Marshall Atkinson urges garment decorators to be as agile as Rocky Balboa if they want to succeed in business

Ahhh. A new year. To me, it’s like enjoying the sunrise view from a beautiful terrace while sipping on a fresh cup of coffee. Birds are singing. Life is grand. Plenty of things can happen, and we all wonder how the day will turn out. Let the adventure begin! So how will the decorated apparel industry take to this new year? Are you as excited as I am? I’ve got my crystal ball fired up with some new batteries, so let’s see what might happen!

Online production speed

Because of the advent of the physical store retail apocalypse, the continuing trend is still going to see massive sales occur online. Customers have been learning that you can get purchases quickly. And with every purchase online they are being trained that you don’t need to go to a store. This puts tremendous pressure on reducing order production turn-times.

Gone are the days when shops had ten business days to turn orders. Now, with the online marketplace demanding immediate shipping, shops are staring down the need for speed. Can you ship orders the same day or next? No? Well, that’s coming, so get ready.

Any app, consumable, gizmo or equipment that is marketed for performance or efficiency will be aimed squarely at solving this challenge. That’s why so many decorated apparel companies are eyeing digital technology for printing, and why the equipment manufacturers have been steadily improving their technology to rival the speed of a traditional automatic screen printing press.

It is going to be very difficult to compete if you’re only using older tools and technology.

I also see more start-up companies popping up to cater to the online fulfilment needs of Shopify and Big Cartel-type stores. Why handle the production end when they can outsource that and just concentrate on sales? The firms that make the fulfilment and production end easy for T-shirt selling platforms will see a big increase in their market share.


To me, great selling apparel ideas are always 50% the design on the shirt and 50% the garment chosen. Apparel blank choices matter if you want to win.

I don’t see the athleisure trend dying out anytime soon. Coloured heather apparel is still going strong as a go-to blank. Triblends will still be huge. Walking around I see more 16-30 year-olds wearing garment-dyed shirts than ever before.

But what’s interesting is more apparel companies are solving the dye migration issue with polyester and changing their way of manufacturing the blanks. Look for more apparel manufacturers to use waterbased print decorating techniques for their fabric patterns. This will allow printers to decorate their blanks with regular ink, and not have to worry about their white ink turning pink. Someone is finally listening!

Also, better quality and more retailoriented shirts will still stay strong. Consumers are wanting softer fabrics and different cuts.

I think we’ll see more variety and interesting concepts with apparel blanks in this area. This is a great trend, as shops can drop bigger numbers to their bottom line by not using a basic shirt as the starting point for orders.

We’ll see more retail-oriented patterns, textures and interesting concepts that will make creative designs sing even louder.

Let me ask you a question: when you move away from the basic T-shirt, do you find better success in your shop?


Frankly it’s about time this industry adopted more mainstream sustainable methods for manufacturing and printing. I’m happy to see more movement in this area from all points of the compass.

Apparel companies are using more organic and recycled materials in constructing their apparel lines. This is a good trend and resonates with buyers who want an eco-friendly garment.

Ink companies are even getting in on the act, with Magna Colours promoting its line of eco-pigments. But more ink companies are looking at reducing crocking temperature points too. This is primarily aimed at the dye migration challenge, but an additional benefit is less energy usage in your shop.

Remember, sustainability and efficiency go hand in hand. So, any marketing for companies that talks about efficiency, effectiveness or product performance can align with sustainability too. Being more efficient and using less of anything is sustainable.

This also includes equipment manufacturers. For example, Saati has a new computer-to-screen unit, the Saati LTS 608, that uses lasers to image the screen and is engineered specifically for the apparel industry. No toner or wax needed. Ever.

Eliminating steps in any process is something I like.

Online sales platforms

Earlier in the article I mentioned the retail apocalypse and how the new wave of selling is all going online. Shops that make ordering convenient are seeing huge growth. This is true for fundraising campaigns, school and B2B stores programmes and, of course, retail. Get in on the act by building a convenient way for your customers to order from you.

But if you build an e-ecommerce site, don’t forget the most important piece to making it work. Marketing. Shops that are dominating this space are the ones that are mastering the art of linking their site to their customers. This is often through social media-driven channels.

One of the things that I’m seeing is more shops using social media to connect to their audience. Short videos posted on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn demonstrate their capabilities. I’ve seen some great examples recently using GoPro cameras, fun camera angles, quick editing and even some in-house produced music.

Decorating more than shirts

More shops than ever are adding more capabilities to their line up. Shops are now decorating shoes, phone cases and other products. This is happening with sublimation or digital printing. Screen printing is still being used for traditional products such as promotional items or technology devices. This is a great idea. The equipment is there. Why not use it?

What have you tried to decorate lately? Plenty of shops are dropping more cash to their bottom line by selling package deals instead of just the shirts for events. What shops are finding is that there is plenty of competition with decorating a T-shirt or embroidering a pullover, but not so much for sublimating a pair of socks or branding a mobile phone case.

Your skill as a decorator can be a market differentiator if you look at different products rather than just what’s ‘standard’.

Focus on the business

In these days of ever-increasing competition you can’t just focus solely on the decoration method for your efforts with improvement. Other points, such as labour costs, workflow efficiency, even shipping, are playing a big part in discussions.

One challenge is to level out your sales so there are no slowmonths. Businesses will focus more on their long term strategy than ever before. New technology and increasing demands from venture capital-funded, bigger businesses are going to make smaller companies find new ways to capture sales.

Technology is great, but there still is a human element to it. Shops that master this aspect do so by demonstrating their personality and character. This shows up in their branding. Those that make that person-to-person connection with their customers will see more business flow their way.

A new era

I’m excited for the new year. My take on the industry is that we are on the cusp of a new era with digital technology playing a bigger role in the industry. Not just in printing, but in how shops communicate, take orders and thrive.

Here are four things to ponder while you enjoy another cup of coffee and start your day:

  • Where is your market heading?
  • How can you solve your customers’ pain points?
  • What is your competition doing?
  • How can you differentiate your shop and stand out?

My takeaway advice for 2018? Do something to get 1% better every day.

Marshall Atkinson is a leading production and efficiency expert for the decorated apparel industry, and the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC. He focuses on operational efficiency, continuous improvement and workflow strategy, business planning, employee motivation, management and sustainability. Marshall is a frequent trade show speaker, article and blog author, and is the host of InkSoft’s The Big Idea podcast.