Bottom Line Up Front: 2021 is the year our industry bounces back. But to compete with all of the other hungry decorators & print shops, you’ve got to be positioned to meet new trends head-on. With this list, you’ll get the actionable insight you need to be ready for anything.

You did it.

You made it through 2020.

All of the whiplash-fast changes. All of the dreadful uncertainty. All of the watching of other businesses, other people, buckle under the destruction.

You made it through. You kept your team thinking positively, your operations flowing smoothly, and your creative solutions coming. You were diligent, you were tough, and you were adaptable.

You might not be where you were in 2019 — or where you expected you’d be in 2020 — but you’re here. You’re here. So: congratulations are in order. (And you can exhale.)

The good news is, 2021 is just around the corner. With vaccines on the way, optimism flooding the nation, and an industry that’s proven itself to be durable in the face of crisis, we have reason to believe that this will be the best year yet.

A year where sales bounce back. Where your consumers want the products they’ve always wanted. Where your skillset, your capabilities, and your expertise can, really and truly, shine.

But here’s the thing: that may all be true — and we’re pretty confident it will be — but it doesn’t mean that 2020 (and all of the strange new trends that came with it) will evaporate as soon as the calendar hits January 1st.

It doesn’t mean that your customers will forget that they like to buy efficiently.

It doesn’t mean that your end-consumers will instantaneously go back to their lives pre-pandemic, offices, meetings, and events included.

And it definitely doesn’t mean that all of that demand for new products and new services will disappear.

What it does mean is that, if you zero in on your audience’s new needs and behaviors — and you couple that insight with the steadfast capabilities you’ve always had — you’ll be able to capitalize on the resurgence of old demand and the continuance of new demand.

Imagine the sales potential. Imagine the profitability.

We all love an article that predicts the new trends of what’s to come, with the proof to back them up. But that’s not what this article is. Or — it’s not just what this article is.

This article exists to give you the background knowledge you need to see new trends coming, yes, but it also gives you the actionable steps you should be taking in order to get your business positioned to meet them.

Because it’s one thing to know about trends. It’s quite another to be ready for them.

So buckle up — we’re getting into it. Let’s go!

What They’ll Buy

Products for Comfort & Connection

It’s common knowledge that everyone — from your customers to your employees to your competition — is spending the vast majority of their days at home. 

That means that working, networking, buying, selling, and leisurely activities are all conducted, for the most part, virtually. And that means that business casual, for our entrance into 2021, will still be a thing of the past. The shift to casual apparel and athleisure — namely “cozy hoodies, fleece, and Sherpa” — will cause the most growth, unit-volume-wise, for any product category in the industry. 

And then there’s the demand for remote employee kits (to boost morale, enhance cohesion, and spread brand awareness) — which will still be going up. According to Braintree’s CEO Chris Anderson, “There’s a growing trend toward creating greater connectivity among remote communities.”

And that trend isn’t just limited to evergreen kits for staff or employee-brand relationships — it’s present for events, leagues, and schools too. Kits that are sent from schools to kids, including school spirit wear and custom pencils, help further community spirit; kits that are sent from sports leagues to young athletes who had to pause their season, with customized t-shirts and water bottles, help keep their league loyalty high. 

Then there are virtual events. Whether a virtual corporate conference, a remote ‘Run For the Cure,’ or an online birthday party, there’s something about custom, tangible items that bring people together — making them feel connected even when they’re physically not. Kits that give them the things they need to participate — like a custom notebook, water bottle, or t-shirt — boost excitement, increase engagement, and lead to repeated product-use down the road.

PPE

So, clearly, people are looking to be comfortable and connected. But they’re also still looking to stay safe. While traditional promotional products are making a comeback in 2021, the PPE category is still staying strong — with some thinking it’ll generate the most demand of any category through to the end of the year.

So make sure you’re still customizing — and promoting — those face masks. From restaurants to schools to retail, they’re stacking up to be a cross-industry need that isn’t going anywhere.

Customizable Processes

And speaking of customization: to keep up with the competition next year, you’ll need to be offering your customers the ability to take charge of their custom designs — throughout the process. The biggest sellers are already bringing diverse, innovative technology into their offerings, in an attempt to widen the gap between their value and the value being offered by the little guys.

For CEO’s like Marc Simon of HALO Branded Solutions, “the biggest opportunities [come] from an expanded offering of complementary services and solutions.” 

So how do you keep up? You arm your business with the customer-first technology it needs to compete. Whether it’s by offering them digital tools like InkSoft’s Designer, sending them interactive and vivid product presentations through InkSoft’s Proposals, or giving them the power to customize the Online Store they’re selling products through, when you empower your customers to take charge — they notice. 

Customization will reign in 2021. Even more than it already does. And at the heart of that overarching trend will be your audience’s desire to have exactly what they want, exactly how they want it. It’s your job to give them the tools they need to make that happen.

Who They’ll Buy From

Those Offering the Right Buying Experience

With 2020 causing e-commerce’s sudden (and vast) rise and consumers now comfortable with — and expecting — convenient buying experiences, businesses without the baseline technology needed to compete will disappear.

