Build Your Business:

Beat the Heat

Some post-production work may need to be done, such as adding hologram stickers. Instead of handling that after the printing, just have someone stand on the side of the dryer belt and add them as they come to the catcher.

October 1, 2013

For the uninitiated, hot-market printing is the term used in the decorated apparel industry for contract printers who take on the stressful, and often large, T-shirt printing duties after a sports team wins a championship. Larger players in this field either can’t keep up with the demand or they want to save time and freight by contracting the job to several printers in the geographical area of the team’s fan base. Average orders for these events usually are between 10,000 and 50,000 units, and are dominated with shirts on white, black or sport grey, or one of the team’s colors.

In my years in this business, I’ve managed Super Bowl, World Series, Stanley Cup, and collegiate football and basketball hot-market printing jobs. The sports may be different, but the stress levels and challenges have been the same. If you are thinking about offering this service, or maybe you already have one or two of these under your belt, you’ll find the following tips helpful in pulling off a successful print run.

The key to successful hot-market printing is understanding the logistics of what your client is contracting you to do and how it will dramatically impact your current slate of in-house orders. Can you get ahead of your schedule so you can drop the hot-market orders into the rotation without missing a beat with your normal customers?

1. Hot-market printing is all about getting shirts printed and into stores as quickly as possible. Some companies will have you print and deliver finished product directly to stores, while others want the shirts go to a distribution center. There is tremendous pressure to get shirts to the public and sold quickly. If the rep tells you the first pickup is at 2 a.m., count on the truck being there at 1 a.m. — maybe sooner. If you are organized and have a great crew, hitting these deadlines won’t be a problem. Setting clear expectations with your staff and having everyone understand what’s going on is the key to getting things handled correctly — and early.

2. Have each press pre-organized with inventory loaded onto skids ready to be printed. Leave them boxed up, as it only takes a few minutes to load the initial shirts on carts or a table for printing. Have each press’s inventory clearly labeled so anyone on your staff can pull it to position.

3. Some post-production work may need to be done, such as adding hologram stickers to every shirt or packing out the shirts into size ratios. These tasks are equally as important to the success of the work as printing. For the hologram stickers, instead of handling that after the printing, just have someone stand on the side of the dryer belt and add them as they come to the catcher. If you are packing into size ratios, you may need to catch the shirts in fours, rather than in dozens. Make sure your team knows and understands that.

4. After printing, your pickups need to be organized so they are ready before the designated times. Have your presses loaded with first runs, and double count everything and stage it for pickup. Have a trusted, veteran staff member review the numbers and sign off on each. For pickups, make sure you get a photo ID and signature of each driver for your records and keep everything organized with what left your building and actual times everything occurred. Have each pickup separated and clearly labeled. Box counts and packing slips are a must, and your customer may dictate what they look like and what’s needed. Entrust a staff member who is good with paperwork with this task. You will need copies of everything. If there are any discrepancies later, this paperwork will prove that you did what was expected.

5. Review artwork thoroughly to check for any problems as soon as you receive it. These files may be digital, but more often than not they will be sent to you as films. They probably will be perfect, but over the years, I’ve seen some that had problems. Have someone review and look for potential issues before burning your screens. The most common problems are copyright and trademark symbols being left off, or underbase plates not being prepared properly. If you have time, print a sample of each design a few days before the event if you think something may not work. You don’t need the stress at midnight when you realize the client’s separations aren’t correct.

Your people will make all the difference for this event. After all, the work doesn’t handle itself. Make sure you are clear with your instructions and expectations. Here are some tips:

6. Use a chart and build your employee press assignments so everyone knows where they will be working and what time to arrive for work. If your hot-market event is to print for either team, that’s the best situation, as you can just have everyone come to work at a designated time a little before the game ends. If you are printing only if one of the teams wins, either pay everyone to come in anyway at a certain time or state explicitly that employees should pay attention to the game and come in directly after the team wins. The earlier everyone arrives, the better. Have a chart with everyone’s cell phone numbers just in case.

7. Make sure your management team knows to arrive first at the shop. There may be some confusion or a challenge that needs to be handled and you want the brain trust in place early.

8. If you don’t normally have a second shift for printing, running your crews all night can be difficult. Make sure you have clearly communicated when breaks will occur, and you can even plan on bringing in refreshments (such as coffee) to make workers feel appreciated. One trick is to bring in relief crews early in the morning (like 4 a.m.) to take over. This keeps your momentum going and prevents unnecessary mistakes from occurring when weary workers stop focusing on details.

