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Effective E-Commerce for Apparel Decorators

Doing business online is an integral part of how the decorated-apparel industry works these days

By Erich Campbell, Contributing Writer


No longer an afterthought, decorators large and small need to be sure and establish an effective online presence. Photo by New Africa – stock.adobe.com

July 9, 2024

Selling online was once a secondary sales channel for decorators. However, it has long since become an expected part of doing business in many segments.

Certain customers find online purchasing or “research” preferable to in-person interactions. Rather than relegating it to an afterthought, we decorators should be planning for a future in which customers can self-serve at all stages of the ordering process. This in turn means mastering the art of e-commerce.

By examining the “why” behind e-commerce solutions, discussing common online store types, laying out some “best practices,” briefly discussing how best to display embroidery and other types of decorating online, and defining what we should look for as we evaluate online stores for customer friendliness, we will build a foundational understanding of how we can be our best beyond the brick and mortar.

Pursuing E-Commerce Benefits

Planning any site build requires knowing who you intend to serve and what problems your site intends to solve. Start by describing your ideal customer. Define their problems and propose solutions using the tools your site can provide. This reasoning will help you narrow down your choices when evaluating the umpteen online solutions available. What features can a tool provide that solve problems for your particular customers or your particular shop?


It may seem dramatic, but at the end of the day the underlying question should be, “How will using my site improve my customer’s life?” Though it may be only the part of their life spent ordering decorated goods, that’s the real effect you’re after if you want to capture interest and command customer loyalty.

Invariably, customers are purchasing for a reason: to come through for an event; to bring together or reward an important group of people; to help build and maintain the image of their company. In all cases, they are hoping to use your product to achieve their goals. How can your site make this both possible and pleasurable? How can you leverage the available tools and products you have on hand to make your customer a hero to those for whom they are purchasing?

Building Trust with the Decorated-Apparel Industry

Online stores must engender trust and drive interest without the benefit of any kind of face-to-face interaction in a showroom or over a countertop. That said, online stores offer unique opportunities to create trust and provide utility independent of personal rapport, thereby enhancing customer opinion and product confidence in any number of ways including the following.

Allowing for Enhanced Branding: Styling your store, assets or products in ways that promote and reinforce your shop’s branding or reinforce a cohesive brand image for your customers can increase their sense of identification and partnership with your company: either through affinity with who you are or gratitude for your intent to know and protect who they are.

Providing Catered Tools/Experiences: Particularly for company stores and single-customer offerings, you can provide experiences that address the needs of an individual customer or the market segment they represent that might not fit with your overarching custom-decoration model. Moreover, you can enhance trust by “fencing” customers into branded, controlled online spaces that cater to their particular needs. Think removing the confusion of multiple offerings, images or other distractions that don’t apply to them and might detract from their decision-making process.

Maintaining Currency: Regularly updated online content lets you look vital and current, showing that you are not just going through the motions, but keeping pace with the times.

Projecting Transparency: By allowing you to spell out your business policies, lead times and other critical information, as well as making it possible for your customers to track their order progress, online stores enhance transparency and provide two-way accountability. Customers can answer sensitive questions themselves. Decorators can spell things out in no uncertain terms and with clarity, thereby carefully defining expectations.

Creating avenues for Customer Interaction: Depending on the tools selected by the decorator, online contact can be simplified or taken into text, chat or any number of other channels preferred by clients.

Providing Social Proof: Feedback, testimonials and comments show how you handled earlier interactions and issues, further removing any imagined roadblocks on the part of customers and assuaging doubts.

Establishing your Decorated-Apparel Focus

Though your solution may bridge these definitions, deciding what category your company falls under, i.e., “general purpose” or “customer specific,” can be another extremely useful means of defining the operation of your e-commerce efforts.

e-commerce decorated apparel online store

Include closeups of product details to help customers get a better idea of exactly what your company has on offer. Image courtesy of Erich Campbell

General Purpose garment-decoration stores often feature a large, varied garment selection covering the length and breadth of your potential client-base’s needs. They require self-serve customer education functions outlining potential decoration options, as well as quote requests, artwork uploading and/or online design. In essence, they replicate or add to the traditional process of working directly with a client to select garments and decoration style, facilitating the gathering information as was once done as part of a customer interview.