“E-commerce exploded this year, and web and company stores will continue to prove important,” ASI’s ‘2021 Precitions’ article writes. 

In other words: the days of selling exclusively through brick and mortar are gone. 

So how do you capitalize on this shift? You ensure that the complete, end-to-end buying experience you offer your customers — not just your Online Store — is up to snuff. You make sure that every step, from first proposal to art approvals to final payment, can be done virtually. And not just be done, but be done well.

There’s a reason that consumers flock to Amazon. Even if they know the smaller businesses are hurting. Even if they know they should be spending their money local. They find themselves on Amazon day after day because they know that buying experience will be three things: quick, easy, and reliable.

So if you can’t offer them those three traits in your complete buying experience, then they’ll find another seller who can. Maybe a bigger seller. Maybe a seller that doesn’t need the sale as much as you do. In order to be an attractive player in the 2021 market, you absolutely must have the right technology behind you.

Here’s an example: with InkSoft’s Proposals, you can create and send knock-out digital proposals quickly, have all order information (including art approvals and customer feedback) stored in one place, and have your invoicing — according to your own payment preferences — automated. That’s the kind of technology that saves you time, increases your overall productivity, and gets your customers hooked — and satisfied — quicker.

Those Offering the Right Distribution

Now let’s discuss distribution. Because consumers in 2021 are looking for Amazon-level speed at every turn, they’re primarily going to be considering the sellers that can guarantee fast — and hands-off — end-to-end order fulfillment. Knowing how to offer services like inventory storage, custom kitting, and express shipping can go a long way to differentiate you from your competitors.

Now, don’t get us wrong: those business capabilities have always been important. But in a world where consumers have been newly spoiled with efficiency, customization potential, and convenient processes — they’re only going to want faster. And better.

So how do you implement the best-available distribution practices? You make sure you’re dialed into different vendor partnerships, packaging extras, and shipping options.

Example A: a corporate customer wants to send its employees a Happy Holidays Kit with custom apparel and promotional products. You outsource the promo products and take care of the custom kitting, then get it over directly to their employees — so they never even have to lift a finger. (Hello, average order value increase. Hello, happy customers.)

InkSoft’s Proposals is the digital platform that helps you do it all seamlessly. With the ability to send kitting and packaging options to customers for approval, integrate shipping options and preferences, and store order information for tracking, it’s your one-stop-shop for making enviable end-to-end fulfillment processes a breeze. 

Those Offering Value Alignment

Beyond the right technological and capability framework, buyers in 2021 are also looking to hire businesses that align with their — and their brand’s — values. Diversity is a hugely relevant cultural value that will remain at the forefront of buying behavior next year, so now is the time to amp up your promotional capacity if your business reflects it.

Decorators and print shops that are woman-owned, for instance, should step into the marketing spotlight. Why? By making your innate value known to your audience, you could be attracting new buyers that weren’t sure about their decision, or even stealing customers from your competition.

“Being a woman-owned business, we hope we can gain more attention and market share as the inequity has been brought to the forefront,” noted Kimberly Karp, owner of KK Promotions. Buying from diverse businesses is a behavior that many committed to in 2020; in 2021, it’ll have its chance to dominate.

Another value many brands and end-consumers are aligning themselves with — more than ever before — is sustainability. “Sustainable business practices are becoming as important to our end-users today as product safety, fair labor practices, and supply chain safety were 10 years ago,” CEO of alphabroder Norm Hullinger said.

So, if you already have green practices, products, or affiliations in your business, make sure you’re underscoring it to your audience. And if you don’t, it’s time to start exploring your options for going green — our eyes are on 2021 for now, but we don’t see the shift to sustainability slowing down anytime soon.

The bottom line is: having the right technology and values to meet your buyers’ needs coupled with making it clear that you have the right technology and values to meet their needs will be your recipe for success.

“Looking back at past recessions, companies that invested heavily in their infrastructure often bounced back soon and with greater market share,” said Steven McKee, owner of Heritage Screen Printing. And here at InkSoft, we couldn’t agree with him more.

When you invest in your capabilities, results always follow.

How They’ll Buy

Through Top-Tier E-Commerce & Digital Tools

We’re going to blaze through the obvious predictions of this angle first. 

Here’s the breakdown: e-commerce and digitized tools aren’t going anywhere. In fact, demand for buying experiences that are easier, faster, and more customizable than ever before is only going up. (We’re repeating this point because it is crucial. Without e-commerce technology behind you, even your best offerings will be in trouble.)

We already talked about the importance of the right technology to back up your business from an operational standpoint — because you can’t compete with the productivity of businesses dialed in with automating technology (like Proposals) if you don’t have similar technology in your own wheelhouse — but now we’re looking at the customer-facing side.

What do they see when they find you online? What does your Online Store evoke for them? What is their impression of your brand, through your digital presence as a whole?

Here’s the thing: in 2020, you better be pulling your audience in with an e-commerce set-up that looks trustworthy, professional, and user-friendly — because if you’re not, they’ll exit the tab without a moment’s thought. 

