Consider these impressive statistics from the Advertising Specialty Institute (ASI):
- 94 percent of people remember a promotional product they received in the past two years.
- 89 percent of people remember the advertiser on that promotional product.
- 83 percent of people like receiving a promotional product.
- 30 percent of consumers made a purchase after receiving a promotional product, compared with after viewing a print commercial (13.4 percent), a TV commercial (7.1 percent) or an online commercial (4.6 percent).
With figures like these, if you are an independent dealer not selling print and promotional products, it might be time to ask, “Why not?”
Entering the field
For Randy Durbin, president and owner of GBP Direct, Kenner, Louisiana, this category has been at the heart of his business since the outset. “Print and promotions was my background,” he says. “I started my first company in 1984 selling print and promotional products. We didn’t add office products until 1986.”
By contrast, the move into print and promotion was gradual for Business Essentials based in Grapevine, Texas. “We found business in this sector organically,” says Cindy Crumpton, the company’s vice president of custom sales and marketing. “It was a way to grow our sales within existing accounts—to solidify more business with accounts that already appreciated our good service.”
Midwest Single Source, Wichita, Kansas, added the category to keep up with the times. “Back in the day, we sold business forms and it evolved from there,” recalls Midwest vice president Chris Eckhoff. “Over the years, we added new business in different sectors while other things fell off. We went from forms to tractor feed forms, then moved into commercial printing. You have to evolve with the times to stay in business. You have to keep up with technologies and you have to get the right people in place.”
For AHI Enterprises, San Antonio, Texas, it also came down to people—or rather, one person in particular. “My wife likes to say we started our office products company at the kitchen table,” says CEO Mark Nolan. “Then we hired Theresa [Espinoza], one of our first employees, who had a print background. For both print and promotional, you need someone who knows what they are doing. You want to run a job one time. You don’t want to have to do jobs over, as it can be expensive.”
According to Espinoza, AHI Enterprises’ promotional manager, adding promotions to print was a logical step. “I knew the print side; I’d been doing it since I was 16,” she says. “I had to learn the promotions side. In some ways, it’s not that different.”
So what are some of the most popular print and promotional items? According to Eckhoff, “Everything that is commercial printing—business cards with UV coating on one side; envelopes. We just sold $2 million in check stubs and $1.2 million in envelopes.” Regarding more promotional types of items, he continues, “Drinkware is our number one promotional product, but we also do spoons with laser engraved handles, apparel—all kinds of things; and it’s all done locally.”
Drinkware is also popular at GBP Direct. So too are “leather and stone coasters for law firms,” says Durbin. “We also do a lot of calendars for clients like large oil companies. Wearables, jackets and shirts are also big.”
With banks and law firms some of GBP Direct’s largest promotional buyers, the company does all it can to make ordering easy. “For our large accounts that we sell office products to, we stock their promotional items and give these items SKUs as well,” Durbin explains. “The customers can go online and order legal pads and two dozen of their company mugs or pens, and we will deliver them to their different locations.”
Some of Business Essentials’ biggest print and promotional clients are in the education sector. “We do a lot for campuses that need lanyards, badges, gifts for teachers and items for fundraisers,” says Crumpton. “We also do a lot of garments—a lot of polos and T-shirts; and a lot of tumblers, pens and pencils.”
Simon Lee, CEO and founder of Buy On Purpose, reports that print and promotions account for less than 1 percent of the company’s total sales: “Most of this work is custom printing, such as folders, binders, inserts and promotional catalogs.”
When it comes to what dealers are tasked with producing in practice, the print and promotions category can often involve an element of surprise. Durbin remembers one unique promotional item that his company created: “One of the bigger oil companies did metal belt buckles imprinted with their logo and the oil rig that they gave to employees who had a safety record of a certain number of years. Of course, it had to be die-cut, so it cost several thousand dollars to make; but it came out really nice.”
