From Ink to Thread: Embracing New Horizons in Promotional Products
It’s difficult to try new things. Some are low-stakes, like a new hobby or even just a new food. Some are much more consequential, like making tweaks to your business model or your product offering. If a change in the way you do business doesn’t work, it affects your livelihood.
But, sometimes, it can be worth the risk.
Wide-format printers already do a variety of projects that cross over into the promotional products space. Campaigns like signage and vehicle wraps are not out of place at a promotional products expo. With that in mind, it’s not a bad idea to consider other entry points into the promotional products space, and you might be surprised at how small the learning curve is once you decide to get involved.
After all, it’s just ink, albeit on different surfaces than paper.
From Business Cards to Promotional Products
Brian Meshkati, vice president of SinaLite, Markham, Ontario, Canada, says that one of his company’s objectives — almost from the very beginning — was to diversify its business as much as possible.
“It allows us to be busy year-round without a significant slowdown due to seasonality of certain product categories,” he says. “It protects us from changes in demand. If there is a decrease in demand in one category, we still have other categories to rely on.”
After starting in the industry more than 20 years ago offering only business cards and stationary, SinaLite expanded into signage, banners, and labels, eventually steering even further into the promotional space with apparel, drinkware, coasters, and more.
Essentially, it started from just saying yes to an opportunity.
“Our customers were asking us to add promotional products to our catalog so that they have an option to buy from us without needing to invest in their own equipment and then reselling it,” Meshkati says.
Now SinaLite offers a wide variety of products that, as Meshkati points out, don’t rely on seasonal demand. Apparel is pretty much sought after all year in some way. And if demand for T-shirts diminishes, how about a coffee mug?
For printers enticed by this idea, remember that SinaLite started small and added from there. It’s probably not in your best interest to suddenly offer all things to all people. Start with a few things like T-shirts or pens. If that is successful, and once you have more experience in decorating and distributing promotional products, add more.
That same idea applies to decorating capabilities, too. Meshkati says that at first, SinaLite outsourced its promo jobs until it became more comfortable and confident in handling the orders.
“When adding promo products to our catalog, we originally started very basic,” Meshkati says. “We added some of the most popular products — printed ceramic mugs and a limited selection of printed Ts — and then outsourced it. As soon as we started getting a good number of orders coming in from our customer base, we decided it makes sense and invested in our own equipment.”
Navigating the Learning Curve
That equipment, at least for many jobs in promo, is different than what wide-format print shops will have in-house. This is likely where one of the steepest learning curves will reveal itself, but it’s not insurmountable.
“Printing equipment is totally different from what we have in wide format,” Meshkati says. “For promotional products, we had to purchase a dye-sublimation printer and also a dye-sublimation oven. For apparel, we needed to invest in direct-to-garment printing presses, as well as embroidery machines.”
Those embroidery machines were challenging, too, because suddenly it’s not ink. It’s thread. So, the SinaLite team had to learn how to adjust its digitization process.
With a commitment to learning, though, it’s just another part of the business. And it’s a part of the business that Meshkati says is especially attractive to end-users.
“Custom apparel was one category that really appealed to us because it’s a growing segment of the print industry,” he says. “It’s a ‘cool’ form of printing that all generations — young and old — get excited about.”
For the jobs that were closer to more traditional printing, SinaLite still had to adjust its way of thinking due to different substrates and surfaces.
“Since we already understood commercial printing substrates, it was relatively easy to learn wide-format substrates because they are paper and plastic-type as well,” he says. “However, with promotional materials, you are often dealing with non-lat surfaces, such as mugs and bottles.”
In these moments, Meshkati says that turning to SinaLite’s supplier partners, who had much more experience in this sort of decoration, helped them get on track.
Another aspect of promo decoration that required a mentality shift was the fact that a lot of the promo decoration process is manual, and products are decorated one at a time.
“This is unlike commercial printing, for example, where you have a press that will easily do thousands of impressions per hour,” Meshkati says. “With apparel printing, for example, you may be printing one shirt at a time and manually removing and re-placing each shirt in production.”
Is this a little daunting? That’s OK. That’s why Meshkati recommends that printers do not buy the equipment right away. Think of it like a new sports-related hobby. Let’s say bowling. You don’t go out and buy the most expensive shoes and balls right away. You can rent them at the alley until you realize what you like, or even if you like bowling at all. Once you get a little better, you have a clearer understanding of the gear, and can make more informed purchases, rather than throwing money at something right away.
“In the beginning, do not buy equipment,” Meshkati says. “Instead, outsource it to a vendor that already is established and knows what they’re doing. Once you start getting orders and are seeing growth, it will make more sense to look into equipment purchases.”
Balancing Supply and Demand
Meshkati says that in SinaLite’s transition to what he now considers a one-stop-shop for clients looking for print and promotional products, the company learned that it needed to inventory more than it originally thought, keeping a large supply of blanks on hand.
“As we progressed, we realized we needed to buy in large volumes and inventory in order to be competitively priced as a wholesale printer,” he says.
This underscores the idea that you shouldn’t bite off more than you can chew at first. Select a few products and maintain the inventory to meet demand, rather than smaller inventory of a wider selection of products.
In time, you’ll hopefully see the same upsides to offering promotional products that Meshkati and SinaLite have seen, and feel comfortable purchasing more equipment and offering more products, giving your clients even more reasons to call you.
“The biggest reward has been [being] able to, of course, increase our revenues by adding additional products, but at the same time, offering our customers even more in-demand print products so that we can continue being a one-stop shop for their needs,” Meshkati says.
Venturing into new territory and diversifying one’s business can be a daunting task. However, the potential rewards and benefits make it worth considering. By expanding into promotional products, companies like SinaLite have been able to safeguard themselves against changes in demand and enjoy year-round business.
By adapting to new decoration techniques, substrates, and manual processes involved in promotional products, businesses can develop expertise and provide unique offerings to clients. The ultimate reward lies in the ability to expand revenue streams and offer a broader range of in-demand print products, positioning the company as a reliable and comprehensive solution for customers’ needs. With careful planning, gradual expansion, and a commitment to learning, businesses can successfully embrace new opportunities and thrive in the ever-evolving market.