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August 11, 2021

Buying Blank T-Shirts: Advice for UK Screen Printers

By: Peter Gregory

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When you’re running a screen printing business, the blank t-shirt you print on is just as important as the design of the vinyl. But picking the right blank is no easy task! 

Which type of unbranded t-shirts should you buy? How do you choose the best t-shirt supplier? What t-shirts are the best sellers, and do you need a premium-priced blank to sell a premium-priced product? Don’t worry — here at GB Labels, we have the answers. We’ve been supporting screen print startups for decades, and we’ve learned a lot from them along the way.

In this guide, we’ll answer some of the questions asked by new screen printers, and give you tips on how to invest your t-shirt budget effectively. You’ll discover how to keep your customers happy, your costs under control and your profits high over the long term. 

First: Build A Customer Profile

As with so many decisions in business, you should look to your target customer first. You need to have a very clear mental picture of your typical buyer: how old they are, what they’re interested in and why they’re buying your t-shirt.

Customer profiling is really important. It’s a vital step in deciding which type of blank t-shirt is going to be right for your business. You can buy blanks in any size, colour, thread weight and fit imaginable … and every customer has their own idea of what counts as a ‘quality t-shirt’. 

When you shop around for blank t-shirts, you’ll discover that some t-shirts are tight-fitting, whereas others are baggy. Some are cotton and some are polyester. The fabric can be soft or scratchy. The neckline can be tight, loose or shaped. Every blank t-shirt serves a different corner of the market, and the more you know about what your customer actually expects you to deliver, the easier it will be to pick the right item. 

You don’t need a marketing degree to build up a sensible, effective customer profile. Just ask yourself a few simple questions:

  • Are your designs for kids or grown-ups?
  • Are you selling to men or women? 
  • What age is your ideal t-shirt wearer? 
  • What are the interests and hobbies of your buyer? 
  • Are you expecting a lot of XXL+ sized customers?

The more simple questions like this that you can ask, the better the mental picture of your buyer/wearer is going to be … and the easier it will be to buy the right stock. 

Check Your Sizes

You need to know what sizes you’re going to sell before you know which t-shirts to buy. Most of our clients who started out selling a standard unisex S/M/L/XL range found that they soon had to branch out and offer child-sized, XS and XXL+ sizes, too. 

Generally speaking, if you want to buy unusual t-shirt sizes, the cost per-unit will start to sneak up, which can eat into your profit margin. Even if you buy wholesale, the costs and lead times on a rare size can be higher than you might expect. The price point you buy your tees at needs to work at any size … and you need to make sure that your supplier can deliver any odd sizes you think you might need.

A lot of blank tee suppliers have started to bundle up shirts into packs, with a pre-agreed amount of small, medium and large t-shirts in each bundle. This is a great option for small screen printers and startups, but you still need to pay attention to the sizing split. Make sure that the percentage of S, M, L and XL sizes will line up with your expected sales volumes. 

Think Long-Term on Colours

These days, the sky’s the limit when it comes to colour! Blank tees come in every shade imaginable, but you do need to watch out for stock availability. As a rule, the rarer your t-shirt colour, the more likely it is that you’ll run out of stock at some point.

Wherever possible, try to get a sample of each colour you’re interested in bulk-buying. Colours always look different on a computer screen than they do in real life: what looks like a hot pink on a website might look more like a muted salmon colour when it arrives. It’s better to discover this on a trial order of 1 or 2 items than on a bulk order of 1,000 blanks.

If in doubt, go monochrome! White and black are the go-to colours for most screen printing startups, and with good reason. Most screen print designs look great on either a black or a white background. These are also the most popular colours for blank t-shirts, so the odds of a stock shortage preventing you from delivering on an order are pretty slim. 

Buy A Blank Your Customer Feels Good In

This one comes back to knowing your customer. You have to ask yourself what type of t-shirt your consumer is going to expect, and then buy a shirt that matches that expectation. 

If you’re selling gymwear to young athletic buyers, for instance, they’ll probably want something lightweight, fitted and soft-feeling. If you’re selling father’s day gifts, it’s the complete opposite: a lightweight t-shirt would feel cheap. You’d probably want a roomy fit and a sturdy, dense fabric. 

Bulk-Buy For The Best Prices

Cost is obviously an important factor when you’re considering which blank t-shirts to buy. The less you spend on raw materials, the more you’ll make when you sell your shirts. Just bear in mind that the price you pay is linked to the size of your order. In general, if you can buy a lot of t-shirts up-front, you’ll get a much better deal than if you buy in small instalments. 

Other factors can affect your price, too: overseas shipping costs and duties, what sizes you buy, whether there are storage costs to pay and so on. You also have to choose whether to buy direct from the manufacturer or whether to buy from a third-party distributor. Factory prices are usually cheaper, but if you need a bit of extra stock in a hurry, then your best option will be to work with a distributor (see below)…

Speed Of Supply Is Very Important

The ‘time’ factor is more important than you might realise. If you get a sudden rush of orders, you will need to get your hands on fresh stock really quickly. You can’t afford to wait more than a day or two for your raw materials to arrive. 

This is where it pays to work with a third-party distributor. Some businesses can supply rush orders overnight (for a fee), whereas a factory will have a queue of jobs that it has to work through before it can ship anything fresh out to you. 

If you don’t have blank t-shirts on hand, you can’t make any new sales. Think of third-party distributors as your insurance policy. 

Give Yourself Room For Error

There’s no avoiding this one: You’re going to make some costly mistakes, especially if you’re new to screen printing. 

You should always factor in the cost of damaged stock when you’re buying blank t-shirts. If your screen printer chokes up, overheats or catches the corner of a t-shirt, then you’re going to end up with an unsellable t-shirt. Always buy slightly more than you think you’ll need, and price this overage into your total cost calculations. 

Another mistake you need to allow for is misjudging the market. Even the most experienced screen printers and t-shirt designers will place bets on poor-selling products from time to time. Designs you think will fly off the shelf can flop. You might calculate a 25% profit margin on an order of 1,000 blank t-shirts and think you’re on your way to making a lot of money, but all this really means is that you will be making a loss until you sell t-shirt number 751. The safest approach is to keep your experiments small — even if it costs you more per-unit. You can make notes of what’s selling well on a daily or weekly basis, and place larger orders for the more popular products as time goes by.

Neglect Sustainability At Your Peril

We all have a responsibility to make our industry as eco-friendly as we possibly can. We’ve already written a guide on this (Practical Advice on Sustainability for Fashion Startups), but in summary, you need to at least take the following steps:

  • Ask your supplier for the eco-credentials of your blank t-shirts. Even if they’re not organic cotton, you may still discover that the t-shirts have been produced in a sustainable way. 
  • If you can, go for a textile that is either 100% cotton or 100% man-made fibres. It’s much easier to recycle a 100% polyester t-shirt than a polycotton blend. 
  • Double down on product quality. Work as hard as you can to create a timeless design that will be worn over and over again. The longer your t-shirt stays out of landfill, the better it is for the planet. 

Get Your Labels From GB Labels! 

Your blanks will need to be printed, then labelled, before you ship them out to your customer. Ask your supplier whether the blanks you want to buy have ‘ripaway’ labels or whether they will need a full relabelling service. 

If you need to cover a manufacturer’s label with your own, we can produce a perfectly-sized label that can either be stitched on top of the original label or stitched into an open seam. Just ask us for a samples pack and you’ll be able to see our work for yourself! 

Thanks for reading!


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