You are not CustomInk. You are Better.

That’s right. I said it. I can’t tell you how many times some screen-printer has stopped me and asked, “How can I be like CustomInk”? My response is always the same.

You can never be like CustomInk.

Sorry to be Joe Buzzkill, but it’s the truth. Here’s why:

You are already better. There is something at your fingertips that CustomInk or even Amazon can’t offer. It’s the personal, locally-grown, kick-ass customer service that thrives on your knowledge and experience. How can a megacorporation compete with that? Throw in some fantastic artwork and a heap of craftsmanship and you have a business formula that can’t be beaten. Not to mention, you have the best shop dog around. (Still working on that pull the squeegee trick?)

Sure, they can vacuum up sales with their algorithmic approach fueled by armored trucks full of venture capital funding.

So what?

Your business is building something lasting and impactful in your community. You are smart. Flexible. Even a good neighbor. You have a presence.

Instead of daydreaming about the “what if”…start planning the “what now”. Get some ideas out of your head and into an action plan.

Focus Your Attention

Here’s an easy way to focus your attention on your local customer base.

I want you to take out a map of your state. (Do paper maps even exist anymore? I guess you can use Google maps too.) Figure out where your one-day ground ship ends and draw a circle on the map. You might even broaden your area out to a bigger chunk if you want. There are no hard rules here. Do what works.

The point is that you do not sell to the entire world. You sell to these folks. Here’s where your customers live. Inside this circle.

Before you think about searching for new customers “everywhere else”, make sure you have conquered the easier sales in your backyard.

They are your neighbors. You’ve seen them at your local Chamber of Commerce and networking groups. Sports teams have heard you both cheering. They are active in the same charity events around town. The same parks, rivers, and museums have seen your kids discovering and learning. You have a lot more in common than just an area code.

Are you building your social media content to dominate this circle of influence? How are you getting eyeballs on your company web page or store?

Look at your Instagram, Twitter or Facebook feeds. Are you sharing your awesomeness on Pinterest? What are you writing about in your newsletter or blog? Can you take your market niche and link everything together? You have to constantly drive that connection in everything you do. Start with following your customers on all of these channels and see what they post. Interact.

Here’s what I know… Most people would rather eat in a great local restaurant than some big chain. Everyone knows that the best pizza place in town isn’t Papa Johns or Dominos.

Where’s your favorite?

I’ll bet you have one. Just like your shop, they are competing in the same space as those big boys with all the money. Except that the local pizza place absolutely kills those chains in quality and customer satisfaction. Think about how that works. Those big chains can’t replicate Nonna’s secret marinara sauce.

I’ll bet you have a secret sauce too.

Supporting local businesses is a fantastic thing. Your shop can be the one everyone flocks to if you spend the effort to brand yourself as the “local connection”.

Building your marketing plan to achieve that moniker isn’t that hard. It requires you to get your hands “dirty”. Remember, at one point you didn’t know how to coat a screen. Mix an ink color. Pull a squeegee. Ship to Canada. Thread an embroidery machine. Heat press numbers and keep them straight. To learn, you just rolled up your sleeves and did it.

Driving home that point that you are the local source for apparel awesomeness requires the same effort. It’s a learning process. You have to start though. That’s the hardest part for most folks. Social media marketing requires that you show up and post relevant content constantly.

One of the first things I do when I come into contact with another apparel decorator is to look them up online. The majority of the shops I’ve found haven’t posted anything worthwhile in a year or two.

Is that you?

Are you stating either “social media doesn’t work” or “I don’t have time to do it” when it comes up in conversation? Do you blame your lack of sales on everything but the dismal effort you give it?

Share what’s going on in an authentic voice. Use hashtags correctly. Learn to use keywords for search. Write a monthly newsletter and send it out to subscribers. Post pictures of your customers enjoying the apparel you produce. After all, they are your potential customer’s neighbors too!

When you do that consistently well, then get knee deep in using Pay Per Click, Google Analytics, and other tools. Start with the basics before diving into master’s level work.

Focus your effort to match the outcome you want.

Local Delivery

One way to compete is to think about what can you do to separate yourself from the online competition. Remember, you are not CustomInk. Which means you can do it better as you can connect directly with your customer face to face. That’s something they can’t ever do.

Many shops that I know do this by offering free local delivery in a branded vehicle. This is brilliant. Not only does this step up the customer service game as you don’t have to wait for UPS or FedEx, but adds to the marketing effort simultaneously. Just driving around town markets your shop and reinforces your brand.

