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15 Quick Ways to Upsell Premium Apparel to Schools

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15 Quick Ways to Upsell Premium Apparel to Schools

large university approached UTees for a standout apparel piece that blended functionality with style for its staff. UTees suggested a premium vest known for its durability and versatility, allowing staff to wear it multiple times a week, unlike a standard shirt worn once. This choice resonated with the university and proved strategic since —outerwear-like vests generate the highest impressions, with each logo attracting 6,100 pairs of eyes during its lifetime.

“Today, everyone aspires to be a brand. Schools, in essence, have always been brands, with the desire for identity and recognition that everyone seeks. Now, they want their branded apparel to have that retail look and finish.”
Chris Perry, head of contract sales at UTees

Discover 15 smart strategies leading distributors and decorators use to effectively pitch and sell premium decorated apparel to higher education buyers, enhancing school pride and brand image.

1. Ask lots of questions.

When working with education clients, asking a lot of questions upfront is key. Ask about the garment’s intended use, the target audience, and the message it aims to convey. Do they want a retail style, a name brand, or a sustainable option? By understanding these factors, you can recommend the best decoration and premium garment options around their budget for the marketing campaign or event, ensuring they make a lasting impression. “If it’s above their budget, then they have to decide to stick with the budget or their vision,” Perry says.

Parents are now looking more to dress their kids in unique premium apparel too. (From left to right: LAT 6101, adidas® A4001, Independent PRM11PNT)

2. Use the tried-and-true “good, better, best” approach.

Heather Cotton, owner of Cottonclub Creations, emphasizes the importance of providing schools with good, better, and best options, with corresponding price points.

“Always ask what they’re looking for and then present several levels of quality. The key factors for products in my ‘better’ category are feel, durability, and name brand recognition.”
Heather Cotton, owner of Cottonclub Creations

Be ready to show items other teams or schools use so buyers can see what’s popular. For example, Cotton says some schools initially request apparel for events like jog-a-thons or freshman activities. However, she successfully upsells them to a 50/50 blend by explaining that many of her clients had complained about shrinkage issues with cotton shirts.

3. Do the “laundry test” for your top product recommendations.

In addition to “good, better, and best” criteria, try this one on for size: the “laundry test,” which has nothing to do with washing apparel. “It’s focused on creating a decorated product that becomes a favorite,” says Dylan Cohen, account manager at Campus Stop, “and always ends up on top of the pile in a drawer after laundering for easy access.”

While this doesn’t mean picking the most expensive item, it does mean paying attention to:

●      The audience’s age and gender to select items that resonate. “Remember, one size doesn’t fit all,” Cohen says.

●      Evaluate the cut and texture for enhanced retail appeal. “Who doesn’t love a soft t-shirt or sweatshirt that fits great?” he says.

●      Explore different decoration methods to add a unique touch.

“Showcasing retail-inspired products can help clients see the value in premium styles, moving beyond traditional options,” Cohen says.

4. Let them touch and feel premium items with samples.

Cotton suggests always having samples available for buyers to touch and feel.

“Many people feel a sample and know they want something better or different. This gives them a chance to explore different brands and quality levels at a low, mid, and high-end in a tactile way.”
Heather Cotton, owner of Cottonclub Creations

Perry is also a big fan of the touch-and-feel approach since persuading a buyer to purchase a premium item without seeing it is more challenging. He schedules lunch-and-learns with local clients and brings in lots of samples for them to see and touch.

UTees partners with retail brands like Life is Good and Sunkissed Coconut and frequently uses apparel from American Apparel, Champion, and Comfort Colors. “It’s a good idea to bring in products they’re excited to see since it increases the value,” he says.

Premium comes in lots of forms. The Comfort Colors 1745 gives you that popular heavyweight feel with a garment-dyed pattern. The Tultex 602 provides a tighter knit for better printing & extremely soft feel. The Independent IND280SL is a clean-looking, best-in-class 3-end fleece that gives students the oversized fit they’re looking for.

5. Show up with killer decoration options.

Along with showing samples, Perry presents different decoration techniques to elevate the premium apparel further. “Show how their logo will look with a screen-printed transfer, a cool flexstyle patch, or a silicone transfer,” he says.

“Go outside traditional embroidered looks with puff stitching. You can also show upgrades like custom inner and sleeve or hem tags.”
Chris Perry, head of contract sales at UTees

The key is learning more about the buyer’s goal and who’ll wear the t-shirt. “If it’s for sports, then maybe they want a soft hand feel and a vintage screen-print look,” Perry says. “You can propose a water-based discharge print and then recommend the best garments for that technique.”

6. Know when to break out the name brands.

Showing name-brand apparel to higher education buyers can be important, especially when selling to the admissions office or faculty, or for a golf outing for donors. These buyers may appreciate having their logo alongside adidas or Columbia logos, as it can enhance the apparel’s perceived value.

“For groups like sororities that prioritize their unique look and feel, the brand name might not be as crucial. But a few years ago, Champion was huge with sororities because of the Kardashians, so it all depends. Understanding the preferences of different clients within the higher education sector is key to successfully selling premium apparel.”
Chris Perry, head of contract sales at UTees
Co-branding a school's name or team w/ big brands like Adidas, Oakley & Champion can create an irresistible piece parents, staff & students would pay top dollar for.

7. It’s OK to not always push the highest-priced item.

For Perry, ongoing relationships with educational institutions are his company’s lifeblood. That’s why, so he views each order as part of a continuum.

