Competitive advantage in the heat press t-shirt business

If you run a run a heat press in your custom apparel business, you may find yourself wondering how you can compete against businesses like Zazzle, CafePress, and Ooh Shirts. These companies allow customers to order online and often have low price points. The reason they can do this is that they have multiple warehouses that fill these orders every day. They have resources that small businesses simply don’t.

There are some incredibly effective things you as a small business owner can do however, to win against these businesses. It’s all about what you can offer that they can’t.


The first thing you want to focus on in your heat press business is that customer experience. That personal touch that you bring to every interaction with your customers. Customers get to talk directly with you. People are more likely to do business with someone they know, like, and trust. So building a personal connection with them is important, and is something that the big businesses simply can’t offer.

Treat your customers like they’re your biggest customer, because they just might be. Their business is important to you, it makes a difference in your annual revenue. However for those large companies, that customer’s order may be insignificant, so they don’t care if they lose that customer. It may not be valuable to them to spend 30 minutes on a call with a customer, whereas your profitability may depend on that 30 minute call.

Many of your customers may be small business owners themselves, so they understand your business, as you understand theirs. It gives you an opportunity to support one another, not just in ordering product, but in going to their events, referring them to other people who need their services (examples: plumbers, hairdresser, charities).

We’ve talked before about the value of a customer, and it applies to all businesses. Your ability to refer customers to them and their ability to refer customers to you.


Have you ever ordered something from a company, only to need to make a change on the order? How is that process handled? Perhaps you had to call customer service, fill out a change request form, that then had to be processed and passed on to the production team. And perhaps a new quote had to be written up and signed off, before the ordered could be filled. How long did that process take?

As a small business, chances are it’s just you (and perhaps your spouse), running the business. This means that if a change request comes through ,you can quickly and easily manage it. You’re the person the customer deals with for the whole process, from order to production to delivery.


One thing not often taken into consideration is the limitations of the machines and equipment big businesses have. They invest a lot of money into their equipment, often because they need multiple machines to produce the volume. This means that it’s difficult to replace or upgrade those machines. It may not make financial sense for them do to so. What are the features of your heat press machine that makes you stand out?

With embroidery machines, often times the sewing field is limited, so if you know the size of your sewing field is larger, you can sell your customer on creating a larger design.

Mixed media is also an advantage you might have. Perhaps you do both heat press and embroidery. Come up with a design or options for your customers that combine both. Most big businesses specialize and cannot offer the level of customization you can.

We’ve mentioned quite a bit before about the importance of training and education. Make sure you know all the great features of your machine. What can it print on? What gives the most wow? But also what is your competition capable of? What are their limitations? What don’t they do?

As an idea of getting to know your competition, try ordering something from them. How much did it cost? How long did it take to arrive? What’s the quality of the blank, the design? Then consider how you would do it better. From all points of business including customer support and the ordering process.

Competition isn’t a bad thing. It challenges you to be better. And these big online businesses can help generate more interest in custom apparel. Someone’s search for custom apparel may start with Zazzle, but ultimately land with you.

One last thing to keep in mind, is that you’re not going to win every customer. You can try to convince them to order from you and state all your reasons, but perhaps they are working with a firm budget, they don’t have that extra $100 to work directly with you. Give everyone your best. You never know if they’ll be a future customer, even if they don’t order from you the first time.