How to Become a Promo Products Distributor
The way Theresa Hatcher sees it, every in-plant should look into the promotional products business. The demand for personalized pens, mugs, key chains, thumb drives and other items continues to grow at most organizations.
“Almost every department is going to order something,” declares Hatcher, formerly Print & Promotional Sales Manager at University of Oklahoma Printing and Mailing Services, in Norman, Okla., and currently manager of events and resources for the In-plant Printing and Mailing Association.
The in-plant, she says, should be handling all that business. For one thing, it’s a great way to boost sales.
“It can certainly bring in additional revenue,” she affirms. OU Printing services generates between $900,000 and $1 million a year from promo product sales, while saving the university a lot of money over what would have been paid to outside distributors. There’s a more important reason for getting into this business, however.
“It just entrenches you deeper in the [organization’s] culture,” she stresses. By becoming the source for all promo products, the in-plant will increase its value to the organization.“
When you need anything with your name printed on it, be it a pen or a poster or a magazine, you call the print shop,” she notes.
The organization also gets a great benefit from having the in-plant in charge of promo products.
“It does let you control the brand,” she says. “You know how the logo needs to be done.”
She relates how a local competitor merely sends the customer a form asking if the design was approved by the licensing department. If the customer checks “yes,” no further follow-up is done.
“They don’t check. They don’t care,” she says. “In their mind, they’re not responsible. We are responsible. We make sure. So it’s a good way to protect your [organization’s] brand.”
Yes, But How Do You Do It?
How exactly do you get started selling promotional products? That’s the question that daunts many busy in-plant managers. “Talk to your licensing people,” Hatcher advises. “Make sure you have their approval.”
If the organization is already working with a distributor, start with that company. If not, pick a couple that have been in the business for a long time. When you approach them, try to negotiate favorable pricing based on the promise of future business. This will allow your in-plant to add its own small markup to cover administration costs.
“Then you just need to get the word out,” says Hatcher. Link the distributor’s online catalog to your in-plant’s website and send customers there. Some distributors will even brand their site with your organization’s logo.
This will get your in-plant started in the business. But there’s another step you can take that will make it far more lucrative: become a distributor yourself.
“If you want more revenue, you can make more as a distributor than going through a distributor just because you can get more markup,” says Hatcher.
Some in-plants are marking up promo products as much as 30% by becoming distributors. Sounds great, right? But how exactly do you become a distributor?
Hatcher recommends becoming a member of a promo products organization like SAGE or ASI, which will allow you to order products directly from manufacturers. Hatcher says in-plants can sign up for a trial membership online. One tip for frugal managers: “SAGE is way less expensive than ASI,” she says.
These organizations, however, want to be sure than your in-plant is not the end user of these products, which is what they’ll assume when they learn, for example, the University of Oklahoma wants to join. So you may need to send them invoices for print jobs to prove you sell your services.
Those organizations may also require proof your in-plant sells to customers outside of your organization. Hatcher recommends providing a list of your in-plant’s outside print clients, and invoices if necessary. Those who do not insource may face a challenge here. If becoming a distributor is not possible, in-plants should look into sourcing promo products from another in-plant that is a distributor. OU currently does this for Redlands Community College. Before getting too far along, Hatcher says, make sure your staff is ready to handle this new business.
“You need to have the personnel to do it,” she says. While the in-plant isn’t producing the items, there are a lot of steps involved: researching requested products not in the catalog, calculating setup and freight charges, preparing quotes, getting licensing approval on artwork, etc. At OU, two people handle these tasks, while Hatcher is in charge of marketing this and other in-plant services. In-plants may find familiarity but little comfort in knowing that last-minute orders and rush jobs are also a part of the promo products business.
“It can be as frustrating as the printing world,” she says. Though the SAGE website, rebranded with OU’s logo, is packed with promo products for perusal, Hatcher finds the printed catalog to be a great marketing tool when she visits clients. Some of the best customers are student organizations; departments like admissions, recruitment, alumni and continuing education; and the conference center.
In addition to pens and mugs, she says tech products are very popular right now: thumb drives, ear buds, bluetooth speakers, etc. Student groups order a lot of clothing for their events.
Selling promo products is a natural progression for in-plants, Hatcher concludes — an opportunity that shouldn’t be overlooked. Beyond all the benefits already listed, there’s one more that every in-plant manager should like: “If you sell them a promo item, you have the opportunity to sell them printing,” says Hatcher.
Related story: In-plants Pack the Room at PRINTING United to Discuss Promo Product Opportunity
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 more than 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.