QP: How large is the digital garment printing market and what drives it?
Longtin: In the United States, digital garment printing is carving a small but growing slice out of the multi-billion domestic garment printing market. The global garment decoration market in 2007 was estimated to be over $44 billion, part of the $2.5 trillion global clothing and textile market.
What drives the industry is a pervasive, endless demand for custom imprinted clothing and promotional products. All apparel has a lifespan and custom garments often have a finite range of use—think uniforms, events, and corporate promotional attire. If you wear something that bears an image, embroidery stitches, a dye pattern, or even an embossed logo, you consume decorated apparel.
Direct-to-garment is competitive with, and complementary to, screen printing. As DTG technology becomes more refined, the area of overlap between these technologies grows.
QP: What are the main reasons why a print provider should get involved in digital garment printing?
Longtin: A print provider should look at the business case for digital garment printing just as they would for any product line: Do I have a ready market? Can I design a cost and pricing model that will enable greater profit? Can I learn or train on the technology? What will it cost to own and operate it for a number of years?
The main reasons why they are coming off the fence is that the cost to acquire is low, the technology is increasingly easy to operate, and the latent market is huge. In a commodotized environment, offering corporate and non-profit customers digital apparel products—being the one-stop shop—can help lock in accounts. Storefront shops pick up extra traffic from putting a sample shirt in the window. It may even open the door to other commercial printing accounts.
QP: What types of customers are the best prospects for digital garment printing services?
Longtin: The easiest targets for marketing digital direct-to-garment printing are all local businesses with promotional budgets, retail stores of all types, non-profit and charitable organizations, schools, and private individuals. Sincerely, wherever your business’ sweet spot is, that’s probably where the money is. It’s harder, but not impossible, to land large corporate accounts because they tend to favor mass production using screen printing—which is probably more economical to outsource. However, even major businesses occasionally need short runs and reorders that are not cost-effective using anything but direct to garment.
QP: Describe the learning curve for adding digital garment printing services. Do most printers already have the necessary skills, or is significant training needed?
Longtin: Amongst our customers, we find that garage owners—mom and pops—require the most training and have the greatest learning curve. Commercial printers and sign shops have the shortest learning curve—a month or less of working with the printer.
Metaphorically, if you are filling up a jar with rocks, pebbles, sand, then water, the three big rocks are: operating the printer, knowing design, and marketing the offering with discipline. Start-ups often have a lot of motivation and time, but they often lack one or even all three of the big rocks.
Existing commercial printing enterprises likely already understand the care and feeding of an inkjet machine, they have one or more staff with design expertise, and they have a customer base from which to build. It’s usually just a matter of “adding water”, which, in this case, is the ability to make customers happy time after time.
The new skill to be learned is proper pre-treatment of black or colored shirts. It’s not necessary for white or light garments. Pre-treatment requires a well-ventilated area, a box or other device to catch overspray, and, ideally, clothesline space or a tool for drying.
QP: How much investment is required and what kind of ROI can a printer expect to see?
Longtin: A dependable direct-to-garment printer, heat press, baseline equipment, and software start around $20,000. Anything less, and your vendor’s reliability, training, technical support, and aftermarket supplies should be suspect. Higher-speed solutions (30 to 50 shirts per hour) will range from $30,000 to $60,000. Larger, dedicated garment decorator businesses and in-plant facilities have even faster, costlier options.
Payoff and return on investment, as with all things, depend on your costs, pricing model, production/labor capacity, marketing effort, and many other factors. To cite examples, however, we have had franchise print shops, sign shops, and other commercial printers achieve full payoff in three months or less. They have sometimes come back to us to upgrade their printer. Their garment printing business has, in many instances, helped grow their primary business lines.
QP: What is the most important thing for a printer to know before they get into digital garment printing?
Longtin: The most important thing to know before you get involved in digital garment printing: your market. I say this as a marketing executive and as a digital apparel printer owner. Who are your customers? Are they buying printed apparel for personal use or for branding, promotional, team identity needs? Are you comfortable competing on speed, quality, and service, or do you race to the bottom on price?
Anyone with time and money can buy and learn DTG. If you do not know your market and have the discipline to go after them, is it worthwhile just to satisfy the itch to get a cool piece of technology? Too many people enter the market arena thinking their equipment will do all the work for them. After all, it is pretty cool.
The second most important thing to know is that, as with all your favorite suppliers, you will want to build an ongoing relationship with the printer vendor or distributor. Do your homework and look at the total cost of ownership, not just the acquisition cost. Get as much detail and documentation as you can. Some vendors make their profit primarily on the printers, others on inks, still others on systems integration.