How to Sell Decorated Apparel to School Organizations

Dean Armando

Learn the most effective ways to sell to student organizations to create a whole new niche of steady sales.

classroom at school egos custom 1Word spreads fast once you get your foot in the door. Once you’ve done sweat shirts for the basketball booster club, you’ll find that a basketball player also is in the band, theater or chess club, and they need shirts too.
(Photo courtesy of Dalco Athletic, Garland, Texas)

While selling to the school market is a competitive niche, there are ways to get your foot in the door if you can figure out what advantages your business offers over existing suppliers. For example, you may make it easier for schools to take orders and collect money with a custom Web page. You may have a direct-to-garment printer that allows you to do four-color process with no minimums. You may be able to offer higher quality and more creative artwork. Or you may own a digital cutter that allows you to put designs on a wider range of apparel and accessories. Once you get established with schools, there are additional techniques and strategies to hold onto your newly earned customers and generate add-on sales as well. Here are some tips and tricks to give you a head start on now to sell to elementary, high school, college and Greek student organizations. 

Lesson 1: Information Is Everywhere

The Internet is the great equalizer of information — everyone can find what they need to know, if they just take the time to look. Pick a college in your area and type the school’s name into a search engine, such as Google. You’ll quickly find a home page for the school, which will lead you to contact information for hundreds of registered student organizations (RSOs). You can find out how many students the group has, its purpose, the types of events they have, the name of the advisor, and so on.

Lesson 2: Make Contact

Many student organizations are inundated with direct mail from companies soliciting their services, so you’ll want to make a personal contact, if possible — especially if the group is a local one. Your best bet is finding a personal contact (a student, coach or teacher) who either goes to that school or may be in a specific organization. You may not have any kids in school but maybe you have friends or contacts who do.

If you can’t find a personal contact, find the name of the group’s non-student adviser, and try to arrange a face-to-face meeting. If you can’t meet, send him a sample (if the group is large enough to produce a respectable size order) as an introduction and gesture of 
good will. You also could drop by a meeting, practice or game and say hello to the coach.

You could say something like, “I noticed that parents aren’t wearing a wrestling team shirt. What do you think about us setting up an order for wresting T-shirts for all of the parents?”

An additional note: Trying to attract student groups via paid advertising is probably a wasted effort. You already know exactly where the group meets and when, so it makes more sense to do a direct, one-to-one sales pitch instead of placing a mass advertisement.

Lesson 3: Find Your Point of Differentiation

Once you’ve made contact, find out who the group has used in the past for their
decorating services and how happy they are with that company. It’s helpful to know what they’ve ordered and how much they’ve paid so that you can figure out a competitive advantage to offer — whether it’s lower price, faster turnaround, or unique services such direct-to-garment four-color process. This also will ensure that you’re not wasting time pursuing a group that orders only a dozen T-shirts every year and is 100% satisfied with its dirt-cheap supplier.

Even if the group is satisfied with its current vendor, you may be able to offer additional or different creative services, so don’t give up too easily. For instance, you might suggest giving the group a discount if they’ll let you apply your company logo on all of the garments it orders from you. Or, the current vendor might be a large shop that can’t offer the level of personalization that your smaller shop can provide. For example, if your shop has a direct-to-substrate printer or garment graphics cutter, this makes it easy for you to add personal names. The point is you need to find out what they’re doing now so that you can figure out your angle.

Remember that most school organizations are accustomed to paying more for each color they add to their design. With processes such as direct to garment and print and cut, you now can offer four-color process for the same price as a one- or two-color designs. Spend time as necessary educating school customers about some of the newer printing technologies available and how they can benefit.

Lesson 4: Spread the Word

Once you’re in with a group at the school, there is a snowball effect, where other groups start to use your services. For instance, a student on the swim team may also be in band, so he may help spread the word about your company. You might even want to give that swimmer a few free garments to help generate buzz or provide a few freebies for the team’s coach. One great plus about student organizations is that they have a new person in charge almost every year. This means that you have another chance to get business every year. Of course, the flip side of this is that once you’re in the door, you have to hustle to stay in, since you’re dealing with an ever-changing customer base.

Lesson 5: Work Out the Logistics

You’ll need to work out a simple, organized process for collecting and distributing orders. For example, let’s say you’re working with a band booster club, whose members must wear an embroidered shirt. You’ll distribute order forms to the group’s advisor, who then sends home those forms with the members. Students bring completed forms back with a check and the adviser turns over the forms and a single check for the full amount to your shop.

One of the newer techniques is setting up a Web site. This also gives you a competitive edge. With a Web site to collect the information, including sizes, colors, credit card information and so on, there are no forms to be distributed or collected. There also are no cash or checks to collect and deposit as customers pay online. Not having to collect and process money is a huge time saver, and this service alone may get you in the door when selling against an established company.

A Web site also generates the opportunity for add-on sales. Make sure that you display additional, perhaps more upscale items for parents to see as they get online to place the order. A parent may not have been interested in the shirt chosen for the kids to wear but may find a nicer quality shirt with the school’s name and mascot looks much more appealing. If you offer all your apparel styles from the same source, some blank apparel suppliers work with decorators to set up complete online solutions for ordering, payment, and more. This makes everything easier for you and the organization. Research which wholesalers offer this capacity and see if you can make it work for you.

One of the most appealing approaches to use with schools is to use apparel sales as a way to raise money for the school or group. For instance, you may set the price so that the school gets $3 from the sale of each shirt. You may be able to entice school groups even more by offering a higher percentage return on larger orders. For example, agree that every shirt after the first 100 pieces nets the school $4 a shirt in profit. Of course, only offer this additional discount if you make more money on higher volume orders.

Lesson 6: Be Creative

There’s much more you can offer student organizations than just sweat shirts for band groups. For example, you can offer apparel for 1,000 college freshman orientation packages, paid for by a few local companies who get their logo on the back of the T-shirts. This idea is a great promotion for your company’s services, and it works equally well as part of a move-in package for apartment complexes near college campuses. The key in both of these examples is to provide a cool T-shirt that the student will want to wear. If you’re providing generic-looking, promotional-grade apparel, don’t count on the students wearing it too often.

Another great idea: Work with area businesses to offer a booklet of discounts that sells for $5 and gives specials prices on products and services. It might include a free soft drink with the purchase of a hamburger at a local restaurant, for example, and $10 off a dozen screen printed T-shirts from your shop.

Lesson 7: Make It Personal

If you have direct-to-garment equipment or a garment graphics cutter, both of which allow you to easily and affordably provide personalized onesies and twosies, you’ve got a great way to get your foot in the door with student organizations. For example, you could offer to provide personalized shirts for even the smallest organization — groups that can’t afford screen printing’s set-up charges. The order will be small, but you can make higher margins than you would with other types of decorating.

Take for example the fraternity that has always purchased a shirt with a one-color design on the front and three-color logo on the back because that’s what they could afford. Now you can create full-color process designs front and back for the same price (as one or three colors) with no minimums! It’s another edge over the competition if you offer direct-to-garment printing.

Another great business builder: Always give a freebie to your sales contact. This extra item should be distinctly different from the order such a long sleeve, a different color, or a more upscale style. The strategy here is the group adviser wears his or her freebie and every else wants one too generating another order. So don’t be cheap, look at it as a way to create more orders. Also you want to personally hand the item to the individual, thank him for his business, and let him know that you can offer additional styles and services if he needs them.

This also brings up another important point: Stay on top of when the organization’s membership changes. This way, your contact can introduce you to his replacement, and you don’t have to start from scratch to make a new contact. That’s the kind of mistake that could move you right to the back of the class.

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