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Apparel Decorators: The Holy Grail for PPDs

As a decorator, you’ll want to provide several different samples of printed artwork or logos so that a promotional products distributor can show what they’re capable of delivering to clients. Photo courtesy of Todd Singleton, Kaeser and Blair.

March 12, 2015

So, just what are promotional products distributors (PPDs) searching for in the quest for decoration excellence? We asked dozens of these busy promotional apparel counselors what they seek or currently have in a superb contract decorator. The results? There were five distinct categories of performance desired.

1. Understanding the supply chain and adhering to best practices.
PPDs are seeking alliances with decorators who have their pulse on what will please their ultimate customer — the end buyer.

“We don’t expect [decorators] to know everything,” says promotional products counselor Kirby Soffer of Bankers. “But we hope they have enough insight and experience to understand the distribution chain — what they’re supposed to do and not do, and what it takes to make our ultimate customer happy.” Basic details — such as understanding blind shipping, appropriate labeling and removing labels from boxes, effectively communicating accurate production times, rush service capabilities, packaging options and others — are just some of the factors discriminating counselors like Soffer look for when enlisting a decorator.

Distributor Molly Ginish of Imagery, who began her business career as an
embroiderer, reinforced this important criteria. “There is an unspoken list of best practices for decorators. Just ask us for it.” The first practice she covets is when merchandise is counted as it comes in, compared to the packing slip. Some charge extra for the service, but counselors universally claim this is worth it.

Ginish uses the example of an instance when one of her orders came from overseas and had an extremely bad odor. The decorator called her immediately to expedite an alternative solution. She also emphasized understanding overrun and underrun policies, which can make or break your order — depending on the type of event or promotion.

Ginish’s passion for decoration excellence also requires understanding the branding nuances in using PMS colors, either with a thread or ink match. “If the color is important, if the logo is tedious or intricate, or the numbers are big, I always ask my decorator for a sample before the job is run,” she says. “The decorator has to expect that.”

When it comes to proofing, Soffer says, providing print matrix proofs for approval prior to production makes the PPD look great to his clients. “Most decorators don’t do this,” he says. “It also ensures that the called-out printing is done right. On large orders, a photo preproduction proof can be provided. It protects everyone.”

When shipping, another best practice is that each box should be clearly marked with the contents. Soffer’s company actually requests a one-color image of the job on the box, which makes for speedy organization of boxes for check-in.

2. Providing a written list of nuts-and-bolts services.
Just as suppliers provide price lists with service options, distributors want a written list of decorating services provided in advance of doing business — along with the extra charges for those services, if applicable. “List the ones that are free first so they are prominent,” Soffer says. “If there’s an extra charge, list the fee and explain why there is a charge so the distributor can pass it along [to the customer].”

3. Safety compliance.
Safety issues have risen greatly with practitioners in our industry. If your decorating company plays a part in distributing a product in some way, then you are partly responsible for the safety of that garment or accessory.    
Longtime PPD Jeff Solomon of Free Promo Tips urges decorators to be especially vigilant with the product safety on children’s garments. All youth products are supposed to have a product safety stamp when screen printed. Also, there should be a tracking code noting that the inks used follow product safety guidelines.

“Another issue is CPSIA labeling for youth shirts,” Solomon adds. “This can be a pro or a con, but compliance is the law. Decorators are part of the supply chain and should understand the law. I choose to work with those who comply. I make it a part of my presentation.”

4. Continuing education and sharing their expertise on the product, process and technology.
In-demand decorators are expected by distributors to keep learning and share their knowledge. Ginish has a challenge for PPDs seeking to do business with apparel decorators, “Educate yourself on the [decorating] processes,” she says. “Get to know embroidery. Study the process of screen printing. Learn about the machinery and what it’s capable of. Then you can select better decorators who can produce the quality techniques you want.”

Although many distributors claim they do not have time, learning how to transform a project from something simple into something extraordinary will make your garment stand out above all others, and help you get the reorder time and time again.

“Embroidery helps you take something inexpensive and make it infinitely more valuable,” she says. “Embroidery is the creme de la creme of decorating. It can make the simplest of garments more coveted because it is embroidered. Quality really does matter [and] makes a difference. It is the most important thing. And that goes hand-in-hand with superb decoration.”

Understanding technology and sharing those advancements is also revered. As Soffer explains, “Ten years ago with apparel I knew it all — decorating techniques, products, etc. Everything was simpler. Now, it is so much more complicated. The counselor needs counseling back. Our clients expect us to know everything! The new role of the decorator is help train his customer — PPDs — in the nuances of creating a successful apparel order.”

When it comes to processes like full-color process printing, sublimation and others, PPDs want to be able to call the decorators, ask questions and view their different embellishments. Try offering sample kits of the different decorating techniques to reps or clients.

Business Builders owner Carol Cantor, suggested that once a relationship is established, distributors — and larger clients — should take a tour of the decorator’s facility. “My screen printer/embroiderer took one of my best clients and me on a tour of the facility and spent some quality time to show us some of the new and different techniques to make her wearables more impressive,” she says. “It made a big difference in her attitude and awareness about decoration on garments.”

5. Honest, transparent communication + meeting expectations = solid relationships.
Distributors will rave about those decorators and suppliers who consistently meet their expectations and communicate throughout the order process. “Be honest about the technology you do have,”
Soffer says. “Don’t say, ‘We can do four-color process. We can do digital. We have sublimation,’ but you don’t. Honesty is the best policy.”

For PPDs, Ginish recommends to begin a relationship with decorators once they do two to three jobs well. “The more knowledge [the decorators] have, the more they can teach you,” she says. “Add to what you know to help your clients. For example, talented embroiderers are artists. And they reflect on you. People will flock to you if you are the expert.”

Mary Ellen Sokalski, MAS, is the founder and chief creative officer of The Scarlet Marketeer, Cherry Hill, N.J. She has 33 years of marketing experience (including numerous industry awards), specializing in the decorated apparel and promotional products industries. For information or to comment on this article, e-mail Mary Ellen at