We use cookies on this site to enhance your user experience.
For a complete overview of all cookies used, please see our privacy policy.

Does It Make Dollars and Sense to Take Small Orders?

Home  /  The PRES&S  /  
Business Advice
Does It Make Dollars and Sense to Take Small Orders?

trikke Knits Embroidery’s business has doubled over the past two years thanks to owner Carolyn Cagle’s willingness to say an enthusiastic yes to small-run orders. “Production shops don’t want to bring in orders of less than 24 items, or that require personalization or specialty work,” Cagle says. “The shops around me are no longer competitors, since they actually refer me to small-run customers.”

Should your shop accept orders of 24 pieces or less? Maybe it’s finally time to check out the untapped potential of small-run orders. Learn how your print or embroidery shop can maximize profits by taking on the right types of small-run orders to make the most money – and keep your customers coming back for more.

Subhead: How the Demand for Small-Run Orders Evolved

During the pandemic, consumers showed increasing interest in personalized products produced by print-on-demand services. In fact, many buyers now expect some type of personalization option when they’re ordering (36%) and are willing to wait longer for a customized product (48%). POD products are made to order, often with no minimums; however, even one personalized item that’s made to order can be profitable for a seller.

The other factor is the shift from traditional in-store retail shopping to a rise in ecommerce purchasing, which is likely here to stay due to its ease, speed and convenience. In 2021, online sales constituted 18.8% of total global retail transactions. By 2022, this figure rose to 19.7% and is anticipated to climb further to 24% by 2026. This signifies a notable growth of nearly 6% within a four-year span.

“We’ve observed a consistent decrease in the average order sizes alongside a rise in order frequency. This indicates a clear shift in consumer preferences toward smaller, more frequent orders. Businesses are increasingly opposed to maintaining significant inventory levels and the risk of holding onto aging stock.”
JP Hunt, director of partnerships at Inktavo

In response to these changing customer buying habits, print shops have strategically invested in POD and rapid replenishment capabilities. Online stores, ecommerce and associated e-ordering make it easy for customers to place orders on demand and as needed,” says Hunt.

Using Digital Decoration for Efficient Small Orders

Many successful decorating shops make room for smaller orders in their schedules. Jennie Livezey, owner of Z Shirts Custom Printing, has a 12-piece minimum for most screen-printing jobs, but will go smaller depending on her shop’s workload. At Brisky Creations, owner Nikki Hann will slide in profitable one-offs between other jobs.

“Yesterday, I did a job within a few hours for a mom-to-be. If she called today, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
Nikki Hann, owner at Brisky Creations

Both Livezey and Hann lean toward digital options, like direct-to-film transfers, for smaller-run, quick-turn orders. “It’s quicker and more cost-effective for POD transactions,” Hann says. DTF transfers are a great way to offer long-lasting, full-color custom, personalized or one-off stock designs to clients. If you’re screen-printing small runs, it’s a better idea to use one or two colors max with one print location.

“The integration of print-on-demand capabilities, specifically with direct-to-film transfers, and the incorporation of online ordering systems have enabled print shops to adeptly transition to handling smaller orders.”
JP Hunt, director of partnerships at Inktavo

“These approaches are cost-effective regarding labor and materials and yield profitable results. Receiving small orders through digital invoices, online stores and e-commerce platforms significantly reduces processing time and overhead costs due to their digital nature, requiring minimal manual intervention,” says Hunt.

Whether you set up your own online POD store, or manage one for a client, an easy ordering experience will set you up for success. Generally, if you allow a customer to upload artwork and choose from a small selection of garments, they can quickly order small minimums that you can get out the door quickly. You can also offer pre-made designs for sale, as in a school store, and then use on-hand transfers to produce the garments in record time.

There are several industry-specific e-commerce vendors you can reach out to if you want to set up your own POD store or offer them to clients. Check out InkSoft, OrderMyGear, DecoNetwork and Spirit Sale. For added support, take a look at Printavo for production management platform and graphics platform GraphicsFlow.

Pricing Small Runs for Profit

Some shops set up pricing tiers based on the quantity of shirts a customer orders, so the more shirts ordered, the lower the cost per shirt. Generally, you want to shoot for a per-item margin of 40%, depending on what your market is willing to pay. Hann doesn’t look at what her competitors are charging, but bases her pricing on what it costs her to produce the item and make a worthwhile profit.

Don’t price based on the competition.