“Here and there, a university needs 20,000 lower-cost t-shirts for the basketball game or 3,000 shirts for admissions. If that’s the case for that particular order, we’ll get them three lower-cost items with unique decorating ideas to evaluate. However, they might need something much higher-end for the next go-around, and we’re here to help them with that, too. We have a growth mindset.”
Chris Perry, head of contract sales at UTees

Similarly, Cotton never declines a job because the buyer doesn’t select a more expensive item. “The customer ultimately gets to decide what they want, so I’ll fulfill the order whether I’m using Nike or a less-expensive brand,” she says.

8. Stay on top of trends.

Perry has noticed a significant convergence between retail and promotional wear in the last five years, with a growing demand for trendy styles. “Everyone wants the shirts they see on social media,” he explains. “People reach out and say, ‘We want what’s trending.’”

Kari Haenni, account manager at Genumark, advises educational buyers to observe student trends in cafeterias and social media.

“Pay attention to what they’re using and wearing. From their drinkware to laptop decals to clothing in their TikTok videos, these spaces are rich with insights into student preferences. By staying aware, you can help your client position their merch to match students’ tastes.”
Kari Haenni, account manager at Genumark

Perry has successfully pitched trendy gear to sororities and larger programs alike. Comfort Colors tees have been among his top-selling styles. “You get an affordable, oversized premium tee that mimics a retail look,” he says. “You feel like you’re wearing a retail T-shirt. It’s all about positioning and perceived value.”

Drawcord-free hoodies from brands like American Apparel and Independent Trading Co. are hot now, much like tie-dye and matching sets, are hot now.

The new stylish American Apparel Reflex matching collection offers schools sustainable trend options w/ recycled poly, clean looks, & quality 3-end fleece.

9. Stay in front of your buyers with creative ideas.

Schedule regular meetings with buyers to examine their programs at a higher level. “You can sit down, look at their calendar, and prioritize,” Perry says. What’s the budget for the year? What’s the budget for the fall or spring semester? What are the events? What are you looking to do? What’s the goal? Then, work with them holistically to achieve all they want.”

10. Pitch online stores to educational buyers.

Offer online store solutions to educational buyers. Setting up and managing online stores eliminates the guesswork in ordering sizes for events or seasons, whether for a sorority, athletic team, or club. “They used to have to store away the leftovers they rarely used again,” Cohen says. “Today, we have access to simple, low-cost technology options that allow our clients to present multiple styles and color options, enabling recipients to select their item and specify size, color, and shipping address.”

Cohen emphasizes the quick setup and engagement potential of these sites. “Most importantly, everyone gets what they want, and your education client saves time, money, and storage by avoiding guesswork and starting over,” he adds. “This simple change allows them to invest in higher-quality products.”

11. Get your salespeople and brand ambassadors on board.

UTees has 700 college student campus managers selling their products to their peers. The company brings 150 top performers to sales workshops that apparel supplier partners attend. “Our reps go home with 10 pieces of trending apparel imprinted with some of our coolest decorating techniques,” Perry says. “That’s how we equip them to sell for the next semester. It’s about getting premium gear in front of people.”

12. Try generating excitement with pop-up shops.

UTees frequently hosts pop-up shops on campus and invites sorority members to browse university- and sorority-specific designs. Beforehand, UTees works with its supplier partners to select the best brand styles and how to decorate them to make the biggest impact. “The students can see and touch the apparel and then purchase items they like,” he says. “We also have some cute giveaways.”

Items w/ unique detailing like balloon sleeves (American Apparel RF494), raw edges (BELLA+CANVAS 3787) & hem drawcords (LAT 3528) are great for pop-up stores.

13. Lean on your suppliers or decorators to bring your ideas to life.

Perry points out that all decorators and distributors should lean on their apparel supplier partners to help them ideate and consistently present interesting products to clients.

“On the campus side, we’re constantly putting products from our vendors in front of sororities so they can touch, feel, and wear them. As decorators, we also send sample kits with different techniques to distributors.”
Chris Perry, head of contract sales at UTees

14. Go the extra (unique) mile.

Choosing complementary promo products like drinkware for higher ed can involve balancing price, quality, and brand. Haenni found that price often matters more than brand recognition to buyers. In a test for an education buyer, she compared brand-name and generic drinkware. "I filled both with ice and water, sealed the lids, and left them for 48 hours,” she explains. “We repeated with boiling water for 24 hours. Even after, the brand-name container still had ice after 48 hours and kept a temperature of around 78°F.”

This demonstration highlighted to the buyer that they’re not just paying for the name, but also for the technology and quality materials. “By showcasing these performance differences, I shifted from being a mere options provider to a trusted advisor,” Haenni says. “The students also got a name brand they resonated with and would use.”

15. Emphasize the power of creating lasting impressions.

Cohen has seen people view logoed products as mere “giveaways,” failing to see that everything they distribute reflects their brand. However, using low-quality branded items can have a negative impact.

“They often overlook the long-term benefits of having someone promote their school by wearing quality apparel, which offers a low cost per impression. Additionally, the environmental impact of apparel manufacturing increases when clothes aren’t valued and worn regularly, leading to more waste.
Many manufacturers offer good options at slightly higher prices than cheap, poorly made items. Our mantra is, ‘Create lasting impressions, not more landfill.’”
Dylan Cohen, account manager at Campus Stop

Start Creating Campus Buzz With Premium Apparel

Haenni says choosing premium garments that create FOMO among students and other wearers is essential. “If a garment doesn’t fit well, isn’t soft and comfortable, or lacks a recognizable logo, it’s unlikely to be worn as often as desired,” she says. But if it creates a stir – the ‘how can I get one of those’ feelings among other students – before you know it, the bookstore or athletic clubs ask for it by name.

May 5, 2024