And in 2021, that’s doubly true. Why? Because the more time your audience spends in the era of e-commerce, the more critical they become of what they see. They can distinguish polished sites from amateur ones in a matter of seconds — and if your online presence screams amateur or untrustworthy, they likely won’t flock to you for business.

And, as powerful as your Online Store is for converting your audience — it’s actually about converting their audience too. Since you are (or, you should be) selling Online Store technology as part of your product offerings, their opinion of your Online Store will decide whether they think their audience will be moved to buy from something similar.

Remember: the smartest decorators and print shops today aren’t just selling products — they’re selling capabilities. They’re selling a way for their customers to reach their end-consumers virtually, without needing to spearhead or organize any part of the process. 

When you wow your audience with your Online Store, you’re persuading them to buy from you now, but you’re also persuading them that their selling strategy will be backed up — and successful. 

Look: we’re well aware that keeping up with the latest trends and innovations in the world of e-commerce can be a full time job in itself. That’s why — to close this year out and give 2021 a warm welcome — we’re coming to you with more insight-packed Webinars. You’ll learn the ins and outs of our Online Stores platform, plus all of the knowledge you’ll need to operate, market, and profit from the rest of our digital tools.

Because knowledge is how you capitalize on the wild west of e-commerce technology.

Through Top-Tier Digital Marketing

Moving on from e-commerce, let’s look at another massive factor for determining how buyers in 2021 will buy. Here’s a hint: it comes down to your marketing.

Specifically, your digital marketing.

With the world operating almost entirely online — for both business and leisure — the biggest stage you could possibly find to promote your business is the digital one. That’s why the smartest apparel decorators and print shops will continue to “leverage social media to connect with clients, nurture customer relationships, and build credibility” into 2021, and it’s why that strategy will work.

It’s not just about sparking brand awareness and reaching new prospects. It’s about building out your business’s identity so that you can distinguish your shop from the shop down the street. It’s about sparking and sustaining conversations with customers — checking up on how their orders went and reminding them that you’re still there for their new needs. And it’s about increasing your business’s sense of establishment. By posting about past orders, team members, and new capabilities, you’re demonstrating to your audience that you’re the real deal.

That you have what it takes to execute their vision — because you’ve been doing it for years, and you have the posts to prove it.

Organic or paid, a Tweet about a new discount or a video posted to Instagram about a successful customer order — it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you’re giving your audience a place to find you, to learn about you, and to reach out. You’re giving them a place to connect. 

And in 2021, that personal connection — that freedom to interact in the digital space — is going to affect how your consumers buy more than ever before. (Hint: by finding new brands they want to work with, and new campaigns they want to buy into, online.)

So make sure you’re staying part of the conversation. Make sure you’re not taking yourself out of the market by accident — just because you didn’t have the knowledge, or the tools, to carve out your real estate in the digital space.

Just like we’re going to continue to offer you the insight you need for e-commerce technology, we’re also going to continue to offer you the insight you need for digital marketing. So get ready to leave your great, authentic, and impactful mark on the online landscape — because it’s all coming in our new Webinars

Through Top-Tier Customer Support

The final note we’ll touch on is that of customer support. With everything that’s happened in 2020, tons of businesses in our industry have been forced to downsize. That means they’ve had to prioritize their operations, which means that, for many, their in-house customer support abilities aren’t where they once were.

The third key to making sure buyers are buying from you next year is making sure you’re giving them the in-depth, customer-centric, personalized support they need. That’s done with the right technology, with the right people on your team, and with the right passion for helping your customers succeed.

How will your customers buy in 2021? With a clear path — and the guidance they need — to get to their purchase.

Whether it’s through offering end-to-end order fulfillment services and Online Stores, succinct and customized first-pitch Proposals, or an open line of communication through every step of the process — there are a thousand different ways to offer knockout customer care in 2021.

It doesn’t matter which steps you take. It only matters that you take them. 

The Wrap Up

We’ve thrown a ton of predictions — and a ton of actionable steps — your way today, because we want you to be the most prepared you possibly can be. And preparation, for 2021, looks a whole lot like having the right technology behind you.

It all starts with the right framework. Sure, you should have an eye on which products will be going fast and which values are crucial to amplify your reach, but without the right e-commerce set-up, and without the right digital marketing know-how, your potential is nowhere near what it could be.

We know that our industry’s making a comeback next year. We know that consumers are favoring quick and easy buying experiences, and that businesses without the right automation tools behind them are lagging behind.

But we also know that the need for grit and resilience isn’t going anywhere. The battle to get our norms — and our sales — back to pace isn’t over yet, so we all need to be bringing our A-game. 

We need to be growing our capabilities. We need to be getting even more creative with our thoughts. And we need to be rising to the challenge — like we’ve been doing all of 2020 — to make sure that when our consumers show up, ready to buy, we have what it takes to serve them.

We believe in you, and we’re rooting for you. We can’t wait to see what you do when we enter the new year — because we know it’ll be something great.