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How to Get your Custom Designed and Printed T-shirts into Retail Stores

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Are you up to a significant challenge? If you’ve started a t-shirt line, you’ve probably already discovered that it’s a competitive landscape for selling custom designed t-shirts online. There are lots of eCommerce business models that allow you to sell print-on-demand t-shirt designs but those same companies feature hundreds, if not thousands of other designers doing the exact same thing. This model makes it extremely difficult to make any sort of real money as an independent t-shirt designer. If you do experience some success, then it is helpful to have that proven history of your designs selling. The print-on-demand method is known in the decorated apparel industry as direct to garment printing, or DTG, and while it’s possible to print highly detailed artwork this way, the resulting image is not as long lasting or as vibrant over time as screen printing. Depending on the expertise and sophistication of the t-shirt printer used to fulfill the order, the image can even fade after the first wash. While online t-shirt sales require less effort on your part as the t-shirt designer, your brand is connected with quality of the t-shirts printed, this could have a negative impact on your brand if the t-shirt printer isn’t high quality.

Because of the aforementioned issues, we recommend that serious t-shirt designers go the screen printing route for the sake of longevity of the product they are selling and their brand’s reputation. Screen printing typically requires a minimum number of t-shirts to be ordered. The more ordered at one time, the less expensive each piece becomes. The quality of the print is perceived to be more professional and screen printed designs will last the life of the shirt which is what consumers expect when purchasing decorated apparel. The professional presentation of your line is extremely important when approaching retail purchasing agents and they will look to match their customers’ expectations.

Develop some meat to your brand before trying to break into retail. Take the time and effort to develop a strong social following. This takes dedication to research on the types of posts that get a strong reaction. Analyze similar brands social accounts to get an idea of what performs well for them. You’ll also need to spend time developing relationships with your followers by liking and interacting with their content. While time consuming, having the social proof of a community that follows your brand will support your case when presenting to a retail buyer.

You can try to get an influencer to endorse your line or an individual design to develop momentum to your social following. Be aware that this can be very pricey. They do not share their influence for free. When evaluating infuencers to approach, make sure they will be a right fit for your brand’s image. It doesn’t matter if they have 100K followers if those followers have no interest in the style you are selling. And the influencer likely would understand that your designs are not a right fit for their image as well.

If you live in a larger city, consider buying booth space at an event that draws a lot of people like a “Downtown Saturday Night.” You can barter with people that show interest in your t-shirt designs to give them a free sample if they’ll take a picture of themselves wearing or showing your product and post it to Instagram and tag your account. While unconventional, it might jumpstart your following and could even produce some sales for you if their followers love the design too. These kinds of posts can also demonstrate to a buyer how well liked your design is by the public.

Create a lookbook to tell a story about your brand. There are lots of software choices for developing professional lookbooks, some are even free. Check out digital lookbook builders and templates like FlipBuilder for Macs, Lucid Press, and FlipHTML5. It’s important to put in significant effort to the digital presentation of your work. In digital format, you can easily include a link in an email if that’s the only opportunity you have to connect with retail buyers. Ideally you’d want to hire models and perhaps a professional photographer. If you don’t quite have the funds for all of that, be sure to read up on photography tips for best practices and enlist friends to model your designs.

Not to discourage big expectations for your clothing brand entrepreneurship, but you may be able to gain momentum for the big time by starting small. This means approaching local boutique owners on a personal level before trying the larger retail chains. Be very respectful when doing this. Your brand’s designs may indeed be awesome sauce, but a humble and friendly approach is appreciated by busy business owners.

You may need to get creative in your strategy when trying to get face time with the buyer for a store you’re interested in. It requires relationship building. Frequent the store and maybe even make a few purchases. Become familiar with the staff and express appreciation for the types of product they are currently selling. Try to find out when the person responsible for buying products is usually in the store and see if there is time that coincides with quieter hours. This person may be more willing to give you quality time if they are not overwhelmed with paying customers that need attention. Imagine if you had a shop full of buyers that were not being attended to because some sales person was doing their presentation. You’d probably bring that meeting to a close as quickly as possible.

Make sure your custom t-shirt designs are ready to go on the shelf immediately. This means custom hang tags and packaging. If you’re not ready with a professional presentation, your buyer isn’t likely to be ready to promote your products in their professional retail store. This also means you will already have an idea of what kind of profit you’re looking to make. Being prepared in this regard will help the buyer understand if their customer will bear the cost of the final retail price.

Print your images on a quality t-shirt product. This will increase the likelihood that your design will be perceived as a valuable commodity. If you wouldn’t want to wear the t-shirt product, then why would anyone else?

Be prepared for a lot of rejection if your designs are not unique. It’s a saturated market so designs that are similar to what is already being carried in major retail stores are not going to be well accepted especially when mass produced printed t-shirts impacts the price. People will not pay a premium for boutique wear when they’ve seen something similar in big chains for a lower price.

Have a professional screen printer in place that can handle volume when you do land your first retail account. Should you be wildly successful, this relationship will be pivotal to your continued success. Look for a custom t-shirt printing company that has a track record of successful relationship with other clothing brands. To accomplish this, the screen printer must be able to produce the same design with quality and consistency as well as having the capacity to source t-shirt products and deliver goods in a timely manner. Your screen printer should also be able to scale with you as you grow. When just starting out, you might think that a run of 100 t-shirts is a huge order. If you get into chains, you’ll need a company that can promise to produce thousands of t-shirts in the same time-frame without causing your sales rep to blink an eye.

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