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How to Balance Seasonal Demand Swings in Your Print Shop

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How to Balance Seasonal Demand Swings in Your Print Shop

or many print shops, the post-holiday sales slump in January is very real and concerning. However, too many shops fly by the seat of their pants for most of the year, scrambling to get orders out the door during rush times.

“Suddenly, when things slow down, panic sets in. You frantically start reaching out to customers for re-orders or to pitch new ideas, but it takes weeks for many of those orders to materialize.”
Brayden Jessen, owner of Zome Design

To reduce some of that stress, we asked industry experts for six effective strategies to manage fluctuations in seasonal demand, and ensure your business stays profitable year-round.

1. Start Forecasting Your Sales Potential

Many print shops lack the essential forecasting capabilities and data-driven insights required for effective decision-making. “Instead, they rely on anecdotal and historical experiences,” says JP Hunt, head of partnerships at Inktavo. “This can prove problematic, especially in an evolving market where future trends can be significantly different from past patterns. This is especially true in our industry, where fashion and graphics trends shift dramatically.”

Despite typical slow Q1s for printers, Zome Design enjoyed its most profitable January ever in 2010 when Eastern Washington University’s Eagles won the National Football Championship. In February 2014, when the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, Jessen’s team printed 20,000 t-shirts within 24 hours.

“Quick-turn hot market printing t-shirts and other items for sports wins has a big spike on our seasonal sales. If Gonzaga University’s sports teams are also doing well, we can have a great February and March.”
Brayden Jessen, owner of Zome Design

That’s why objective forecasting based on your shop’s historical data and current trends is critical for any print business. Since Zome Design makes a tidy profit from quick-turn printing, the team stays prepared for on-the-fly, all-hand-on-deck spurts at certain times of the year. They also know that in August they’re rushing back to school and in November they’re maxed out on embroidery orders.

“During our interview process, we say they (employees) need to be ready for seasonal fluctuations and a sudden uptick in orders around sports. We let them know they may work in different departments, so the more diverse their skills, the better the guarantee of consistent full-time hours they receive.”
Brayden Jessen, owner of Zome Design

2. Use a Flexible Production Schedule

“Change is an inevitable part of the decorating process, and a flexible production approach is crucial for adapting to canceled orders, updates in order quantities, rush orders and misprints,” Hunt says.

“Flexibility isn’t just a buzzword. You need the capacity to be dynamic and responsive. Your shop needs well-defined processes and systems that empower your production team to make real-time adjustments to accommodate changes.”
JP Hunt, director of partnerships at Inktavo

In March 2019, as a response to late-night host Jimmy Kimmel's ongoing "feud" about whether Gonzaga University exists, Jessen (a licensed Gonzaga printer) took the opportunity to create trending merchandise. As the “controversy” surrounding Gonzaga’s – and its Bulldogs basketball team – existence unfolded, Zome quickly designed and produced #GonzagaExists shirts, capitalizing on the buzz. Zome received overwhelming demand, with 1,000 orders placed on the first night of sales. The shirts went viral on social media and gained media attention, after earning that mention from Kimmel himself.

“Our team is used to having to put all hands on deck to capture as much business as possible while something’s hot,” Jessen says. “We usually have advance warning of a sports team going to a championship, so we prepare an ‘if win’ schedule for our team.”

You should also review the customers and jobs on your schedule.

“You’ll often find that 20% of your customers give you 80% of your revenue. The bottom tier might flood you with unprofitable filler orders. It’s a better idea to get your best customers to order more frequently and then ‘clone’ them with similar customers to fill your schedule with highly profitable work.”
- Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe

3. Keep Marketing and Selling Every Month

Seasonality is an inherent aspect of virtually all markets. For every shop that’s slow in any given month, there’s another that can barely handle the work. “When you specifically target markets and customer segments that exhibit similar seasonal market patterns, you expose your business to more revenue, cash flow, production and labor fluctuations during those periods,” Hunt says. “However, these fluctuations can pose significant challenges in managing day-to-day operations.”

In Jessen’s shop, for one, the team focuses on different markets and deliverables throughout the year.

“We know that trade show season is in Q1, so we push displays, uniforms and promo product giveaways ahead of time. If we know that we’re usually slammed before Thanksgiving with embroidery orders, we divert our sales efforts to other items like promo products. We lighten the burden on our in-house production, but still bring in sales.”
Brayden Jessen, owner of Zome Design

Atkinson offers another solution to the feast-or-famine problem: Flatten out your sales by selling consistently all year round.

“Shop owners stop selling because they’re so busy. If you’re not bringing in new work today, there’s a cliff where your sales will drop off a few weeks from now. Your sales brain needs to be six to eight weeks out at all times, so you fill in these gaps.”
- Marshall Atkinson
, business consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe

For example, since Q1 is slow for many decorators, start selling for those months in October and November and plan more promos during those months. “Winter sports, gyms and personal trainers are going crazy with new business,” Atkinson says. “Eliminate all excuses for not doing regular sales activities in your shop. Set your goals like how many cold calls you want to make in a day or how many $1,000 sales you want to book in a week.”