These kinds of online stores are attractive as they provide a universal solution for wide range of potential customers and need only be created and customized once. They suffer, however, from a lack of specificity, as they offer a larger and potentially more confusing catalog. Art and approval handling, with or without online decoration, will also require additional online tools adding yet more complexity.

Customer Specific stores include entities like company stores, merch stores, team sports stores or school stores. Their strength stems from their being able to focus on the needs of the individual customer by including a curated selection of products, customer-specific branding, policies and information specific to the store type.

This tailored experience demands and often justifies a higher price, provided it provides a tangible set of benefits in terms of the customer’s experience. The more effortless or beneficial your site, the more likely customers will be willing to accept these higher prices. Though highly marketable, these stores are more time consuming to create and maintain, must be created for each customer and are of limited usefulness should the customer, or customers, decide to patronize another decorator.

A combination of these styles is frequently the best answer. Many will combine an informational or general-purpose custom decoration site with several individual, purpose-built stores for those clients whose volume and use justify their creation and operation.

Evaluating the Customer Experience

From discovery, where customers research potential options, through decision-making, where they narrow their options, through purchasing and fulfillment where the final interactions shape their opinion of the process, you must examine your process from the customer’s perspective and imagine how the information and experiences you offer affect that opinion. When determining if your store is providing necessary utility and fulfilling customer expectations, ask yourself the following question: What can I do to make every phase of the purchase experience easier and more trustworthy?

During the customer’s “discovery phase,” for example, you need to help customers find what they want and offer what they don’t yet know they want. Sites should provide for multiple avenues of customer discovery. Examine the way your site looks and functions for casual browsers currently debating your company, directed searchers navigating your catalog and people arriving through targeted online searches. For each segment ask yourself, what do they see first; where should they go next; what will compel them to dig deeper; how do they get help if they are unsure?

Make sure what each type of user sees throughout the discovery phase is helpful, obvious, sensible and easy to navigate. Never leave customers wondering where to go next. Clear calls to action, clear navigation and easy access to whatever kinds of information customers might need is critical.

Visuals are a critical part of the discovery process. The following shot types can be shared in the form of still pictures or screen captures from a product video. Whatever the source, covering each of these image classes is important as each defines a critical aspect of the product that you need to communicate to prospective customers.

The Action Shot: These kinds of images show the garment in actual use, potentially in an attractive context on a person the customer wants to be like or be around.

The Garment Shot: These kinds of images show the garment on its own, whether on a model or flat, showing critical features and design placement. When present, special details in the garment may be highlighted with additional tightly focused images to clarify and enhance the main image.

The Decoration Shot: The goal here is to create a flat image of the entire decorated area, or areas that is large and clear enough to let the customer evaluate their artwork in its entirety.

The Texture Shot: This carefully lit, often off-angle shot highlights a tightly focused section of the decoration, revealing specialty textures and materials. Embroidery’s dimensionality and texture, for example, is central to its luxurious and costly appearance. Show the relief, the luster, the shine and shadow that inherent with this kind of decoration. Same thing with, say, puff transfers, reflective transfers or truly outstanding screen printing.

Being sure to include these four image styles will create a retail-like presentation of your products similar to that offered by the various other popular brands out there. Though manufacturers and services offer decent options for blank product images and mockup tools, shooting the necessary images yourself or adding the decoration-focused images from real embroidered samples can make your listings more interesting and your company more trustworthy in the eyes of potential clients.

