Five very different UK decorators recount their experiences of the coronavirus pandemic, the impact it has had on their businesses, and how they have responded
Alarm bells started to ring at OHM Clothing in mid-March when this year’s Royal International Air Tattoo – due to be held in July – was cancelled. “They are one of our biggest clients. It was a massive knock to us,” recalls sales and marketing director Jemma Brown. “So we started to think what we potentially need to look like when we come out the other end of this because we thought, if we just pedal now, we’re just going to go round and round in circles, we have to keep a positive outlook, we have got to think about coming out of this bigger and stronger.”
OHM closed its shops in Swindon and Devizes, halted production and furloughed all nine staff, leaving only director Anthony Brown, Gemma’s husband, still working. He brought home a single-head Toyota Expert ESP 9000 embroidery machine and set it up in the garage.
“What that enabled Anthony to do was all the jobs we still had, to enable us to tick over,” Jemma says. “We published that we were closed but we were still taking orders.” The biggest challenge was the supply chain, with many big suppliers shutting down. “Where they were supplying just their top 40 customers, we were able to get on to their list, which really helped us to keep our heads afloat.”
In April, OHM Clothing created a clothing line to promote The Great British Campout, which encouraged people to “camp out at home” during lockdown, using the Lightweight Hooded Sweat and the Iconic 150 T-shirt from Fruit of the Loom. NHS Charities Together, which raises funds to help the NHS, received £5 from every garment sold.
OHM Clothing has also stepped up services for charities generally, developing an online platform that takes over ordering and fulfilment of branded merchandise. Another project helped pub owners such as Wiltshire’s Stealth Brew Co raise money with T-shirts, hoodies and fleeces saying, “I’ve supported my pub during lockdown”.
“It’s been strange because it’s been very different to what we’ve been used to doing which is workwear and school uniform,” Jemma adds. “We were working with a printer which is totally different to what we normally do.”
With all children expected to return to school in September, OHM Clothing is hoping for a busy July and August through its business supplying schoolwear. “But we just don’t know yet,” Jemma adds.
“We don’t know until there is a bit more clarity as to what the state of the country will be.”
Squeegee & Ink
At Squeegee & Ink, the first sign of trouble was the last-minute cancellation of a big contract for a US tour by Berkshire’s Crimson Heat Tigers cheerleading squad, followed by six or seven more cancellations in quick succession. “Initially it was quite scary,” says Chessie Rosier-Parker who heads the Berkshire-based screen print and embroidery specialist with Emily Rosier-Parker.
With only two of them at the business, furloughing was not possible, and they were not eligible for any government support. “Although one chunk of business was taken away – and hopefully just postponed, not cancelled – we felt we were broad and diverse enough. Business was reduced but it wasn’t gone.”
The situation propelled Squeegee & Ink into closer ties with its community around Newbury including a T-shirt, decorated with ‘Self Isolation Club’, which local businesses could sell to raise money. “We wanted to do something quite cool that people would want to wear long term but still show their solidarity to the community. Some of those businesses weren’t getting any revenue. One particular barber got £400 from it. We weren’t doing it to generate a huge income. It’s really just putting down roots in the community to show that we are supporting them.” But it has generated more business from the Newbury area, from T-shirts to stickers for takeaway boxes. “Before we would have been looking further afield for work. This was the jolt that we needed.” While work levels were returning to normal in June, lockdown provided Chessie with a chance to develop paid-for training videos for people interested in printing skills.
“We have always been educators in the studio, holding workshops and teaching, but they’ve always been one-on-one interactions. I have wanted to get online and do tutorials and never found the time. Now I have the time.” The first was a 22-minute high-quality video on the company’s website on how to coat a screen in screen printing, which has brought in extra revenue.
Chessie also believes the company’s resilience during this time owes a lot to its move to Profit First, a cash flow management system for small businesses to help them guarantee profit from the start. They are also looking at streamlining processes to maximise profit through Printavo printing software “to make sure we are ready to go when things pick up”. They have also been building sales from social media, with 30% of leads now coming from Instagram and an increasing number via video app TikTok.
Watch a video interview with Chessie Rosier-Parker
South East Workwear
Coronavirus has taken South East Workwear in exciting new directions that have kept the business and its owner Ady Burton “incredibly busy”.
At first, the impact of lockdown meant the company’s large workwear shop in Abingdon in Oxfordshire had to close, although it reopened in June – like other retailers – with a counter for serving customers one at a time. “The business model has changed to click and collect for all the workwear.”
Several of the 20-strong workforce had to be furloughed, with some made redundant from July, but Ady and the sales team remained on site – socially distant – bringing in orders. “It makes you re-evaluate the business unfortunately and there are certain areas where we can save a bit of money.”
As a long-time supplier of NHS uniforms, the main driver of sales has been PPE, such as surgical gowns, face masks, aprons, gloves and hand sanitiser. “We were doing a lot for the NHS and councils anyway, and when it all kicked off, they started asking us to get PPE,” Ady explains. After initial challenges sourcing high-quality products, a partnership with a company in Taiwan has opened up supplies. “A few months ago we would never have even looked at those sorts of products but now we have got a great supply chain coming through and pretty much as soon as they’re coming in, they’re gone.”
Workwear has not completely dried up, such as former nurses needing uniforms before they return to work. There has also been demand for waistcoats with social distancing messages and Helly Hansen shorts and T-shirts packs, leading to one of the furloughed printers being called back in. “That is our core business so we do still need to keep thinking about that even though it’s much more fun buying in PPE and just selling it. You don’t have to do anything with it!”