Eckhoff recalls that Midwest has also produced its fair share of leftfield promotional products: “We did a handbag for the singer Faith Hill and a Yeti cooler for a large aircraft company with the plane imprinted on it. But the most unusual large promotional order was for a celebration of life for someone. We laser engraved his face on whiskey glasses.”
For Crumpton, “Socks, with the promotion running from the foot to the ankle, are fun. We also do a lot of light-up items for festivals. Wigs with lights in them are a less common item we do.”
AHI Enterprises has a laundry list of interesting items. “We made somewhere around $100,000 on an order of laundry carts,” says Nolan. “We also do a lot of business with state agencies. We had a $200,000 order for a Don’t Drink and Drive campaign from the Texas Department of Transportation.”
And Espinoza has some additional unique items to add to AHI’s list: “We’ve done socks; flip-flops for a healthcare account. For Texas A&M, we did die-cut confetti in the shape of its mascot that jumped out of the envelope in the welcome letter for new students. We did a light that plugs into a laptop’s USB. We recently did all the suits, shirts, ties and jackets for a casino.”
When it comes to promotional items, GBP Direct follows its own advice. “There are 5,000 to 6,000 mousepads floating around with our name on them,” Durbin says. “We were looking for something that customers would keep on their desks; but with COVID-19, everyone is using laptops and iPads. We thought about covers, but there are so many different sizes. So we came up with mouse pads. It’s good self-promotion. Our salespeople leave them with all the customers they visit along with the brochures we print, to show our capabilities.”
COVID-19 promotional blues
You’d think with people out of the office, print and promotional sales would have plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. Yet according to Eckhoff: “Our big customers were closed, so we were down for about three months, but we fired back up. We had a record year and did $1.5 million in sales in 2020. $1.2 million was in print and promotions.”
Crumpton admits Business Essentials’ print and promotions “took a hit during COVID-19, since people were not in the office, in school or going to school events. And if companies have to cut back, the first thing cut is marketing dollars. But when the economy is doing well, business in this sector does well.”
“We had a huge record year in 2020 due to medical supplies—not just PPE, but syringes, IV pumps and other products,” reports AHI’s Nolan. Yet Espinoza admits: “Our department definitely took a dip during COVID-19. We did a few business cards, but companies weren’t spending on advertising. Mark was generous enough to keep us all working, but our department had to shift. We learned to do different things.” And since most facilities have reopened? “We’ve been slammed!” she says. “We do a lot in education, K-12, University of Texas, Texas A&M—a lot of the top colleges and schools in the state. I just finished an order for a school in Austin for 10,000 masks, and we’ve already sent it 20,000. We did all the chef coats for a culinary institute in Austin.”
A time for profit
Most dealers agree that selling print and promotional products is very different from today’s “click and ship” sales process for office supplies. Yet with the extra time involved comes greater profits.
“Everything you sell has its own workflow,” explains Eckhoff. “Office products, you set it up and it’s done. You sell low and manage your margins as best you can. Promotional products you sell for a decent margin because you’re spending time; there is a quantity of product and you need a good design. But honestly, it doesn’t take that much longer if you have a good process.”
Mike O’Connell, managing partner of Emerald Business Supplies, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, agrees that the timing in this space requires some adjustment. “It depends on the job; but let’s say for a T-shirt, you need more advance—maybe seven to 10 business days.”
And Crumpton asserts that this longer lead time pays off: “There are better profit margins with print and promotional products compared with office products, which is warranted because those orders are more labor-intensive.”
Nolan agrees: “Office products are price sensitive; whereas promotions give enough value, so they are less so. For the casino’s apparel, our staff went 160 miles to size and measure everyone. This is a service we include. At the end of the day, it’s less price sensitive because it’s not as easy to go online and buy.”
Durbin also believes the sales process is more personal, which can add up to greater profits. “There’s real money in these areas,” he says. “For a direct marketing 10,000-piece mailer, you can get marketing prices. But there’s more personal interaction. You must meet their marketing teams to get a good idea of what they want to do. There’s lots of emails, but also more in-person meetings, bringing clients samples and showing accounts how others did something.”