Beyond that your images, taken in total, should be: functional, showing product features, revealing product qualities and addressing any questions your customers might have before they even had a chance to arise; brand-building, in the sense that they reinforce the style and message of the shop, store and clients it serves; and aspirational, i.e., tell the story or make clear the desirable outcome for any customer purchasing the product.

In Consideration of Copy

As tempting as it may be to simply duplicate the catalog descriptions as written by suppliers, your store copy can and should do more than simply go with the basic vendor content created by manufacturers.

The goal is to present a case for your products and preemptively answer any critical questions your customers might have as they navigate the purchasing process. In addition to outlining each product’s material and construction specifications, you want your product descriptions to paint a picture of what the experience of wearing or owning the product is going to be like. Describe what life is going to be like for the customer after they’ve purchased the product, stating how it’s going to address their needs and pain points. Copy inspires imagination and answers questions. Descriptions present possibilities. Product specs drive and clarify decisions.

In writing copy for your products, answer the following questions on behalf of your target customer: Why would I need this? Where and when would I use it? How does it feel? What is it made of? How does the fit run?

Evaluating the Decision-Making Phase

Determining if your site provides adequate support for the decision-making process, means making sure it provides concrete details and options to

E-commerce decorated-apparel store

Provide any requisite information including promotions. Image courtesy of Erich Campbell

help your customer make their final selection, or selections. It also requires you to clearly explain their part in making sure an order proceeds smoothly. Make sure all the necessary information concerning your product is clear and that all subsequent steps in the process once their apparel and decoration decisions have been made are obvious. At this stage, offering potential alternate products and actions for the customer to take should they not be ready to purchase a given product should also be evident. Always give your customers a clear path forward.

Critical information you need be sure and make clear includes things like a sizing chart, a color chart, materials, features, pricing and care Instructions. Direction and redirection can/should include calls to action, related products, feature comparisons, terms and conditions, and other FAQs.

Walk a faux order through your purchasing process. At each step ask yourself what question or questions a prospective customer might have that could potentially keep them from pushing the “buy” button? Deal with or answer any and all concerns with an eye toward making the tipping point to purchasing as secure as possible.

Note that while customers like to feel they are buying logically, every buying decision includes an emotional component as well. Continually assuring your customers that their purchase is going to have the desired result and that any possible problems will be appropriately addressed to reduce any remaining barriers there may be to their buying.

In short, throughout the decision-making phase of the buying process do everything you can to provide any and all requisite information, eliminate surprises, explain terms clearly, and make a point of emphasizing the fact you stand by your product and policies. If you do this at every point in this critical stage, it will go a long way to providing the customer with the confidence they need to act—and for you to make the sale!

Evaluating Purchasing and Fulfillment

These days pretty much every professionally produced payment system will be secure. Therefore, most important thing at this stage is to make sure you don’t get in your own way by requiring your customers to have to 1) engage in an excessive amount of data entry or 2) have to deal with all kinds of confusing forms.

You also want to be sure an provide the necessary post-purchase feedback. Make sure your post-order landing page not only confirms payment but restates the terms of purchase and fulfillment. Never make it hard for customers to give you money. Never make them question where their money has gone. Always clarify what they can expect and stand by it.

Though the question of e-commerce often centers around online platforms and technological tools, the core of doing business online and off stays largely the same. Those who provide unique value and take their customers’ needs and pain points into consideration when crafting their approach will prevail.

Evaluate your work often, take away as much complexity as you can, and don’t be afraid to experiment and express your shop’s culture or support your customers’ culture in the end product. Every interaction you have with your customer, no matter the channel, is part of your brand. Your perception, particularly when it must be gleaned from an online experience, relies on the trust you build and the feelings your customer has about working with you and living in your products. Make each of those interactions count and do what you wish someone would do for you when you’re the consumer.

Erich Campbell is an award-winning digitizer, embroidery columnist and educator, with more than 20 years’ experience both in production and the management of ecommerce properties. He is the program manager for the commercial division of BriTon Leap. To reach Erich directly, go to his web site at erichcampbell.com.