One of the most frequent questions I get asked is "who are your suppliers" or "how do you find suppliers?"
STEP 1: RESEARCH
I use Google or Yelp to find suppliers. Search similar phrases (for eg, include "screen printing" and "tshirt printing" instead of just "tote printing") in case suppliers SEO is not optimized (often it is not).
Find 3-5 suppliers and take notes on whatever you can find from their website: price, reviews, company culture, shipping cost and times, etc.
What do I have to charge customers for my product to make enough profit margin on these prices? If I choose this supplier, what other products could they potentially make for me in the future?
STEP 2: VET
Email all of them: "Hi, I'm looking to order X quantity of your X item, how much, how long will it take, how much is shipping, etc." Any info you can't find from their website.
You'll get a sense of how fast these companies respond to you; (just like in a relationship, haha) the companies are usually the most attentive to prospective customers.
What is the minimum order quantity? What is your turnaround time? What are your price breaks (if I order more, will it be lower price per unit?) What is your shipping costs/ do you offer free shipping at a certain order volume?
STEP 3: SWATCHES & SAMPLES
Ask for swatches and/or sample packs, which will give you examples of what they can do, different types of printing, colors, materials, etc. Suppliers will usually send you one for free, or a low price.
When they arrive, label all samples with company name, date, and notes. I can't tell you how bummed I am when I go through my Sample Box years later and can't tell which supplier made a product I like.
STEP 4: VET FURTHER
After you decide on which samples you like, it's time to vet further, with even more questions.
How many extras do you include per product per order? If there is a mistake/ some damaged product, how long is my window for informing you to get a reprint, refund, or store credit?
Are there reviews for your shop I can see? How big is your team? How long have they been working for you (if they have high turnaround, something is usually amiss!)
What is your response time to customers? Do you prefer phone or email? Are you open on weekends? Do you have company shut down dates?
STEP 4: FILE PREP
Save time going back and forth by asking specifically what they need and how they want it. Some companies let you order completely on the website, some you order through email, some send you an invoice, etc.
What file format should I send for my project? If I have extra order notes/ specific specs, where should I include that? Will you send you a proof? How long do I have to approve it or request changes? Would proof adjustments cost extra?
STEP 5: DECIDE ON SAMPLE ORDER
Some products that I make, I'll order 1 or a few samples of the product before I place my order. Depends what it is, but the sample cost (which will be high) can be worth it.
If the product is not exactly how I pictured it, will I be okay with X amount of this imperfect product? Will I be able to sell it at a discount, or be okay throwing it out?
How much does it cost to print samples of my own design/ can my payment for the sample apply towards a later order?
Step 6: FIRST ORDER
There is a fine balance between getting a good price per unit but also ordering a small amount to test out the vendor first. I like to order the least amount as possible without it being too expensive, because their sample packs might not be representative of what their quality usually is. Of course, if their reviews are glowing or someone has referred me, I'll order a higher quantity.
Was their turnaround/ship-by date accurate? Which shipping method did they opt for? Were they communicative of the progress of the order, and let you know when the order shipped?
STEP 7: REVIEW ORDER
When the order gets to you, open the boxes and check all products:
Did they send the right quantity? Are there misprints or damaged ones? If there are, what % is imperfect? How did they respond when you told them?
STEP 8: REEVALUATE
I like to revisit my suppliers every 2-3 years to make sure their prices are still competitive. When I'm shopping around for new suppliers, it also gives me ideas of other products I can make, because different suppliers can make different kinds of products!
On a scale of 1-10, how easy do I find it is to place orders with this supplier? Do I dread contacting them, or do they welcome my questions? Are there any new suppliers that I've heard of that I'd like to check out at this time?
All of these steps can be repeated many times before you find a good supplier. This process takes a ton of time, but it is always worth it to have perfect products in your hands from a great production partnership! Take time in the beginning to save yourself headache later on :)