallets. His shop bought used equipment from a school district and had a tough time getting it to work right.
“For the first three months of doing T-shirts, we probably tore up more than we delivered,” he recalled. But today’s equipment is more automated, he acknowledged.
“Make sure that you have the proper equipment,” he said, from experience. “If you’re really going to do it, do it right.”
Any in-plant looking into garments should do plenty of homework, not only on the equipment but to assess the demand. Will the value you provide justify the resources it will take? Could you add student workers or volunteers to do this? Or is it smarter to focus all your energy on other profitable services, knowing this is one less item you can provide your organization?
For many, like Oregon State University Printing & Mailing Services, which just started providing dye-sublimation printing of mugs, coasters, and T-shirts, it’s worth a shot.
“I think it’s a good business to be in,” remarks Director Jeff Todd. “It will probably be our fastest-growing area over the next couple of years, but there’s definitely a learning curve to it.”
Those are just a few points of view from in-plants that have looked into garment printing. It’s up to you to see what works in your situation, but definitely look into this and other value-added services.
Bob has served as editor of In-plant Impressions since October of 1994. Prior to that he served for three years as managing editor of Printing Impressions, a commercial printing publication. Mr. Neubauer is very active in the U.S. in-plant industry. He attends all the major in-plant conferences and has visited nearly 170 in-plant operations around the world. He has given presentations to numerous in-plant groups in the U.S., Canada and Australia, including the Association of College and University Printers and the In-plant Printing and Mailing Association. He also coordinates the annual In-Print contest, co-sponsored by IPMA and In-plant Impressions.