One major benefit of more in-person communication is fewer returns.
“Office products customers order online,” says Eckhoff. “If they order the wrong thing and want to send it back, it’s ‘Sure. No problem.’ Promotional items, you have to make sure they are right—you proof things to ensure they come out right.”
Yet despite promotional dealers’ best efforts, some returns are inevitable.
“We had an order for a lot of flashlights,” Eckhoff recalls. “They were $0.99; the supplier wasn’t going to pack them in individual bags, so they were shipped all in one bag and got beat up. By the time they arrived, they looked used. The customer wanted to send them back and, honestly, I would have too. If it had been a little better product to begin with, it wouldn’t have happened; but I said, ‘No problem.’ I mean, if an account spends $150,000 with us a year, I am not going to blink at taking back a $190 order. But it is what I always do—even if the manufacturer says no and I have to eat the cost. It’s me the customers know. It’s my reputation; my name on the line.”
Durbin agrees: “Print promotions can be tricky and mistakes can be very expensive, even if the customer signs off on it. If customers have been with you 10 years, you don’t want to make a decision that will make them unhappy. You have to bite the bullet or chance losing them.”
Sector of growth
O’Connell says print and promotions account for 15 percent of Emerald Business Supplies’ total sales—a figure he expects to continue to increase, for several reasons.
“It’s certainly grown in recent years and it is a different client base,” he says. “We go to market with promotional items geared more towards banks and law firms, which are doing more advertising these days. It is an area of growth for us and I expect it to continue to flourish. We doubled our business when many were going out of business, and I expect a steady increase in the future—about 10 percent annually.”
Espinoza also sees room for ongoing growth. “People love to receive things and companies know that,” she says. “I don’t see that going away.” Nolan agrees: “There are so many promotional avenues available; it’s about uncovering opportunities. There will definitely be growth in this sector in the future, as we’ve barely scraped the surface.”
And Crumpton echoes this view: “I don’t ever see print and promotions going away. If people are not buying these products from you, they are sourcing them from somewhere else.”
However, for Lee the situation is different. “Medical supplies, PPE, mask, sanitizers—everything COVID-19 is up 200 percent, but print is stagnant,” he says.
Eckhoff, however, is convinced the future of the sector looks rosy. “I definitely see a future in it; that’s why I am going national with the sector,” he says. “Office products are toast. Print and promotions are going strong.”
Durbin is likewise firmly in the growth camp—so much so that GBP Direct has bought a company that does a significant amount of printing for Mardi Gras. “It’s a marriage made in heaven,” he says. “The company does all the printing and we can do the promotional products. During Mardi Gras, they have all kinds of events and opportunities: jackets for the golf fundraisers; high-end wine glasses with cruise logos. There are unlimited opportunities.”
Advice from the trenches
Several of the dealers we interviewed had guidance for independent dealers considering getting into print and promotions.
“Jump right in, but don’t be afraid to ask questions,” Crumpton says. “There’s a lot of phrases people use and it can be intimidating. Get familiar with the phrases and needs. There’s a lot of sources out there willing to help. That was the case with me: I didn’t know anything about these areas, but clients started asking for these things, so I needed to learn.”
Eckhoff believes that success takes imagination: “There’s a lot of opportunity in this sector, but you have to have the mentality to create the opportunities. You need someone with creativity. You need to have the mentality to be thinking all the time to know what customers will buy.”
Durbin suggests: “If you don’t have experience, try to co-partner with a small company that is already established in print and promotions, or hire at least one person with experience.”
And Nolan recommends joining the ASI or a similar organization. “The ASI provides e-content for your website, books, handouts, even catalogs with your company’s name on it,” he says. “It makes your marketing cheap. It also gives you access to thousands of vendors for whatever promotional item you need. I also suggest attending trade shows. Knowledge is power.”
With a chuckle, Espinoza adds: “If you don’t want to deal with it, call us! We’ll help you out.”