“We’ve noticed that when we do a small run for a customer, they refer us to others. Word-of-mouth has been our number-one form of getting business.”
Nikki Hann, owner at Brisky Creations

Cagle loves small runs for her two-head embroidery shop, with a minimum of a single item that starts at $15. Then, she quotes the job by time she’ll spend on it, artwork and digitizing setup, and whether or not she needs to customize apparel or an accessory for the client.

Pricing by the Hour.

She normally offers a turnaround of 10 working days or less for small orders, but the client usually wants it faster, so that’s an upcharge based on the degree of difficulty and turnaround time. “I’ve never had a customer complain about the rush fee,” she says. Cagle recommends pricing by the shop hour.

“Nothing takes ‘just five minutes’ ever. Every custom job requires special consultation, as well as upscale finishing. Your customer expects a higher standard than the ‘fold it and throw it in the bag’ exchange. You’re working on a boutique-style scale.”
Carolyn Cagle, owner at Strikke Knits Embroidery

For individualized orders like personalized bridal or baby items, Cagle meticulously folds, presses, and encases the product in tissue paper. The item is then delicately placed inside a premium white bag, along with a heartfelt thank-you note and business cards. If Cagle produces a 24-piece polo shirt order with a left-chest stitched crest or logo, she also folds, packages each by size, and puts them into white-handle bags – increasing the perceived value.

Mastering Higher-End Custom Orders

Creating a sense of exclusivity and scarcity with a one-off or small order also increases the value to a customer. Cagle provides extra consulting time on one-off orders, recommending ways to improve it, like using a particular typeface or a certain color story.

In one case, a customer wanted a snake embroidered in green thread on his motorcycle seat. Cagle thought it would look too much like clip art, so she made some suggestions that turned a $75 job into a $900 high-end seat remake. “You always need to get an approval on your design and location before you stitch it out, so you don’t lose time and money on the job,” she says.

Take the exclusivity angle in another direction by offering business owners limited-edition runs they can give away or sell. Think about this when working with clients like brands, universities, Greek organizations, bands, museums and more.

When you produce limited runs of an item using custom art, you help your customers build a stronger bond with their employees or customers.

“Your clients won’t always know how to make artwork more special, so that’s where you need to come in as the expert and use your expertise to guide people toward a truly memorable result.”
Nikki Hann, owner at Brisky Creations

How to Market Your Small-Run Services

There’s a breadth of profitable customers looking for small-run orders from your shop, so it’s important to let your clients know that you can offer higher-end personalized or custom orders. Some of these customer include:

1. People who want a personalized item for themselves to use personally or professionally.
2. People who want to buy unique gifts for others.
3. Small business owners who want unique uniform items or gifts for employees.
4. Business owners, brands or musicians who want limited-edition items to resell.

“Market to each of these categories individually to get your best jobs and set prices,” Cagle says. In her shop, she creates levels of custom work:

Small-run patch production for corporate/school wear:

Cagle prices these embroidered patches based on the quantity ordered and the time it takes her to produce the run. She adds these custom patches to shirts, jackets, hats and other items for companies, schools, groups and more. For a one-off piece, she created three patches with pet dogs’ faces and names and attached them to a shirt’s long sleeve.

Gift items:

These products include a name drop, monogram, artwork, and even a short message or verse. For example, Cagle stitches names of gift recipients and givers, dates, evocative images, and heartfelt messages on blankets, towels and other keepsake items.

Large-format or specialty items:

Cagle does a lot of higher-end, one-of-a-kind upholstery for cars and motorcycles and for interior design work, using materials like leather, vinyl and furniture fabrications.

One great way to spread the word about your offerings is by leveraging user-generated content. Ask people you’ve produced small-run work for to create a review or video that you can share on social media and use in your marketing materials.

Another tactic is partnering with micro-influencers in niches you work in frequently. A micro-influencer usually has a tightly-knit and loyal fan base open to product suggestions. For example, if you produce custom dog likenesses, a person who’s active in pet parent communities would be a good bet.

Become the Go-To Shop for Custom Orders

The upsurge in customer demand for personalized, customized and smaller-run orders presents a lucrative opportunity for decorators. If you decide to cater to this need and tailor your services – and prices – to fit what people want, you can make a nice profit and cultivate customer loyalty and referrals.

Mastering high-end custom orders starting with consultations and creative recommendations will further elevate your customer satisfaction and value. If you market your small-run services via word-of-mouth, using user-generated content and even working through a micro-influencer, you can position your shop for sustained growth and success in a competitive market.

Nov 5, 2023