Digital Trends You Shouldn’t Ignore in 2021
Digital Trends Prevail From Equipment to Communication. While analog is not going away, the digital age has truly arrived in the form of printers, communication, sales and marketing.
The two strongest trends I see impacting the decorated apparel industry in 2021 can be divided into two overlapping categories: new technology and digital. That makes a lot of sense if you know what I do.
In my position as director of innovation at M&R, I spend a significant portion of my time testing and experimenting with new decorating equipment and techniques to see what the capabilities and limitations are. Last year, my major focus was on a hybrid system, which is a process that combines a screen printed underbase with a DTG printer spraying color on top. This year, my focus has been on digital direct-to-garment printing.
Hand in hand with the research I do is educating the market about what I learn. My department does videos, educational pieces and marketing that explain what this new technology is, how it works and how to take the greatest advantage of it in your shop.
I also spend a lot of time talking to printers and others in the industry about these subjects as well as the day-to day challenges in today’s textile printing operations. Because my job is also finding solutions to these challenges.
There is one overall conclusion I have reached from all that has happened this past year. As expected, the pandemic put some shops out of business; but there are also companies where their business exploded. And the shops that seem to have done the best are those that are embracing the new digital technologies in all areas of their business.
Here are some of the trends as I see them:
The New Digital Business Models
Business in 2021 is never going to completely return to the way it was before COVID. Those who were creative and innovative found new ways to do business within the pandemic-caused limitations.
When concerts and tours were cancelled, I thought tour merchandise would completely die, but fortunately, it’s been quite the opposite. Merch printers pivoted by doing small runs and coming up with unique offerings to sell online.
This way of doing business fits the evolving digital decorating model because of the smaller volume and greater variety of artwork. So, we see that certain things can survive a pandemic if you can get creative and pivot.
And you might have to do that multiple times. It might not be a situation where you do it once and keep going. You've got to keep exploring. Once you’ve made the equipment investment, smaller inventory and product–to–order, helps control costs of development.
It’s harder to stand out in e-commerce when everyone else is doing it and when you can’t make personal connections. So it’s the product that has to stand out.
In addition to great product, you also have to have memorable customer service and dependable fulfillment. The question to keep asking is: “What is my new relationship with my customer, and how do I maintain it?”
Hybrid: The New Frontier
Hybrid printing is ideal for the new business model that is trending, which is smaller quantities with a higher degree of personalization.
Also, with hybrid, you can incorporate special effects that you cannot do with DTG alone. These special effects allow you to further distinguish your printed designs and set them apart. Hybrid, with its unique advantages, opens the door to new markets and opportunities for those willing to embrace it.
In my conversations with printers about how to market hybrid decorating, it is this mentality I am trying to inspire. Here’s an example:
You have a theme restaurant on the beach that comes in once a year and buys 300 pieces. It’s located in Maryland, so it has all four seasons. Like all businesses, it has slower times and now, on top of that, the pandemic. So maybe they cut their annual order in half.
But you have a hybrid setup, and you recognize this is a unique time for trying new ideas so you look at the piece of artwork you normally print and start to brainstorm.
And you come up with some variations. One example might be in October, you play off it being national breast cancer month and you offer a “Pinktober” version. Then you change it up some more to give it a Christmasy feel and then for the month of March, put a St. Patrick’s Day twist on it.
By doing that, instead of trying to sell the same design all year long, they have a fresh design once a quarter to give customers a new reason to buy. For loyal patrons who already have the original design, they get excited about the Christmas version, when they are picking up takeout for an at-home seasonal celebration.
Maybe the restaurant offers a free holiday T-shirt in exchange for an order over a certain dollar amount or for using them to cater a party (post-COVID). Maybe a fresh design is created for a special online promotion. Encourage them to offer a wider variety of designs on more styles to give regulars more merchandise to add to their collection.
The point is work with your customer to help them sell more merchandise during a time when food sales are down. Show them how they can do this. Make samples that show what your equipment is able to do.
It starts to open up a creative space, and it's not a huge risk if they're placing their usual shirt order. You might add only five new pieces of the fresh design or printed on a new style.
Hand in hand with persuading them to experiment with some new designs and styles is getting them to put the new designs on their website home page. They can show off apparel that’s a little bit different, more customized, but isn’t going to cost them any more than what they usually pay.
The new way of doing business is to encourage clients to be creative and show them how you can help them. This is just one small example. There are tons of similar things any printer can do.
Here’s another idea. You offer a template design with a circle in the center. The circle is what you screen print as an underbase. Your customers can fill that circle with whatever art and however many colors they want. It only requires one screen for the underbase so that saves costs, because it's the same setup for everyone.
The digital printer lays down the colors, and it doesn’t even have to be the same design each time. The customer might want one design on T-shirts and another on hoodies. The possibilities are endless.
There's opportunity everywhere. You just have to think of it as "How can I reach my market in a unique way that gives them an advantage and me an advantage, and explore that space."
In the past, when designs were screen printed on an automatic, the risk was having to commit to a design and print large quantities. When you do not need to create huge inventories, the risk decreases. It allows you to get creative and experimental.
And experimental does not apply to only the printing. We continue to explore what the hybrid can print on. Within the past year, we’ve done safety vests, transfers, polyester safety hoodies with reflective ink, and even coasters.
One day someone was joking around and commented that we could probably print tortillas on the hybrid. And I thought, "Hmm, that’s an interesting idea." So I went to the store and got some tortillas, and we printed them. The design was the ingredients you would put in a tortilla, and they actually looked amazing.
Creativity and experimentation are two keys to standing out in the market. I encourage all shops, no matter at what level, to always keep exploring make the most of what they have. Push outside your comfort zone to find new ways to serve today’s customer.
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