Celebrate that you are local and proud of it! Post a picture of your happy customer with the shirts you just delivered on your social media feeds.

What else can you do to be different? I watched one shop’s video of them delivering a shirt to a customer using a drone. There is another shop that converted an ice cream truck into their delivery vehicle. Anything that gets you noticed could be a great idea. What resources do you have at your disposal?

Don’t forget when you drop off those shirts you can shake their hand and say thank you. The online megalosaurus won’t be doing that anytime soon.

Celebrate that personal connection!

It’s Not about the Tools

How many times a week has someone sent you a file they created on CustomInk or another site? For most shops, this happens daily. Have you ever wondered why?

Why aren’t they staying on that site? They used their online design tool. That’s a convenient feature. But now, they have their creative idea mocked up and have hand-delivered it to you. “Hey, here’s the football – we want you to score the touchdown!”

When this happens, it’s already a win for your company. There is something about your shop’s marketing or reputation that has convinced them to talk to you about their idea. You have gained enough traction with them to start a conversation about their needs. If I were you, I’d find out the reason they are talking to you.

  • Why didn’t they start with your shop from the beginning?
  • What made them come to you specifically with the CustomInk art?
  • What would you need to do differently for your shop to be their first call?

Listen to what your customers are saying! Your customers will tell you what you need to know…just ask.

Do Something Different

Some ideas:

  • T-shirt of the Month Clubs. One of the hottest trends going for decorated apparel shops. Have you thought of this? It’s very easy to do, and quite lucrative if you handle it the right way. The idea is simple, think up a great brand name and theme for the shirt club. Based on your area code, city name or some other creative phrase you can invent your own apparel line. Get that trademarked. Then, start an online store subscription club, where members get a new shirt once a month. Go crazy with social media. Give a few away to some influential folks and get them to wear it around town. You can expand into embroidered hats, tote bags, and other stuff too. Show up at all the local events with your tent. Don’t limit yourself.
  • Give people reasons to come to your shop if that’s something you want to happen. Even a “meet the neighbors” bbq or block party once in a while can pay off in huge dividends. Get other businesses to take part and highlight what everyone does on your street. Remember, people like doing business with their friends. Any event where you can bring them in to meet you is worthwhile.
  • Another way to introduce your shop is offering a “screen-print your own shirt” party. Take folks behind the curtain and show them how the magic happens. Make it an experience and show off what you do.
  • Invest in a mobile decoration set-up. I keep seeing this in the decorator groups I’m in. Just a manual press set up at an event. Have helpers sell or talk about your shop. You know you’ve always wanted to do this!

Own Your Customer Service

One thing that the online competition can’t touch is local customer service and knowledge about the industry. That’s why Luigi’s down the street sells the best pepperoni pizza for miles around.

Remember, you are an expert in apparel decoration. Your skill and hard-earned wisdom are at your customer’s disposal. What’s the difference between a Gildan 5000 or a Bella 3001?

“Let me show you. Here’s a sample.” That’s hard to do online. But pretty easy for you to market that you are an expert in your area.

You’ve got samples, color cards, thread charts and most of all, time. Time to spend with people and help them with their order. Not to mention, you are right there.

Need something by Friday? “Sure, we can figure out how to work it in.”

The best thing about your customer service? It’s real. It’s person to person. Eyeball to eyeball. What do most customers in any type of business want anyway? They want to know that they matter and that you care. That’s hard to do when you are a faceless entity. Much easier to do with a handshake and a smile.

Remember, “Your best customer is only a handshake away.”

Supercharge Your Sales with a Fanatical Fanbase

Think about how other businesses grow and succeed. That hairstylist that made you look great for the big event. Your favorite restaurant. The best wedding photographer. The expert butcher that trims your steaks just right.

How have they expanded their audience and grown over the years? It’s all about getting referrals and word of mouth excitement. Everyone is always happy to share that new “secret” business they found that kicks everyone else’s butt.

Your shop needs to be the one that everyone recommends. But how does that happen?

It starts with craftsmanship. Technical expertise. Creative thinking and fantastic artwork. On-time delivery. Zero mistakes. Out of this world customer service and problem-solving.

Where are you on those seven items? Missing something? Shore that up and solve it. Keep learning about the industry and work on improving your game. You can make it easy by giving them tools they can use. Plus, you can make it a fun and easy experience.

Not to mention you are right there with them in the stands at the local softball game, Habitat for Humanity build, blood drive, or local festival.


You are not CustomInk. You are better.