Erich Campbell explains which tools and processes are needed to create a successful pre-order marketing event for independent brands, fan clubs, schools and small businesses

“I have this awesome design idea – I’m going to start my own clothing line!”

The chances are you’ll have heard this from at least one prospective customer – after all, who doesn’t have an awesome idea for a new line of T-shirts these days? Like many other decorators your response may also have been one of quiet derision and a much stronger desire not to get bogged down in managing single and low-count orders from over-enthusiastic start-ups. That said, there’s no reason why – in a world of long-tail marketing, where there are multiple ‘tribes’ with niche interests and communities built around minor celebrities – these ‘awesome’ shirts, caps, and patches shouldn’t become profit centres.

Rather than scoff at potentially low-count orders from excitable customers carrying concepts incomprehensible to those outside their fandom, you could choose to make their decorated apparel dreams a reality without exposing yourself to those losses that lead many long-time decorators to ignore these potential merch mavens. It’s quite possible, by providing the right tools to help these customers with their marketing and organisation, properly valuing the work it takes to handle these orders and teaching best practices, to limit your risk and create viable revenue.

Design forms so that they collect all the information needed to fulfil the order and share the production and delivery schedule with customers

The pre-order strategy

If you stalk favourite artists on Instagram as I do you’ll be familiar with the usual pre-order strategy. It’s far from a new technique and is practised by many customers, from independent clubs and gatherings, to schools and small businesses. For customers who may not have upfront funding for a speculative buy, pre-ordering offers assurances and defrays costs.

The practice of pre-ordering was born out of screen printing’s need to condense orders into a single set-up and printing session, with multi-head embroidery also benefitting from this approach. DTG may make automation and one-off prints possible and profitable, and single-head embroiderers have always produced single pieces, but even these businesses are likely to prefer to condense jobs to a single set-up, especially when customers require special finishing or fulfilment: a single-order will always be more cost-efficient, unless the customer agrees to pricing that justifies the labour required for just-in-time or direct-to customer solutions.

Encouraging and enabling pre-orders enables you to take a potentially low-volume client and help them attain a minimum quantity that you’re happy to decorate and which matches their budget.

Some ecommerce solutions will allow you to quickly and simply create a virtual sample on the vendor’s website

Packaging the preparation

The oft-cited drawback that pre-orders require costly pre-contract labour is half-true: you’ll have work to do before decorating, but that doesn’t require you to expose yourself to undue – and unpaid – risk. The trick is to get paid for the preparation work required to secure these orders. The minimum assets you need to provide for the customer include:

  • Some form of mock-up to show potential buyers
  • Accurate pricing information
  • Garment specifications
  • Production dates/times

To create a saleable ‘package’, you’ll need to improve on this minimum offering, adding quality and consulting to help the customer create the most cost-effective and attractive product possible and market it properly.

The difficulty isn’t in creating the asset package so much, but in convincing your cash-strapped client of its value, and that starts with valuing it yourself. Shops tends to hate orders from this type of customer because they make the mistake of treating them in an identical fashion to the classic, large-run orders they receive from their trusted sources. Do you often dole out free labour on basic mock-ups and art alterations before any agreements are made? While this may pan out with larger orders, speculative, small runs aren’t guaranteed to cover these costs: hence, the requirement for a different approach to this market sector.

Pre-ordering allows brands to test how popular certain garments are without paying for samples

The ‘product’

This is why you need to create a preorder package that collects valuable assets and makes selling easier. Packaging these assets and educating customers on the pre-sale process is your justification for charging for work we might have performed gratis for larger, more secure customers. Packages should include:

  • High quality mock-ups of the decorated product made for social media promotion and/or files to print preview flyers – i.e. not wireframes or simple art mock-ups that we might use for a usual quote request
  • Forms, online or off, that enable the simple collection of order information and include everything customers need to know about production and delivery schedules
  • Garment/accessory specs or sheets that provide necessary sizing and construction information
  • Optional: online ordering and/or payment systems for previewing and collecting information and/or payment before production.

