T Shirts as a Commodity

It never ceases to amaze me what the general public thinks of printed t shirts. Actually, it’s quite instructional and there’s a lot to be learned from their reactions. There are some very stereotypical perceptions that don’t seem to change over time.

The first is that anybody can print t shirts and it just isn’t that hard. I think this comes from exposure to “silkscreen” in a high school or college art class. It can be a very basic process and, in fact, many people do print t shirts in this kind of environment. However, there’s a big step from the art class to the commercial space.

Second is the perception that t shirts are ink on cotton or ink on underwear. They’re cheap and you can get them cheap just about anywhere you look. This is an obvious observation and it’s supported by the fact that many starving t shirt printers will indeed discount their orders to very, very low prices.

Third, t shirts are a commodity. A commodity is a product or service that’s easily interchangeable with the competition and there’s no difference. Commodities are sold based on price. The only differentiator is the price. The winner is the vendor with the lowest price and availability of the commodity.

All of these perceptions are true on the surface, but they breakdown on close examination. Too many companies who produced printed apparel think of themselves as “t shirt printers.” If you’re one of them, you’re relegating yourself to the world of commoditization and sentencing yourself to a world of price based competition.

My point is, printed t shirts are anything BUT a commodity. When your customers come to you and ask “What’s your lowest price on. . . ” you set yourself up to become a victim of the commodity game. Rather, your position should be to find out more about what the customer actually wants. Their motivation is to get the best possible deal, NOT the lowest price.

Think about this for a minute. Study after study have shown when consumers are faced with buying decisions, they will most frequently pick the middle alternative, and not the highest or the lowest offering. Even if they come to you asking for the lowest price, they’re really seeking the lowest price for what their needs really are.

Here’s the catch. The average consumer rarely knows what they really want. The path out of the commoditization game is education. Knowing what questions to ask the customer to help them clarify their real needs starts the ball rolling in your direction. When you combine this with a wide range of options, the customer now has a vastly increased range of possible solutions. You move away from the single color imprint on a white t shirt and enter into an entirely different competitive landscape.

When you sit down and really think about what you deliver, it isn’t ink on cotton or ink on underwear. You’re delivering wearable media where the message connects your client to their community or customers. That connection is achieved through the graphics and the message. The ink on cotton aspect is only the vehicle to delivery that message. How you choose to deliver it, the printing options and the garment options are what allow you to move beyond the commodity aspect of the common perception.


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