Add a Little Zing to Your Spiritwear

Fun products help build a sense of school identity.

by Evelyn Beck


Selling spiritwear is a reliable method of building school identity. “It brings unity to the school to see all the kids coming together and showing school spirit,” says Kristina Walter, the PTO spiritwear chair at John Shields Elementary in Sugar Grove, Ill. And it is usually PTOs and PTAs that take responsibility for the sale of clothing bearing the school’s colors, name, and logo.

Some groups embrace this responsibility as an opportunity to make money to support programs. But many simply try to break even, focusing instead on spiritwear as a way to build community. “If you want people to participate, don’t make a profit,” says Michelle Storck, president of the Ardmore School PTA in Villa Park, Ill. “There are enough other things to sell. If you want kids to feel included, you have to make it affordable.”

While there are a wide range of items that can be sold—sweatshirts, eyeblacks, temporary tattoos, silicone bracelets, and more—most groups agree that T-shirts are the top sellers. But T-shirts don’t have to be boring. Bayshore Middle School in Leonardo, N.J., got “extra fancy” this year, says Justine Alfano, PTO vice president and fundraising coordinator. When she took over spiritwear sales last year, she says, “A lot of the stuff was plain and boring and they’d had it for years. But I’m a trend-seeker with the times.”

She used observation and gut instinct to add items that would get students’ attention. For boys, she added camouflage versions of the school colors in addition to offering a popular brand. For girls, she came up with a “bling” style with rhinestones. The result was a significant rise in orders, from 35 last year to 65 this year. And Alfano is always looking for potential new products. Since Thursdays are Bow Tie Days for the wrestling team, she’s thinking about adding bow ties with the school colors for next year as an addition to the T-shirts, sweatshirts, shorts, and hats already offered.

It’s also important to think about what appeals to different age groups. At Kedron Elementary in Peachtree City, Ga., the PTO offers T-shirts that feature a cute mascot for the younger children and a style with glitter letters or polka dots for the older girls, says PTO president and spiritwear chair Jill Finnerty. And there’s something to be said for jumping on trends. One item that has been popular lately is a titanium necklace, which is worn mostly by boys as a potential way to improve athletic performance and emulate their favorite professional athletes. Also consider do-it-yourself items. Shields Elementary’s Kristina Walter made hair ribbons in the school colors. “I browse Pinterest a lot,” she says. “Each one took 20 minutes to make, and the cost was very minimal.”

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The Right Vendor

Many companies will create designs for schools, either on-site or through outsourcing. While a new design each year can encourage new purchases, it also drives up the price. If you want something different without the added cost of a new design, simply change the color or style of shirts offered. Keep in mind that it’s cheaper to limit the number of ink colors and to print on just one side of the shirt.

When it comes to choosing a vendor, one decision is whether to work with a local or national firm. With a local vendor, you can see the items in person, communicate more easily, save on shipping costs, and support a local business. If the vendor works with other schools in the area, you can also get ideas about what is popular locally. But with a national company, the price and variety might be more advantageous. At Ardmore, the PTA couldn’t find anyone in town to create a student-designed logo for a reasonable price, so they chose an out-of-state firm. If you do go with a national outfit, request a sample of the product to evaluate its quality.

For Bayshore, the key to choosing a vendor was finding one that offered automated systems for ordering and paying. “Last year was a disaster trying to collect order forms and putting the orders in myself,” Alfano says. “Our new vendor automated the whole process and created our own website for ordering and paying. And he’s prepacking everything and delivering it to me at school. Last year it took me about a week to separate orders, and I still had people come back with the wrong sizes or colors. Even collecting money was very time-consuming. His website has alleviated everything.”

Another decision is whether to take orders and payment ahead of time, reducing the risk of losing money, or to place one big order based on what you think will sell. There are advantages to each approach. Taking orders is safer and easier. You can send out order forms or point parents to a website and run the sale for a limited period of time, such as two weeks. However, it can be cheaper to order in bulk, and it’s easier to sell something that people can see and touch.

“When I took over the program, I thought we could do every­thing online instead of at events where we sell in person,” says Tanja Buhay, the PTO spiritwear chair at Pinnacle Peak Elementary in Scottsdale, Ariz. “But as much additional work as it is to have the shirts there and get the money and pass them out, people really enjoy seeing the product and the sizing and being able to wear it right away. It’s a missed opportunity if you sell solely online. The old-fashioned way is the number one way of selling spiritwear.”

If you do order in bulk, you will have to store the items. If you’re lucky enough to have a storage room at school, then it’s not a problem. If you don’t, someone is going to have to keep the inventory in a climate-controlled space at home and transport it to sell at events throughout the year. One advantage of having a stored supply is that you can use the leftovers as prizes and promotional items as needed. You can also work with the school counselor to provide extras to students who can’t afford to purchase the items themselves.

Whichever method you choose, decide on the kinds of payment accepted. Many groups accept only cash and checks. Some accept PayPal for online orders. And more and more groups—including the Shields PTO—are accepting credit cards. The result, says Walter, is that “we have gotten lots of sales. Parents don’t carry checks or cash. The fee is a small percentage of the sale, so it’s really worth it.”

Get the Word Out

To bolster your sales, look for promotional opportunities. The Bayshore Middle School PTO contacts the PTO presidents at feeder elementary schools to sell T-shirts to 5th graders. And many schools identify special days where students are encouraged to wear their gear. At the Ardmore School, there is a spiritwear day once a week; whichever class has the highest percentage of students wearing spiritwear gets a banner in front of their room for a week. At the end of the year, the winning class gets a pizza and ice cream party from the PTA.

Creative promotions can gain a lot of attention. The Kedron PTO recently started a contest called “Diary of a Kedron Knight.” When students are out and about with their families, parents are encouraged to take a photo of the student in a school shirt and then submit it to the PTO, which publishes it in the weekly newsletter. For each picture sent in, the student’s name is placed in a drawing for a grand prize to be awarded at the end of the year: tickets for the family to attend the local Renaissance Festival. Reminders go out before each school holiday, and the PTO created a map with pins to mark all the places that Kedron Knights have been spotted. This is a pretty simple way to build school spirit and to get students excited about promoting their school.

The bottom line is that spiritwear is an easy way to help children feel like a part of something special. The sale of these items requires some effort, but it’s a task that many parent groups are happy to take on.

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