Pre-ordering allows brands to test how popular certain garments are without paying for samples

The value proposition

Still feeling reticent about charging a profitable amount based on the time required to create this finished package? Then you need to remind yourself of the very real benefits these tools provide and which will help you to justify the cost to your customer. For example:

  • High quality mock-ups using images specific to chosen garments/accessories are not only more enticing than self-made, generic mock-ups, they prevent the ‘surprises’ that may occur if you’re only showing design previews, or when finished garments don’t match generic mock-up templates
  • Organisational forms make it easier and less onerous for your customer to collect information. Moreover, online tools can entirely remove your customer from chasing the orders, payments and information necessary to realise production (leaving them more time to market their designs)
  • Pre-ordering allows your client to test audience reaction to a product for a nominal cost, and is much cheaper than creating complete samples for most processes. With appropriate warnings, you can make production contingent on receiving a minimum volume of orders upfront, meaning clients never end up with a garage full of unsold, spec-printed product.

Accurate mock-ups can be made in programmes such as Wilcom, and help prevent issues where the finished product doesn‘t match the generic on-screen product that the customer believed they were buying

Scalable for any set-up

No matter which tools a shop uses, any decorator with the basic kit needed to create garments will be able to produce the assets required for a pre-ordering offer. You simply need to find a balance between reducing labour and ensuring a quality product.

Subscribers to ecommerce solutions with online designers have the simplest route, creating mock-ups online and supplying a campaign link directly to clients. Almost everything you want to provide is intrinsic to the tools, from garment information to quality product images, to the ability to collect information and funds.

Decorators without access to these solutions can create manually processed pre-order packages by using supplier-provided product images and information, together with standard graphics software or embroidery suites, to create composite images for online consumption and offline assets for face-to-face sales. Luckily, many apparel vendors provide not only images you can use in your favourite design software, but often have their own online mockup and design tools for decorators who don’t have the access or the time to use more feature-complete solutions.

Choose the final order date for the campaign and stick to it

Ensure online pre-order countdowns can be seen on mobiles and tablets as well as desktop screens

Portraying best practices

Your consultation skills provide the rest of the value you’ll sell to preorder customers. Though decorating experience makes product and design consulting easy, it’s sales and marketing assistance that can make your customer successful and your shop stand apart. To that end, here are three crucial tips to get your customer’s promotion on-point:

Curate Content Start with one design. Clients often clamour to launch an entire line of designs for pre-order, but it’s up to you to encourage them to select their most marketable piece and place the weight of their promotional efforts behind it. Starting with a single design makes offerings less scattered, makes set-up easier and less costly, and increases the chance of a significant order.

Limit Choice It may sound negative, but there’s truth to the ‘tyranny of choice’ when it comes to decorated apparel. Traditional customers falter when faced with catalogues featuring hundreds of similar garments; the same happens to their end customers. Choose one or two garment styles in one colour selection. Remind the customer they can always follow-up with a second run and offer new versions. If the design is a hit, they may see return sales when running additional promotions for new colour schemes or garments rather than forcing a single selection. Limiting choice helps to clarify decision-making and creates a sort of artificial scarcity that some lines use to create ‘collectible’ pieces.

Stick to the Schedule Set and communicate a final order date and stick to it. It is tempting to take straggler orders, but both you and the client need to avoid the temptation to chase what amounts to a second, smaller order that eats into profitability through lost efficiency or delays delivery. To create a ‘second chance’ sale, set a delivery date padded with enough time not to delay production or delivery before you begin the promotion.

It’s true that the boutique, small run market may be more complicated than the large scale, single-image orders, however there’s no reason why serving the former can’t be profitable. If you employ a strategy that educates and enables your customer, you may find that you’ve not only positioned yourself as the go-to supplier for an underserved sector of the market, but that you’ve gained a secondary sales force.

Value your time, provide a product that you can proudly charge for and which creates profit for your client, and you’ll find out just how much growth a little pre-order preparation can drive.

Erich Campbell is an award-winning digitiser, embroidery columnist and educator, with 18 years’ experience both in production and the management of e-commerce properties. He is the partner relationship manager for DecoNetwork in the USA.