How to cost effectively buy promotional t-shirts for events

The ubiquitous t-shirt. After all these years, it’s still a gotta-have-it promotional tool. In fact, shirts (to include both polos and T-shirts) create around 21 per cent of all promotional industry revenues according to the Advertising Specialty Institute 2011 State of the Industry Report. That’s quite a chunk! So you’re probably pretty safe with choosing a shirt for an event promotion.

How to cost effectively buy promotional t-shirts for events

The problem with T-shirts is that they are an expensive promotion on a number of levels. Sure, you can probably arm-twist your promotional product distributor into grinding down the price. But you’ll still be paying anywhere from $5 to $10 USD or more a piece, depending on quantity and quality.

Speaking of quantity, ironically this is a tricky number to determine. Seems easy, right? Just take the number of attendees and order that number of shirts. Not so fast! What about sizes? And what sizes should you order? Will you need special sizes such as 3XL (which can be very expensive)? Unlike notepads and pens, this is not a one-size-fits-all choice.

Adding to the expense is imprinting. Front? Back? Both? Something more unique? More locations, more ink colours and more difficult imprinting processes can jack up the price quickly.

So how can you keep your event t-shirt costs from spiraling out of control and make sure everyone gets an item they’ll actually want?

  • Get sizes in advance – Don’t guess at what you might need for a size mixture. Ask! Place a checkbox item on your registration form showing the sizes you’ll make available. Then the onus is on the attendee, not you. Make sure you have a disclaimer statement that says if a size is not chosen, a desired size may not be available onsite. If they don’t mark a size, you could call them to find out if you have the staffing and budget to do so. But if you don’t, at least you’ve advised attendees of what to expect for not answering.
  • Allow opt-out – As a promotional products distributor, I do not need another t-shirt! So I’d love it if events would give me the option of opting out of receiving one. Greener minded attendees may also be inclined to opt out, too. So on your registration form, also have a checkbox for “No t-shirt.” Depending on your audience and their attitudes toward swag, this could be a significant cost saver.
  • Go large – If you get stuck in a situation where you’re required to provide t-shirts, but don’t have the time or budget to gather sizing information, go with a bigger batch of large and x-large sizes t-shirts. Girls are usually not too put off by getting a free t-shirt that’s somewhat baggy. Large and x-large fit most guys. Again, it will depend on your audience, and you’ll need to guesstimate based on registrations. You might want to order a small portion of medium and 2XL shirts just in case. But the problem with this strategy is that you could end up taking a bunch of unclaimed shirts back home with you or not having enough of the sizes you really needed. Again, if possible, get sizes prior to ordering t-shirts for the event.


About the author
Heidi Thorne is a promotional products marketing expert and speaker who has a background in the tradeshow and hospitality industries. She is also editor of the Promo With Purpose Today blog ( and author of SWAG: How to Choose and Use Promotional Products for Marketing Your Business, available through major online booksellers or at

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