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Unwrapping the Holiday Custom Apparel Decoration Market

Boost your end-of-year sales by capturing a piece of this lucrative decorating sector

By Marcia Derryberry , Contributing Writer

To make the biggest impact on what kind of holiday gift you’re trying to sell, stylize the online image you share on social platforms. Here, the cooking accessories make it clear this is a personalized Crock Pot cover ideal for a loved one who enjoys being in the kitchen. Photo courtesy of Transfer Express

October 25, 2022

Everyone loves the holidays, no matter what you are celebrating, from Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah to Easter, Halloween, even birthdays. And when it comes to gifts, the same old thing just doesn’t cut it these days. People want thoughtful and meaningful gifts—ones created with their loved ones in mind. Here’s where you, the local decorator, can reap the benefits.

Apparel decorated phonebook for the holidays

Personalization can be quite the draw for customers. Photo courtesy of Transfer Express

Personalization is the key to success in many areas of the decorative market, but none as much as during holidays. Customers are looking for unique, often one-of-a-kind items that only an apparel decorator can offer. Name drops, seasonal events and corporate gifts with company logos are all great ways to make each gift a custom gesture.

So, when looking at the Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and other December holidays, when should decorators be ready to service their holiday clients? “The earlier, the better,” says David Conner, digital marketing manager, Transfer Express.

“If you’re not ordering in early fall and are making items by October, you’re already behind. Give yourself a two-week lead time to gather buys and produce items before they launch or go on sale if you have stock-designed goods, as well…then get ready for the big sales events that encroach on November, such as Black Friday or Cyber Monday,” he says.

In fact, 42 percent of shoppers say they have already completed their holiday shopping by the Black Friday to Cyber Monday weekend, and only about 18 percent of shoppers confine their holiday shopping to that weekend, according to research by Google/Ipsos. This means you’ve got to be ready by the middle of September to start selling by October to capture that early shopping crowd.

“I try to get my customers to commit to their orders in October to give me time to get them done and delivered by the first of December,” says Jane Swanzy, owner of Swan Threads, a Houston-based embroiderer. “Also, often there’s inventory issues if you aren’t planning and ordering early. Not just in getting your supplies…it seems like customers all call at the same time and want holiday orders immediately, so everything comes in at once. Giving yourself more lead time is best.”

Order What You Need

How do decorators know how much inventory to have on hand, since there’s not really an average order size? Similarly, how do you deal with the fact that orders can be lacking in the beginning of the season and grow exponentially the closer you get to the holidays. The answer comes down to knowing your audience, says Conner.

Apparel decorated holiday pajamas

Offer holiday ensembles for the entire family to capture multiple sales.  Photo courtesy of Transfer Express

“Rather than producing in bulk and creating the designs yourself, transfers allow you the freedom to not carry materials and substrates and either getting stuck with them, rolling them over into another project or returning them to a supplier for a credit,” Conner says. “You’re reducing some of the risk and waste, and it adds to profitability.”

“I don’t keep any inventory,” Swanzy says. “When I first started, I used to keep inventory and not only did I not have room, but I ended up giving a lot away, because I’d always order varied sizes of shirts and want a couple of extra pieces in each size for mistakes. Once you pay for it and the freight and take the hit on what you can’t sell, it’s not worth having a bunch of inventory lying around at the end of the year gathering dust.”

When you’re ordering, also think beyond T-shirts. Holiday designs are ideal for many kinds of substrates, the more distinctive the better. These include not only the basic T-shirt, onesie or towel but sweaters, lunch bags, fabric-covered photo albums, tote bags and even Crock Pot covers, Conner says. “The more obscure and personalized the gift, the more popular through the holidays. Help your customers set themselves apart from their competitors for their own clients.”

Trending/Marketing Options

Christmas sweater holiday apparel decoration

One- and two-color designs are ideal for Holiday sweaters. Photo courtesy of Transfer Express

For this holiday season, Conner says he’s expecting a continuation of what he’s seen in the marketplace this year, which includes limited one- and two-color designs. This is a trend especially prevalent on online selling sites such as Etsy, he says.

“When it comes to custom transfers, screen printing still rules supreme over digital transfers,” reports Conner. “But there’s a growing trend moving toward full-color graphics that digital transfers can offer as well as hybrid, digitally printed transfers with screen-printed adhesive.” Conner says his company also offers the latest in digital transfer technology—direct-to-film (DTF)—which he suggests is another viable option for decorators filling smaller holiday jobs.

Similarly, in terms of embroidery, Swanzy says she, too, is noticing a lot of simple designs with minimal thread colors and company logos being used as identifiers on corporate gifts.

Beyond that, in terms of marketing, Swanzy says she relies solely on word of mouth, having been in the industry for decades. However, for newer or smaller decorators looking to grow, she and Conner say, getting your product seen online is key to success.

“TikTok has been a huge resource for up-and-coming apparel decorators,” Conner says. “Even though not everyone is blowing up or going viral, you never know what design is going to spark interest with people.”

Apparel decorated holiday gloves and slippers

Unique, different items such as these shown will set your decorating business apart. Photo courtesy of Transfer Express

Emphasizing the importance of a robust online presence, nearly two-thirds of shoppers say videos have given them ideas and inspiration for purchases, with 90 percent of those saying they’ve discovered items and brands via social media platforms such as YouTube and Instagram, according to a study by Google/Magdid Advisors, U.S.

“It’s usually like one or two posts that go viral, and it takes off from there,” Conner says. “We’ve got one customer who posted a design she did, and it went from two orders a week to 200 orders a day. She has been in business for a couple of years, but one of her posts got a couple of million views overnight, and she had to temporarily shut her Etsy store down while she got caught up.”

Granted, most of your products likely won’t do quite that well. But then again, you never know.

“Don’t worry about perfecting your craft or what other people think—just post.” Conner says. “We live in a technology age where magic can happen overnight on platforms like TikTok and Instagram, which are huge influencers for creative people. Remember to use hashtags and key words that you know people will associate with your product. Also, show your product in a flat or stylized background that brings context to the gift, bringing it to life and…shows the fit and finish if possible.”

Bottom line: Listen to your customers. Anticipate what they want. Show your gift options online in an attractive manner that will draw attention, likes and shares. Then deliver those gifts to your customers in a personalized and seamless way. Those four goals will ensure your holiday sales are a success.

Marcia Derryberry is a former editor-in-chief of Impressions magazine and content developer for the Impressions Expo conference program and now owns her own media communications company, Derryberry Media Communications in Blue Ridge, Georgia.

The Holiday Corporate Gift Market

Apparel decorated GameGuard gym bag

Supply corporate gifts like this GameGuard bag personalized with a company logo and individual name drop. Photo courtesy of Swan Threads

Veteran embroiderer Jane Swanzy, owner, Swan Threads, Houston, has found a holiday niche in creating corporate gifts that don’t necessarily include a holiday design, but rather the company logo and a personalized name drop. “My biggest sellers are fishing and camping shirts, as well as bags from a company called GameGuard,” Swanzy says. “My husband’s construction company was one of my first clients years ago and word has just spread that I don’t do the basic stainless tumblers, rather unique high-end items, like totes, accessory bags and coolers.”

Swanzy says that over the years she has learned what her customers like and want. In shirts, it’s performancewear or poly/cotton blends that wick moisture in the hot, Houston climate, but all are more upscale than a basic T-shirt, she says. “They are into brands. The good news is that for each order I know how many I need, so I’m not holding inventory.”