Marshall Atkinson polishes his crystal ball to predict the trends that will shape the garment decoration industry over the coming decade

As far as centuries go, this one is now out of the teenage years and starting its youthful twenties. What were you like then? I was headstrong, confident and acted like I was bulletproof. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, and I feel like going into 2020 the decorated apparel industry wants to work in a similar way. As we move into this new decade, here are the trends that I think will come to define the way we do business.

Experiential marketing

The ‘experience’ of something is a way to capture the hearts and minds of potential customers. People love to see the magic behind how a T-shirt is printed. It’s simply amazing to them, and savvy marketers are using this notion to make a human-to-human connection with their customers. It generates buzz and expands brand visibility as it’s a unique experience. But to pull othat type of printing event, organisation and the right tools are key, so you’ll start to see more of these tools – presses, travel cases and boxes – appearing in the market.

Why does this matter? First, most marketing these days is an interruption. That email blast you sent, the Facebook or Google retargeted ad you set up – nobody wants to see that stuff. But creating experiences where your customers flock to you? That’s gold. That’s when they start their own series of selfies, pics, videos, and social shares. Savvy shops are looking to create more of these instances, as customers have more social weight than anything you can post. So, how do you do that? Here are a few suggestions:

Live printing events This is where you haul your equipment to a concert, trade show, pub, sporting event, or anywhere there is a crowd of people. This is usually a one-day effort, but it can be over multiple days. Make sure you have plenty of branded giveaways or handouts to go along with whatever you are decorating for maximum splash. If you can, capture the attendees’ personal information so you can follow up and include them in your drip marketing.

Pop-up stores Pop-up stores are temporary retail locations either as a standalone spot or within a current retail space. These pop-ups are manned for a few weeks or months and then go away. The fact that they are time-sensitive helps drive the excitement. 

In-house printing events Another trend that’s catching on is to invite the public into your shop and let them print their own shirt. What’s great about this experience is that your potential customer not only gets the experience of printing a T-shirt, but it builds enormous goodwill. The fact that the event is in your shop means that future customers will create their first visit to your location, which is often all it takes to have a lifetime customer. A similar trend is to do this with school children or for parties and charge for the experience.

The impact of online stores

Online stores are intended to make the order process as frictionless as possible. Multitudes of designers and entrepreneurs are also building online fashion stores in both broad and niche markets. Setting up a store for an inspirational idea that you had after a dinner conversation takes less than an hour. These are then being coupled with a slick backend to get the goods produced and shipped to the end customer. The website owner doesn’t have to be producing the inventory or touch the order at all.

There are two major factors that are being developed due to this trend. First, since these orders are almost always smaller, more companies are investing in direct-to-garment digital printers to facilitate their production. The next big step is that contract production companies are being created to handle this demand. As more online stores are being created, contract production shops are being set up with banks of DTG printers and sophisticated inventory control and production workflow processes. The online web stores sell the garment, a contract print shop fulfils the order.


These days, large fashion brands are producing apparel that’s sourced from more sustainable methods than ever before. Recycled ocean plastic, cotton textile fibres and RPET are showing up as the basis for the garment and, from a first source standpoint, garments are also being manufactured with organic cotton, modal, and hemp. Huge brands are committing to developing sweeping initiatives on their use of water, materials, and energy conservation – and smaller brands will follow suit. 

Decorated apparel industry manufacturers and suppliers are already creating innovative products to reduce water consumption, increase production efficiency, and conserve energy and materials. So you’ll see more products and equipment on the horizon that can make a difference to a shop’s sustainability programme.

Digital and digital hybrids

Do you remember the glory days of screen printing when orders were consistently larger in scale? For the majority of shops in the industry, order size is getting smaller by the minute. So what’s going on? For starters, those large orders used to be shipped to a distribution centre or warehouse. Today, the shop that produces the order is the one fulfilling it and the shipment goes directly to the end-user. There is no middle-man. A few years ago your shop order average could have been 200 or 300 shirts. Now, you are lucky to be printing at an average of 72. When your average order size is less than a case of shirts, you really need to ramp up the efficiency, and this is where digital printing is making its mark. Will digital replace screen-printing? No. Not anytime soon. However, for shops that are interested in building more efficiency and profits, digital is catching on.

DTG platforms offer the ability to print high colour counts on low volume orders with ease. The most expensive part of the operation is the pretreatment and white underbase step for non-light coloured garments; digital hybrid printers address this cost issue by using standard screen frames to print the underbase, usually in conjunction with a high-solids acylic ink. The underbase is then cured and the digital image printed over the top. Digital hybrid printing also allows the use of variable data in garment printing process. Using the same underbase, you can have the digital hybrid platform print every shirt in the production run with a unique image. Imagine the customisation possibilities for your customers. Yet many veteran screen printers continue to see DTG as a threat, not an opportunity!

Technology tools

These days there is a plethora of ways for garment decorators to save time and money: are you taking advantage of them? For starters, I am seeing more shops beginning to make use of offshore art departments as a regular part of their business model. Shop owners are seeing an increase in wages, tighter production turns, and limited availability of skilled employees, which is forcing them into looking elsewhere for their creative team needs. Instead of having creative stain their building, they are outsourcing this to firms with artists that live in India, Thailand or the Philippines. The expense for the image creation, art separation, mock-ups, embroidery digitising, or any other creative task, is often far less than what it would cost if you were to carry out the work in-house.

Shops can also deploy technology to improve customer engagement. That chatbot in the bottom corner of your webpage can be set up to respond to customers’ questions and enquiries. Information can be sent or redirected to the appropriate part of the webpage FAQ. When the customer asks a question that the bot can’t respond to correctly, a message can be sent to a staff member to take over. Think about how this might make a difference for your shop.

Tighter labour markets equal more training 

Finding employees is always hard. Hiring skilled and talented people that have experience in our industry is almost like stumbling upon a unicorn. It just doesn’t happen much. Therefore, shops are now being forced to hire people that may have great attitudes, but limited skills in the industry. As businesses are only as good as the people they employ, this means that more shops are, therefore, spending more time on training and building staff skills from scratch.

As a result, suppliers and manufacturer partners are developing more frequent classroom-style seminars, or events at a partnering shop, than ever before. Trade show classes are on the rise. Shop owners are looking for help also with programmes, templates, or any resources that can give them a jump on the work. As new employees come into the fold, they are trained on basic skills. Current or veteran employees are being cross-trained to acquire new skills to build bench-strength. Shops are reaching out to HR professionals, or applicable software, to help them create these programmes and keep up with scheduling the learning opportunities.

Cash upfront

Lastly, the biggest trend that I see is the movement to collect 100% of the order payment upfront. Getting all of the money for the order is the best thing a shop can do to strengthen their financial circumstances. You’ll already know this if you read my article ‘Show me the money!’ in the November 2019 issue of Images. If you missed it you can read it here: Remember, schools, businesses, and other typical slow-payers all have access to credit cards. If they don’t want to write a cheque or pay cash for their order, ask them to pay on their credit card. This will have a tremendous impact on your shop’s cashflow.

Marshall Atkinson is a production and efficiency expert for the decorated apparel industry, and the owner of Atkinson Consulting and co-founder of Shirt Lab, a sales and marketing education company, with Tom Rauen. He focuses on operational efficiency, continuous improvement, workflow strategy, business planning, employee motivation, management and sustainability.