Offering various printing services is common in the decorated apparel industry, but what’s offered under one roof varies depending on the business owner you talk to. For Manatee Apparel and owner Dennis Frey, having as much in-house as possible is all part of running a print shop focused on quality and tight turnaround times. 

Since their start from offering primarily screenprinting in the late 1980s, Manatee Apparel’s journey has taken a few remarkable turns as they explored new technologies and paired their printing skills with the power of InkSoft Stores. 

Early Times at Manatee Apparel

Manatee’s early beginnings predate the convenience of e-commerce and email. And Dennis’s previous experience prepped him for the world of high-volume orders. 

“I had been an executive with the second largest producer of traffic control devices in the world, so manufacturing is something I’ve done all my career,” he states. “I really wanted to have my own business and do something there where I could still be hands-on.”

Part of that hands-on approach also meant that Dennis wanted to produce customer products in-house.  

“When we first started the business, we only had screen printing and embroidery,” explains Dennis. “At that point, we weren’t selling anything on the internet.”

As more of the apparel and promotional products market started to shift to online business, Manatee Apparel decided to venture into web stores. That shift also required expanding their services beyond traditional printing methods.

The journey led them to various printing technologies, including direct-to-garment (DTG) for accommodating short runs and sublimation for decorating polyester garments and a broader set of substrates like hard goods.

InkSoft: Empowering Growth at Manatee Apparel

Crucial to Manatee Apparel’s success is their strategic adoption of InkSoft tools. As they started taking on more customers and diversifying print options, they needed a solution that made it possible to maintain competitive prices and sell products online. 

“We started using InkSoft stores with one of our customers in 2013, and that customer is still with us,” says Dennis. “Business with InkSoft stores doubled yearly for the first 4-5 years to the point where we had to cap how many customers we were bringing on.”

Along with online stores, Dennis says InkSoft’s reporting capabilities, including tracking sales, profits, commissions, and building quotes, contribute to the efficiency of their business operations.

Paired with InkSoft’s tools, Manatee also uses the Graphics Flow Art Portal to proof all their embroidery jobs. 

Web Stores: A Diverse Market

Manatee Apparel’s web stores cater to a wide array of markets, including classic niches like schools, uniforms, and clubs. The business has also taken on other categories like yoga studios, walking clubs, musicians, and dance studios.

“I don’t put a limit on it,” says Dennis. “We promote our stores on social media so that our customers can decide if it’s a service that’s right for them.”

The company’s approach to web stores extends beyond just selling apparel; they create customized websites for clients, providing them with a hassle-free ordering experience. Dennis points to a local theme park as an example. The business built the park their own merchandise portal, which they can self-service.

“As they have new designs come out, they can just order their merch to resell,” he explains. “They can log on anytime and just send us a purchase order of the products they need.”  

More recently, Dennis says he’s had a customer who owns a popular area bar use inventive in-house tactics to drive traffic to the bar’s online merchandise store and, in turn, drum up more business for Manatee. 

“At times, he’ll put up a barcode up on a TV screen in the bar with a new product saying ‘here it is,'” he explains. “People can scan that code, which will take them to the website we built for him, and they can buy that item right there.”  

Staying True to Values

Dennis says part of what sets Manatee Apparel apart from the competition is their continued commitment to following through. 

“We are very focused on doing things well,” he says. “It’s the fundamental philosophy of producing a good product.” 

That value system sometimes means the company isn’t the cheapest option but the one that provides the most value and a culture that stands behind their work, says Dennis. That culture includes staffing the shop with people who share those same values about quality work, which has resulted in some team members working for the company for as long as 13 years. 

With that attention to detail, the shop has successfully grown their customer list without significant advertising and mainly by word of mouth. To date, they’ve also shipped orders as far as Australia, France, Copenhagen, and England, in addition to a roster of long-term domestic customers. 

Educating the Team

In addition to listening to the customer, Dennis says it’s important to continually educate the team and ensure people are cross-trained and understand the entire workflow in the shop. 

“You can have all the best processes out back in your production area, but it starts with that order being created,” he explains. “The people up front who talk to the customers really need to understand the decorating process that would best suit the shirts the customers are looking for.” 

Navigating the Ups and Downs 

Looking back over the past few years, Dennis reflects on the importance of maintaining a positive attitude in the face of business challenges.

“You’ve got to get through the times when you don’t want to get through,” he says, pointing to the pandemic as a particularly challenging time for the business like it was for lots of print shops. “You got to persevere, even if you get knocked down. You got to get back up tomorrow and come back in with a smile on your face and do it again.” 

Manatee Apparel experienced a 42% drop in the first quarter of the pandemic but found steady customer work from a handful of government contracts and an uptick in web store orders. Recognizing the shift towards online shopping, the company redirected resources, closing a physical store and focusing on enhancing their web store offerings.

“When times fluctuate, it’s good to have those regular customers like schools,” he notes. “They’re the ones that are still going to be buying shirts and uniforms.”  

Looking Ahead at Manatee Apparel

Dennis says he encourages businesses to embrace diversity, adapt to changing trends, and leverage online platforms. The journey from a small operation to a multifaceted apparel decoration powerhouse exemplifies the transformative power of innovation and strategic decision-making.

Part of what he says makes working in this industry exciting is how every day presents a new challenge.  

“I never know who’s going to walk through our doors and what they’ll need,” he adds, noting that he’s seen all types of requests for print locations, substrates, and stitch counts. “That’s what I like about the business; it’s not mundane by any means.” 

And for other business owners considering InkSoft, he encourages them to explore the capabilities of selling online. 

“The flexibility of building and changing websites is one of the main things I would mention,” he says. “If you do your homework, you’ll see InkSoft is the right choice.” 

Visit the Manatee Apparel website for more information.