Getting into the Promo Products Business
Integrating promotional products into your in-plant has a lot of upsides. You have a built-in client base with internal groups and organizations who are already buying printing. Adding promotional products is not much of a stretch. But, the journey to becoming a promo products distributor isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes a lot of work, a lot of research, and a good bit of patience.
Jason Kermashek, Printing and Design Services manager at Pittsburg State University, in Pittsburg, Kansas, remembers the frustrating process of becoming a recognized promotional products distributor. To do this, the in-plant had to join SAGE, a provider of product information, marketing, and business management solutions to the promotional products industry — but doing this requires proving your in-plant sells to customers outside of just your parent organization.
“I think we were turned down three times before finally getting accepted,” he says. “Providing proof of selling products that we produced in-house to off-campus customers was not enough. I had to provide invoices of promo items that we had bought and resold. That is a difficult task when you never sold promotional items before.”
He eventually worked with a supplier on SAGE from whom he had bought engravable products, and could provide proof of invoices. But, for people who don’t know how to navigate these waters, it can be frustrating.
The payoff, however, is worth it.
Print on Anything
The beauty of promotional products is that there are so many items to choose from. If an object can be printed on, engraved, or embroidered, it’s a promotional product. That means your in-plant can sell products that people will use in their everyday lives or depend on regularly — things like water bottles and tumblers, apparel, notebooks, writing instruments, bags, you name it. If the orders are large, you can source these items from external suppliers; for smaller orders, with the right equipment, you can create these items yourself.
That was a realization that Matt Nelson, manager of Harper College Publishing and Distribution Services, came to after his Palatine, Illinois-based college in-plant acquired a Mimaki UV flatbed and roll-fed print-and-cut system.
“Suddenly, we realized besides printing directly on items, we could print decals, transfers and could brand almost anything with a professional finish,” he says.
Nelson had seen the college’s marketing and communications department outsource promotional products over the years, so he knew the demand and need was there.
“Now that we had the equipment, it was more about figuring out our process, our limitations and setting expectations,” he says. “We are focused on smaller quantities of items for outreach and fundraising events.”
On occasion, he has ordered larger quantities from outside promo products suppliers, but he tries to position the in-plant as the expert in this area, so this type of work flows through his department.
Once you integrate promotional products capabilities, you’ll start seeing financial growth. Nelson set a goal of bringing in $15,000 in revenue this year, and says his shop is already halfway to that goal.
At Pittsburg State, after three years of being a distributor, the in-plant has achieved annual revenues of $35,000, $18,000, and $106,000. That last year of significantly higher revenue is mostly due to PPE products, Kermashek says, which many colleges required for students and faculty on campus during the pandemic.
Unfortunately, Kermashek says his in-plant at Pittsburg State is not recognized by the university’s marketing department as a “licensed” vendor for promo items, which is one reason the in-plant doesn’t sell more on campus.
“Marketing has a list of ‘licensed’ vendors on their webpage, and they provide that list any time a department inquiry about promotional items comes up,” he says. “We are not pitched as an option or mentioned on their webpage.”
Getting buy-in from marketing is certainly a plus. It has helped Nelson’s promo products business at Harper College.
“We printed the college logo on some golf balls and notebooks, [and] showed them to our marketing and foundation partners,” Nelson says. “After seeing them, they wanted to know what else we could print on. It’s been a continuous stream of inquiries and project requests since. From decals to tablecloths to bags and other swag items for outreach events.”
Once you are established as a distributor and, ideally, a licensed vendor that can work with your organization’s marketing department, it’s worth it to think beyond items like pens or stadium cups. This doesn’t mean every sale needs to be an enormous order of thousands of backpacks, but Kermashek says when you only field small orders, you might not feel like your business has made worthwhile progress.
Additionally, think about products that people want to hold onto, but give them a reason to want more. There’s a chance that clients have saved the items they received years ago, and therefore there’s not as much demand for new products. Items that are time-sensitive make for solid promotions that also necessitate reorders down the road. These could be things like dated journals and calendars, or products pertaining to a particular on-campus event like an annual festival or sporting event.
Nelson says his approach has been to start small and grow from there.
At the end of the day, there’s little risk and, as Kermashek also points out, relatively little investment in incorporating promo products into your in-plant’s offerings.
“I definitely see this as a growth area,” Nelson says.
So, be creative, be smart and become an even more necessary part of your university’s marketing wing.
Related story: How to Become a Promo Products Distributor