While South East Workwear was able to get a Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan, it wasn’t eligible for any other government support.
“Our landlord was good and gave us a month free which is something. That loan isn’t going to last forever so we’ve got to really start getting moving again. Even though we’ve had the money coming in through the PPE, the margins are quite tight so it’s really just kept us ticking over really, even on the volumes that we’ve been doing. The business still has big overheads even with staff furloughed. There’s machinery costs, the rent – the money is still coming out of the business.”
Bristol-based embroiderer and printer Badge Design has been busy suppling its own designer and brandable face masks.
“I saw the market potential before lockdown and did a load of research so we are well ahead of the game as we have sublimation printing, cutting and sewing capabilities all under one roof here,” says managing director Grev Leigh.
“Our mask has a pocket for filters, which we also supply, and we will supply own-branded masks for a minimum order quantity of only 25.”
Badge Design, which supplies the Primate Sports clothing brand, began with its SmartStyle masks but has followed this up with its SportStyle masks which are made of a lighter, more breathable fabric that is water repellent. “This is still sublimation printable and superb for sports and wet weather,” Grev explains. “In hot weather, like now, no mask is desirable but our new moisture-managed fabric is as good as you can get for wearing a mask in hot conditions.” Both styles are available in more than 50 designs.
Based on his research, Grev has become something of an expert in face masks. He believes high-quality reusable ones need to be the future, especially as “disposable masks are an environmental disaster waiting to happen”. He also worries that homemade masks made from old clothes give minimal protection and could increase transmission if wet. “There may be situations when you will need to wear masks for long periods, such as on a flight, so they need to be comfortable,” he adds. “Many masks will get very uncomfortable around the ear quite quickly including those with a draw toggle as that will start to rub.”
He also warns decorators to include a health warning if using vinyl and plastisol ink with digital and screen printing as they are potentially hypo-allergenic. “Vinyl and ink also act as a wall so will restrict breathability and should be of concern to asthma sufferers. A small logo in the top corners would probably be fine. Hence sublimation print is the ideal.”
At digital print specialist Inkthreadable in Lancashire, founders Alex and Amy Cunliffe have found themselves in the fortunate position of needing more machines and more space to cope with soaring demand.
Back in March, they rushed back early from a family holiday in Dubai to steer the business in the face of “ambiguous advice” from the Government.
“This was one of the most challenging two weeks that we then had because advice was changing daily,” Alex says.
“Nobody really knew what was allowed. To stop us from promising a service we couldn’t deliver on, we suspended our service publically completely. We did continue to receive orders and we did stay operating with some capacity. We couldn’t have risked completely closely while we were allowed to be open and returning to a blacklog of who knows how many months it could have potentially have been.”
Although many suppliers of blank garments were shutting down, Alex and Amy decided Inkthreadable had to carry on fulfilling orders for its customer base, which includes online fashion retailers. “We support thousands of small businesses and sole traders that are selling products online so without access to our service, their income stops as well. As much as we could have closed our doors straightaway, we had an obligation to the thousands of customers that we have, to allow them to carry on making an income because at the time there was no support from the government for self-employed people and a lot of our customers fell in that gap.”
Inkthreadable bought in about three months’ worth of the company’s most popular products and now offers a limited catalogue of about 60 compared to the normal range of 220. “Suppliers are all back but they’ve increased their lead times from what they generally would be,” Alex adds. “Prior to coronavirus, we saw same-day shipping from suppliers, which went up to seven days, but now it’s back to lead times of two or three days for most.”
In May, Inkthreadable processed 2.9 times more orders than in May last year – and more than its peak months of November or December in 2019. “People are not working but furloughed and receiving 80% of their wage,” Alex suggests. “They don’t have travel expenses, they don’t have leisure expenses. They have far more time on their hands, so you have people at home spending money they wouldn’t usually be spending. On the flipside, the whole of the retail industry was closed. That includes fashion on the high street. Instead people have gone to shop online. People are finding new independent brands that they like and they’re the people that we’re helping supply and deliver their products for.” He admits that Inkthreadable has been fortunate. “I know of plenty of people that are in business who are struggling through this. I have seen many businesses having to close.”
After initially dropping plans to buy two more Kornit machines when lockdown began, Inkthreadable needed to increase capacity, adding two Kornit Avalanche HD6 machines from Amaya Sales UK in June alongside its existing Kornit Storm Hexa and another Avalanche HD6. To accommodate the extra stock, the business took over two neighbouring 1,500 sq ft units to complement its existing 8,000 sq ft site in Blackburn. But, with extra staff being recruited, more space is needed so, in July, Inkthreadable moves a mile away to premises that are triple the size. “That allows us to sustain growth for the next few years and be able to do it whilst maintaining very good service levels,” Alex says. “We suspect social distancing is going to be here for the long term now so being in a bigger facility allows us to keep growing the team to a bigger level as well.”
Alex says it is difficult to plan for the rest of the year. “Whilst forecasting is difficult being in the situation we’re in and the stability of the economy is uncertain, we’re now experiencing order volumes that we expected to be seeing not for another 12 or 24 months so we’re planning for massive scale by Q4 this year. Growth isn’t easy and it comes with uncertainty of the future as we don’t know how coronavirus will affect the economy. We’re planning for upscaling and downscaling at the same time, I guess.”