If you were to ask a hundred businesses whether they would prefer a flood of business one quarter of the year, or less spectacular but consistent work every month, 90 of them would opt for the slow but steady way.
Unfortunately, many industries suffer from extreme seasonal variation. This “feast or famine” cycle will strain most conventional business strategies, but think about the 10 other businesses in the example above. Are they simply stupid or crazy, or have they discovered something most managers don't know?
There are actually several strategies you can employ to make sure your doors are open when things pick up again. Some of them are a little out of the box, but so is a large part of the custom T-shirt business. Here's some to consider...
You might own equipment that spends half the year just gathering dust. Why not haul these to a cheap self-storage unit and move to smaller premises? I realize that short-term commercial leases are tricky, but you may be able to sublet unused space in a factory for a cheap price during off months. It will require some looking around, but dramatically lowering one of your most important fixed costs can make it worth the effort. Nobody likes to think about laying off good employees, nor do you want to have to train someone new every year. But the truth is: nobody likes sitting around idle at work. Some of your employees might actually welcome a 3-month sabbatical to travel, study or for some other reason. If you explain to them that the option is available but not mandatory, and that they are both welcome and expected to return to work, you might find quite a few takers.
Finding Overlooked Sources of Business
You will have the rates you usually quote, but you might find that you can cut those quite a bit. The intention is not to make all the profit you can, but to utilize idle capacity just to keep things going while paying some bills. Offer these seasonal rates around, possibly including free graphic design or reduced/free screen charges. Your most likely customers will be those who want to promote their brand, and operate mostly in an indoor setting. The hospitality industry and corporate trainers come to mind. Here's the clever part: you emphasize that they'll be needing these t-shirts in six to nine months, when people are wearing them in public again. Think of it either as undercutting yourself or gaining market share, as you prefer.
Harness the Creativity of Others
T-shirts are almost infinitely customizable, and there's vibrant online niche market for quirky, cleverly designed casual wear. Setting up an online shop is far from difficult, whether you prefer to do it under your own brand or partner with an existing internet retailer. The best part is that you don't even need to be especially funny or artistic: just hold a design competition for college students. Any designs you select end up for sale, while the artist is paid a fair royalty. Assuming you use shirts of high quality, this is a line with huge added value. Sites such as Etsy and Ebay are great ways to earn residual income. You can start by creating a t-shirt line for fisherman with funny sayings, maybe one for kids or something that hops on the latest trends. Once you see one shirt is doing better than the others you can design more of the same.
Supplement Your Income
Adding an extra piece of equipment may be exactly what you need to get you through the slower months. An embroidery machine or the equipment needed for trophies or plaques may bring in enough business to get you through the winter and will be an added service your company can now offer. The more ways that you have to get clients in the door will make it easier for you to sell them your screen printing services.
Get Out There
Attending local trade shows that have nothing to do with your industry are great ways to meet local business owners, hand out your business cards and let them know about the services you offer. Another great idea is to look into getting a booth at a local flea market on weekends. You will meet a lot of different people daily and some may turn into bulk orders.
Now is a great time to approach local sports associations and let them know your services are available. Hockey teams, indoor soccer, volleyball and cheerleading are just a few of the many sports that run throughout the winter.
When business is slow it is the perfect time to work on your website and add new pages, services and blog articles which will all help in adding SEO (Search Engine Optimization) to your site and help customers find you easier. SEO efforts don't always work right away, so what you do today may not pay off until months down the line. This is why it is a wise idea to constantly be updating your site and adding fresh content as often as you can.
Churches, non profits and community organizations are great sources for bulk work all year long. They are constantly holding events and selling or giving away t-shirts is a huge part of their fundraising efforts. If you give them a bit of a discount they are sure to become a repeat client.
Pick Up The Phone
I landed one of the largest screen printing contracts of my career by simply calling one of the biggest sports leagues in the world and asking who was doing their garment printing. They told me they had a few different people who print for them and I asked how I could become their printer. Before I knew it they were in my facility inspecting it and making sure we could handle their orders and probably making sure that our company was legitimate and actually existed. That was four years ago and we have worked together monthly since that initial phone call.
So there are many things you can do in the 'off-season'. Some can make money and some can save you money. Either way you can keep busy and improve your shop until the orders start naturally flowing again.
James Perry reporting for American Screen Printing Association. Mr. Perry is the owner of T-Shirt Printing Toronto, a provider of screen printing, direct to garment printing, embroidery, vinyl printing, signs, banners & flyers. He is an ASPA member and has been involved in screen printing and graphics arts since 1997.
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