The apparel retailing segment is seeing a new wave of opportunities that is technologically-driven. Among these, print-on-demand seems to be a game-changer, writer Senthil Kumar.

India has a long and illustrious history in textile manufacturing. Every region in the country has its own signature manufacturing method and design style. This has resulted in a myriad of artwork and fabric specific and suited to that region. The sari was the versatile garment at the centre of all this creativity and still continues to rule in terms of innovation and consumption. With the advent of British in India, western garments found their way into common use. Garments like pants, shirts, skirts, tops and the versatile and ubiquitous t-shirts are now worn and preferred for both formal and casual occasions.

Marketing and consumption of garments has kept pace with the development in manufacturing. Before the British, textile manufacturing was done locally and marketed locally as well. Only the very rich could afford to obtain garments from other places in India. Transportation was risky and cumbersome.

Industrial revolution and manufacturing

The Industrial Revolution ushered in by the British found its way to India too. Textile mills were set up and largescale manufacturing was taken up to cater to the demands of the British. These practices influenced the Indians too and more people chose to wear western clothes. The railways and roads set up by the British played their part in transporting these goods to wider areas and the demand began to ramp up. Mechanisation in turn reduced costs and resulted in standardisation of quality, and garment manufacturing greatly cut down the dependency on people for routine work.

But even with all these developments, the network of manufacturers, distributors and shops remained unshaken and all garments were sold through brick-and-mortar shops. Transportation was faster, and public were able to look at more variety and style in garments through advertisements in print and television, but they still had to go to the shop to buy.

Influence of digital on manufacturing

The digital revolution has been a game-changer. From manufacturing to marketing, it has revolutionised the garment and textiles business. Digital technology could even assimilate the skills that only humans had and streamlined the process. The benefits, both direct and indirect, were many. Let us look at it from the view of t-shirts and how their market and manufacturing ushered in a boom.

# Manufacturing process:

The manufacturing process has undergone a complete change. Now, we have computer-controlled machines managing quality and production in knitting, dyeing and printing.

1.  Knitting: The quality of knitting has improved tremendously along with the output. The pattern cutting, collar and ribs all are controlled by digital machines and have resulted in high accuracy. The digital format also standardises sizes; so, portability and choice of manufacturers are wider.

2. Dyeing: Dyeing is an ecologically-sensitive process. The old methods of dyeing and letting out untreated effluents have been replaced with effluent treatment plans being mandatory and there are stringent quality checks on the water let out. Community plants and methods like air dyeing help reduce the ecological impact greatly.

     3. Printing: This is where the digital footprint is the largest. It has enhanced already popular methods like screen printing and  introduced newer printing methods like direct-to-garment (DTG) printing.

Screen printing is the time-tested method for accurate reproduction of prints. But it is costly and was done manually. So, it wasn't useful for large batches where the design remained the same. Each colour in the design requires a separate screen which are costly to make and can affect profit margins. Execution was done by hand and while it ensured personal care, it also affected the quantity of output. Now, screens can be cut digitally and executed by computers, but the cost factor remains the same.

Block printing, sublimation and heat transfer are some of the other types of printing and each has its own advantages, uses and limitations. It should be noted that all these methods have been influenced and improved by digital technology.

The game changer is the DTG printing that is possible only because of digital technology. Suddenly, minimum quantity is no longer a criterion to order or manufacture. One can even order a one-off t-shirt and get it done for a price. Exclusivity and customisation are the keywords.

# E-tailing - The New Age Trend

Online sales or e-tailing has been the greatest disruptor in the past decade. They have possibilities still not fully realised and have changed the way all businesses think and operate. Giants like Amazon, Flipkart and Snapdeal have brought more variety, choice and economy in buying garments at the click of a mouse and happy customers are reaping in the benefits fueled by competition among the e-commerce giants. One can even compare garments from various sites for price and quality, and then buy.

Digital technology opens up opportunities

Less Inventory, more margins: Earlier, printed and finished t-shirts were stocked and sold. If colour combinations and variation in sizes were considered, the minimum number of pieces in inventory would be huge. Now, with digital printing, standard blanks are all a manufacturer needs in popular colour variations and sizes. A manufacturer marketing directly can now print based on the latest trends in the market. The blanks can also be used for multiple clients and printed on demand. This has encouraged more manufacturers to seriously explore the print-on-demand segment. Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu, the hub of t-shirt manufacturing, now boasts of a dozen print-on-demand manufacturers.

Have idea, will sell: Drop-shipping, as print-on-demand is called popularly, has encouraged a whole new set of young entrepreneurs to enter online t-shirt retailing. If one wants to translate their creativity into interesting and funny t-shirts, then drop-shipping offers a great opportunity. An aspiring entrepreneur now does not need to invest in knitting, printing, dyeing or inventory, and can concentrate on what he or she does best, create ideas; the e-commerce train does the rest. One such venture is Swag Swami from

Coimbatore which leverages on-demand-shipping for its e-store. Drop shipping is also fuelled by better logistics, again thanks to digital technology. Now, an entrepreneur can market his product pan-India or even globally while staying at home.

Retail, e-tail, better margins: Online retailing nullifies the middleman commission and improves profit margin. Fees like enrolling in other e-commerce sites have to be, paid but those are considerably less than the cost of operating a retail store both in terms of rentals and inventory and advertisement and commissions. The biggest advantage of e-tailing is of course the reach, which can be pan-India or global depending on the business model. The return on investment is significantly higher with e-commerce and the online apparel segment is growing at a fast pace compared to the stagnating retailing segment.