Are your trips to the local shopping centre really a mission to check out the competition? You’re not alone. Marshall Atkinson reveals the secret shopping habits of a successful garment decorator

From left: Bluewater Guildhall Christmas, Juicy Couture tee and North Face right shoulder logo placement

I’ve done it. You’ve done it too. You are sitting there waiting for your spouse/partner/friend/significant other, your mind wandering and bored, when someone walks by wearing a T-shirt. Your first thought is, “Crikey, who printed that? Look how off-centre it is!”
And once you start, you just can’t stop. I’ve even had a shop assistant ask me, “Who are you?” when she noticed me micro-examining a T-shirt next to a big rack of their latest designs. “I’m the T-shirt police, madam. This print was under-cured, and I’m afraid you’re going to have to come with me.”

We all do it

When garment decorators go to the local shopping centre we’re incapable of trying on a few clothes, buying some of them and then retreating to the nearest cafe. Here’s what really happens during our shopping expeditions…

Get all touchy-feely How many times have you skimmed through the rack and checked out the print or embroidery on a shirt? You’ve pulled at the ink to see if it cracks, checked the sewing on an embroidered piece for loose threads and even stitches, maybe even admired the complexity of an intricate high density Marc Eckõ print. Personally, I can’t walk by a stack of T-shirts and not at least touch the print to check out the hand. It’s a curse.

Recon Destroyed graphics and text from Abercrombie & Fitch, tattoo-inspired Ed Hardy designs, right shoulder The North Face logo placement, discharge one-colour shirt prints from Urban Outfitters, floral prints from White Stuff, Juicy Couture pink shorts covered in palm trees, vintage-inspired T-shirts and distressed denims from American Eagle… What leads popular culture will sooner or later turn up in your shop. If you can’t make it to the Pure London show, you can at least spot trends while wondering where your kids during a visit to the mall.

Marvel at the prices Yep, this T-shirt is on sale and they are still asking £24.99 for it. As you sip your coffee shop latte, you think to yourself what size boat you could buy if you sold shirts at that price. Should it have the helicopter landing pad or shall I buy a matching jet-ski? Why not both? Aaah, dreams.

QC ASAP One thrill I always get is when I spot a shirt for sale in a store with the same problem that we rejected just last week and didn’t send to our customers. It feels good to know that your standards are higher than other shops. And then it hits you. Why aren’t you doing work for these people?

You see your work One of my favourite things has been seeing my creative work on people just going about their business. It’s a secret connection. You want to yell: “Hey, I did that!” Nobody would care, but you still want to yell it. Oooh, there goes another one! “Hey, I did that too!” What’s even better is when you go to a football or rugby match or music concert and you are surrounded by your creative effort while you are all cheering on your favourite team or artist. That’s a good feeling. That multiplies exponentially when you participate in a charity event for which you printed 5,000 shirts and your logo is on the back as a sponsor.

From left: White Stuff sleeveless top, Abercrombie & Fitch hoodie with graphics and text decoration and White Stuff at Bluewater, London

You see your work, part II – the nightmare Then there’s this. Someone wearing the job from hell walks by. Twenty-seven art revisions were needed, because it was approved by a committee. Shirts were ordered, but arrived in seven different shipments from four different warehouses. The two 4XL shirts didn’t show up until the day the job was running on press. The press operator dropped a flood bar onto the screen and popped it during the run. It was an event, so the crew stayed until 1.30 in the morning printing so it could be ready the next day for pick up. All that work paid off though as the shirts were ready, the client was happy (they even sent a nice note with a box of biscuits the following Monday) and damn, those shirts look great!

Inspiration In the back of your mind you’ve been thinking about what to do for that big project on Monday. Suddenly you have to grab a pen and an envelope and jot down the solution you just observed. It’s a texture, or a double-outline, or using rhinestones, or mixed media with embroidery, or perfectly placed clear-gel, or trying out that indigo-coloured garment dyed tee. It’s everything and anything, but your creative juices wash over you in a tidal wave of inspiration all in one moment. Who would have thought your eureka moment would happen in the line at Burger King?

Entrepreneurial spirit How many times have you been to the shopping centres and contemplated what it might take to hire a kiosk or stand and fill it with shirts? Or a one-off embroidery machine. Or a D2G printer. People could bring in their logos, monograms and crazy ideas, and watch in amazement as their garment gets decorated right before their eyes! Or maybe the kiosk could be a remote order-taking spot for the shop. Or I could invent my own line of shirts and sell them right there! Or I could…

The guy you’ve been swapping answer-machine messages with all week is there Might as well take his order… You’ve missed each other all week and now, in front of the Krispy Kreme stand, he stops and starts a long-winded ramble on how many polos he needs, with hats to match, and maybe some baby onesies as Cheryl the receptionist has just had her baby – will the logo have to be resized? You used to jot everything down on the nearest napkin, but thankfully you have that brand new gigantic smartphone. Which app is the one for taking notes, and where did I hide it so it wouldn’t be in the way? Can your finger keep up?

The Mona Lisa Strolling through a store, you notice a fantastically designed print on another shopper. You know it would win award after award if it was entered in any trade show competition. The race is on. How fast can you whip out your phone and snap a nonchalant pic of the person without looking like a total stalker? The bravest in our industry would actually walk up to the person and ask where they bought the shirt: would you?

Ambling back to your car you are impressed with all you’ve learned: maybe you should grab your art department and take a field trip to the shopping centre next week for some creative inspiration? Shopping chores handled, you drive away before remembering you have to go to the hardware store. Wait a minute; what kind of inspiration for your business could you find there?


Marshall Atkinson is the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC, a service firm focused on the decorated apparel industry for process improvement and efficiency, sustainability, employee training, social media marketing, and long term strategic planning. He has over 20 years experience in the decorated apparel industry and has championed two companies to become SGP certified sustainable printers. A frequent trade show and webinar speaker, he also publishes his own weekly blog.