The Zome team also schedules pre-planned emails, social media posts and ads for the last week of December and the first few weeks of January. “While we enjoy time off, this content works to bring in orders,” Jessen says. “We don’t stress as much while we’re off or when we go back to work about future orders, since we stayed top of mind with customers.”

4. Don’t Under-or Overstock Your Inventory

If you’ve been collecting data for a few years, you’ll likely see patterns in your sales cycle where demand for certain products rises and falls. Using that information can help you stock items  you know will sell out well in advance of supply chain challenges and also prevent over-ordering. Some businesses conduct pre-sales to predict trends, secure cash flow and buy inventory strategically, avoiding excess stock post-holidays.

Since Zome Design sits within a one- or -two day ship of most apparel suppliers, Jessen doesn’t stock a whole lot of product in his shop.

“You never know when a style or trend will change, so it’s not worth having a ton of inventory you have to clearance out. We turn orders within 10 business days, so that gives us plenty of time to order the garments on demand well before we’re scheduled to decorate them.”
Brayden Jessen, owner of Zome Design

Once you’ve reviewed your historical sales data and reviewed any pre-sales information, make seasonal adjustments like these:

Optimize inventory management by tweaking your restocking schedules to avoid shortages or excess purchases.

Allocate funds to secure extra stock during high-demand periods.

Establish specific reorder points for each product.

Although purchasing in large quantities might offer discounts, acquiring items off-season could incur significant storage costs. To maximize cost efficiency, use seasonal demand predictions to determine distinct thresholds for seasonal and year-round inventory.

5. Don’t Forget to Woo Customers All Year Round

When you build a loyal customer base, you can stabilize your revenue stream. Lots of consumers enjoy engaging with brands they like, since the overall customer experience with your shop  impacts whether they buy or not. In fact, surveys show 73% of people point to customer experience as an important factor in their purchasing decisions.

“Maintaining a strong presence and fostering customer relationships during off-peak seasons is essential for long-term success. To achieve this, consistently delivering relevant content marketing and innovative product ideas is crucial. Doing so ensures that your brand remains at the forefront of your customers’ minds.”
JP Hunt, director of partnerships at Inktavo

Being top of mind means customers naturally turn to your business when they need branded merchandise. “Beyond conventional email newsletters, it’s vital to incorporate various marketing touchpoints, including personalized outreach, to establish and sustain these connections,” Hunt says. “This outreach should be thoughtfully designed to assist clients in contemplating and planning for their upcoming branded merch needs.”

At Zome Design, Jessen follows this constant contact strategy with customers by checking in with them and engaging with them all year.

“We encourage our customers to add us on social media and to join our email list, so that our marketing is constantly dripping to them and keeping us top of mind. We reach out with holiday gifting ideas well before Thanksgiving to get them engaged.”
Brayden Jessen, owner of Zome Design

6. Stay On Top of Sound Financial Planning

The biggest issue that Atkinson sees in shops around cash flow is that owners simply don’t know their gross and net profit numbers. “How do you even know if you’re profitable?” he says.

“Many shops don’t regularly close out their months, so they don’t have any idea how they’re doing. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. There’s no excuse not to have an up-to-date P&L because you can hire an accountant to do it.”
- Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe

Here are three other smart money measures you should take throughout the year:

1. Cut costs where you can:

While you may ramp up your production operations and labor hours during back to school or the holiday rush, look to reduce costs when things slow. For example, reduce staff hours or negotiate better deals with your suppliers. “January is when we usually plan shop projects in our screen-printing department or deep cleans to prepare us for the busy spring season,” Jessen says.

2. Budget wisely:

Putting aside a set portion of your profits every month helps you cover expenses and payroll during slower times, so you can keep running smoothly. Some experts recommend opening a line of credit when your business is up, so you can tap into it if you need extra funds. “Effective financial forecasting and planning are indispensable for navigating through low-demand periods and managing cash cycles,” Hunt says. “These practices help build adequate cash reserves to cushion against cash flow interruptions.”

3. Collect your payments on time, but wait to spend:

Effective cash flow management involves sending out customer invoices promptly, selling slow-moving inventory and vigilantly tracking expenditure to ensure financial stability. “We get tough on prepayments, past-due receivables and other due payments right before and during our slow seasons,” Jessen says. “We also typically hold off on any major purchases or expenses.”

Your Goal: Build Consistent Sales All Year Long

Atkinson sees print shops that sell consistently all year long enjoy consistent order volumes most of the year. “Those shops having the ‘best year ever,’ their secret sauce is simply that they’re going out and making sales calls all the time,” he says. “Close your deals today for two months from now and watch your shop quickly become more profitable. You’ll also be able to manage production more effectively, since it’s more even.”

Nov 12, 2023