The Tao of Tees
Apparel is the promotional products industry's top-selling category, and T-shirts are a big reason why. They're inexpensive, they're stylish and they're versatile. Businesses of all sizes buy them (from big liquor brands to local microbreweries, arena-packing rock acts to corner-bar Poison tribute-bands) and everybody wears them (from big liquor brand sales reps to craft brewers, rock stars to guys who willingly imitate Bret Michaels).
But that doesn't mean they're an easy sell. The steady demand for T-shirts has led to a crowded marketplace, with screen-printers and apparel companies vying for sales in a market bursting at the proverbial seams with competition. Want to make the sale? Not sure where to start? Don't need nothin' but a good time? Below are nine tips to give you a spandex-clad leg up on the competition.
Next: Fitted cuts, blends and activewear
1. FITTED CUTS
Boxy cuts were all the rage in the early '90s, when wearing a T-shirt was more of a grunge-inspired protest against the excesses of '80s fashion sense. But T-shirts are anti-fashion no longer—they're in style, and consumers want fashionable options. "Fitted cuts have now become a fashion staple because the majority of consumers no longer want (or wear) a boxy, unflattering T-shirt," said Yvette Corona, wholesale coordinator for Los Angeles-based American Apparel. "Fitted T-shirts provide a more fashion-forward look so the consumers can feel good in what they're wearing."
Likewise, where buying a plus-size T-shirt once meant forfeiting your right to style, many T-shirt manufacturers now offer fitted options in all sizes. "Many brands are coming out with shirts sized from XS to 2XL to fit a wide range of individuals with a slightly fitted cut to flatter women, while offering a trendier look for men," explained Ashley Adams, marketing coordinator for S&S Activewear, Bolingbrook, Ill.
If look is number 1 on the list of important T-shirt features, feel is number 1a. Luckily, blended designs offer both. "Blends are very popular at the moment, which gives the shirt a heathered look," Adams mentioned. "It also gives the shirt a very soft hand and allows the shirt to get softer after each wash."
Corona noted that blends lend themselves to a stylish fit. "Blended T-shirts, featuring polyester and/or rayon, offer slimming drapes and help to accentuate in all the right places," she said.
Joy Shi, marketing associate for Tri-Mountain, Irwindale, Calif., explained that cotton/polyester blends have traditionally been the most popular for T-shirts, but moisture-wicking and anti-microbial fabrics are becoming more desirable. "Materials like spandex and nylon in the fabric blend are also popular, especially for activewear shirts," she noted.
Next: Neons and heathers, knowing your customers, and schools
4. NEONS AND HEATHERS
Just when you thought it was gone for good, another remnant of '80s style makes its way back into fashion. Thankfully, it's not legwarmers or dude-perms. "The addition of heathers and neons to our collection have been selling well because they offer fun alternatives to the basic, classic colors," explained Corona. "Classics are great and always in need, but amongst the generation right now we have an eclectic group that likes to stand out, and heathered and neon options offer the choice to be different."
5. KNOW YOUR CUSTOMER
A draped, heathered T-shirt with neon lettering might be great for a cheerleading squad, but for a corporate event? Not so much. You need to know what's in style, but you also need to know your customer's needs. "The most important aspect of this is that you are targeting the right customers when distributing these products," advised Adams. "If you have a corporate client that doesn't focus much on T-shirts, then it doesn't make sense to send them a new T-shirt with an innovative decoration."
Colleges and universities traditionally are strong markets for T-shirt sales, as college bookstores keep all manner of school-branded T-shirts in stock. But Shi suggested looking outside the bookstore. "There are so many organizations and campus groups where numbers of students sign up to get involved, and T-shirts play a big role in outfitting them because they are noticeable and a great platform for conveying a certain message or image," she explained.
Next: Sports teams and events, performance styles and uniforms
7. SPORTS TEAMS AND EVENTS
Whether it's high school team fundraisers, local athletic organizations or big events with corporate sponsors, there are plenty of athletics-related markets for T-shirts. "Tri-Mountain performance crewneck tees have been used in marathons across the country, including the LA marathon," said Shi. "We've also had several success stories in high school and college athletic teams, and corporate team-building activities."
8. PERFORMANCE STYLES
According to Shi, performance T-shirt styles aren't limited to the field. "Executives will be influenced by what athletes are wearing, styles that were once just team-oriented have definitely found their way into corporate America as a result," she explained. "As one of our sales reps says, what CEO doesn't want to be like Tiger Woods out on the turf? The businessman admires the athlete. For this reason, we increasingly see T-shirts with athletic features in corporate boardrooms and team-building activities."
In addition to schools and sports teams, Adams noted that many restaurants and bars can use T-shirts as alternatives to typical uniform options. "I believe these are the major markets since these groups are usually looking for something that'll meet the needs of a wide variety of people, be less expensive, hold up well and have many options to offer," she said.
Next: A note on cotton prices
A Note On Cotton Prices:
Shifting supply-and-demand has led to a general increase in cotton prices of late. But how much does this affect T-shirt sales? And should distributors be concerned? According to the suppliers we spoke to for this story, the answers are "very little" and "probably not."
"Rising cotton prices and the general state of the economy in recent years have resulted in a general decrease in market sales," explained Joy Shi, marketing associate for Irwindale, California-based Tri-Mountain. "However, there will always be a steady demand for T-shirts across all markets in promotional apparel. I don't believe there is anything that can substantially set the T-shirt industry back where we should be worried."
Yvette Corona, wholesale coordinator for American Apparel, Los Angeles, agreed. "Although cotton prices have fluctuated in the past year, we have been able to maintain a steady price for our garments, which is something we are very proud to offer our customers," she said.