You are a distributor (go with me here... it's a thought process). Your customer shows you a shirt and you immediately think 'this is why I hate clothing sales'.
"I bought this at Sears," he says. "Get more for me." (By the way, what he really means is that you need to get them for him cheaper).
Of course you can find them. You're super-sales person. You have experience, the ASI reference manuals at your fingertips and you can do anything. And two hours later, you are concluding that this is a complete waste of your time.
The reason you can't locate the exact same brand and color combination and set of styles or materials is simple. The shirt your customer bought was retail. The catalogs you have been searching through are corporate wholesale. And mostly, the twain shall not meet.
Retail apparel sells way better than its corporate counterparts and is far more profitable to the sellers. If you happen to locate the exact same style in a mill brand (that is, one of the major manufacturers like Hanes or Jerzees), then it probably means that the customer got the item on closeout and the emphasis on the marketing of that particular shirt is now shifting to those of us in the other part of their marketing network. We, the wholesalers and distributors to the corporate market, get the leftovers or standard stock items that don't cut into their more lucrative markets.
Pretty cheesy, huh? And it seems kind of unfair, especially if you're trying to make a living at this horrible business we so affectionately call "trinkets and trash".
Fortunately, bravery and a little bit of soft selling can get you through. And some perseverance.
All will not be sugar-coated. You simply cannot find some apparel if it is purely retail and you may never be able to price it at a lower price even if you do happen to locate it. We go back to the idea that retail sales are far more profitable than we corporate folks ever will be. There is the volume sold through retailers. Way big. This leads, of course, comes the volume of purchases that stores can make as opposed to the six or eight pieces at a time that we can. Seems like we may not be able to get a good deal that might just beat our rather retail competitors.
We're kind of stuck at times. Even offering to try to find something similar is daunting, although it is the job we do.
Sadly, there is no easy solution. The only truly successful approach I have ever taken has been to be honest with the customer and to have more knowledge. If they want to buy from, say, Land's End, it is fine. We can't. If they buy from some other retail location, again, that is all well and good. As a service, we will get the goods decorated. Otherwise, we really don't have a lot more advice to offer.
On the other hand, there are way more customers who understand and they are the ones who get the most attention. Go find a few more of them.