9. For non-skilled work, such as adding hologram stickers, building boxes, etc., think about bringing in other people from your company to help. Sometimes, it really illuminates the labor-intensive tasks in production for customer service reps, salespeople or accounting when they share the workload with fellow staff members. I’ve also used temporary workers from an agency (and they work great), but nothing beats building the “all-in-this-together” camaraderie like pulling an all-nighter.

10. If you have a lot of local interest in the outcome of the game, you may consider hosting a non-alcoholic tailgate party at your shop with your staff to watch the game together. Primarily, this gets your crew in the shop early so you don’t have to worry about stragglers, but it also helps curb any issues with staff partying a little too much during the game and then coming to work. I’ve
talked to reps with hot-market companies and they have seen their share of printers that have had issues with inebriated employees. Don’t let this be you. Be a leader and talk about this with your staff so they know your expectations.

Client Relations
Your customer may have someone (or even a whole crew) on site to oversee production. This is normal. Here are some thoughts:

11. All hot-market contractors will give you a spreadsheet containing information on what they need printed. These usually are broken up into the designs they need printed and the time the freight pickup will occur. These often are in two-hour increments, starting at 2 a.m. Accompanying the spreadsheet will be color proofs with color call-outs for each design so you will know which design can be printed on each press.

12. Most contracts have, as their base, the number of presses that the customer is contracting to use, with impression speeds usually calculated at 300-350 per hour. There also should be language regarding defect and misprint percentages. Essentially, the company is paying you to have your crews ready to go as soon as the game is over. All presses should be ready to print, with screens registered, shirts pulled and everything perfect. If your team loses and you are not printing, they will pay you for your effort to be on call and for the work you put into setting up and being prepared.

13. The company will send you the shirts to print. Check them as soon as they arrive for quantity, color and size. I’ve had more than one hot-market printing job where the shirts that were shipped to my shop were the wrong color. Don’t wait until print day to discover that the 10 skids of black shirts actually are green. Most companies will send you several thousand more shirts than what will be on the initial order, as they want to be optimistic about adding sales later. Make sure your counts for each size and color are accurate.

14. Designate one person to be the liaison between your company and your hot-market customer. This person will need to check and review everything up to the print event. During the printing, this will be the go-to person for questions. During the event, if the customer doesn’t have an on-site staff member, your employee will need to be available by cell phone and have access to all order information.

Odds & Ends
Here are some final thoughts to make your hot-market printing job go smoothly:

15. Make sure you have enough ink on hand, especially if the design uses a metallic variety. White and black ink are common, but check your stock level for all colors several days before the event. This means you have to physically go and look.

16. Either have someone from the screen room available to come in with the print crews, or have extra screens burned “just in case.” You don’t want a 3 a.m. disaster if a screen rips and you don’t have a backup plan prepared.

17. For optimal results, have the
presses ready with the screens registered long before the game starts. That way, as soon as the game ends, you can start printing. You absolutely do not want to be in a position where you are waiting for a press to get ready and your workers are struggling with a registration or art issue.

18. Some companies use contract printers as their secret weapons. So before you call the TV station and get the remote crew to film you printing for the big game, make sure you clear it with your customer first. Also, be wary of posting shots of the designs on your social media pages for the same reason. Your customer is essentially renting your company for the event, so it’s really the customer’s call. Don’t be offended if the answer is “no.”

19. You may need to discuss if it is okay with your customer for your employees to receive shirts. Some may have tighter controls over their inventory and will say no. Most see it as a perk for working all night and will lump it in with the misprints that already are factored into the job. Talk about it beforehand and get the ruling before you have a situation.

20. Lastly, be sure to personally thank each crew member that helps you. Pat them on the back, shake their hands and smile. During the event, walk around and talk to people. Keep the enthusiasm up. Joke and be happy. People need to be appreciated and a sincere “thank you” goes a long way.

Hot-market printing is fun and financially rewarding. I’ve found it to be much more exciting than regular orders, as there’s some uncertainty to it. There have been plenty of instances where our crews are all gathered in the breakroom watching the game, not knowing if they are going to work or not, and the right team scores late in the game to win. Knowing that everything is ready to go, and that all we need is that one score is a good feeling. Hopefully, you can share that excitement too.

Marshall Atkinson is the chief operating officer of Visual Impressions Inc., and Ink to the People, Milwaukee. Atkinson has lectured on sustainability at ISS trade shows, and webinar industry panel discussions regarding the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at or follow him on Twitter at @atkinsontshirt.