We all have our favourite brands, movies, shows, band and artists. And it doesn’t stop at mere ‘fandom’ – we want to wear their t-shirts, buy their prints, and surround ourselves with the things we love.
Pop culture is littered with iconic t-shirts, bumper stickers and posters that have entered the collective consciousness – and earned millions for those who originated them.
And that all makes custom merchandise a business opportunity that truly never goes ‘out of fashion.’
The problem is, selling custom merchandise the traditional way can be hard work. It can involve substantial amounts of time spent sourcing products and negotiating with suppliers; plus the natural risk of unsold stock and consequent financial loss. It’s unpredictable, energy-sapping, and financial gain isn’t even a given.
It’s the reason we’re seeing mega businesses like Disney, Marvel and countless others outsource their merchandising operation. They’re happy to sell a merchandising license to third parties and let them worry about the logistics – picking up the license fee as a tidy, guaranteed revenue stream, with none of the headaches.
In a world where we even hear stories of successful high-street retailers destroying ‘bags’ of unsold clothing each night – surely, individual influencers, artists, bands, Insta-celebs and small eCommerce businesses need a better solution for selling custom merchandise, without exposing themselves to financial risk and logistical headaches.
Print-on-demand is a low-risk custom merchandise model with basically zero barriers to entry.
If you wanted to sell merchandise on a print-on-demand basis, you’d simply:
- Setup an online store (if you don’t already have one) using a shopping cart platform like Shopify.
- Team up with a print-on-demand partner like Kite.
- Upload your designs and populate your online store with a variety of branded products (product mockups overlaid with your designs.)
Whenever a customer bought one of your products, that order would be routed to the nearest print facility to the customer. The order would be printed, packed and sent right to their door – without you needing to handle the product at any time. Quite literally, printed on demand.
Since products are only printed once they’re ordered, there’s no risk of unsold stock racking up in your inventory. There are no minimum order quantities, and you can set your own profit margins. You simply pay the wholesale price of the product, and charge your customers whatever you like.
And, almost as importantly – since you don’t have to fulfil your own orders, you can forget about constant visits to the post office.
Design, Promote, Sell
So, those are the basics of how print-on-demand works.
Next, I’d like to dig deeper into exactly how to get up and running – and do it better.
Your design is the ‘secret sauce’ that adds real value to your print-on-demand products. Above everything else, it’s that precious slogan or design that’s going to make people buy from you.
After all – which of the below t-shirts do you think is more iconic, and more likely to be bought?
So, how do you go about sourcing your design?
Clearly, if you’re an artist, illustrator or photographer then you’re probably going to have existing work that you can already print onto your merchandise. The only caveat to this is that, if you’re working offline – like a traditional artist working on paper or canvas – you’re going to need to ‘digitise’ your artwork. In simple terms, this means getting it onto your computer at a high enough resolution to make sure it translates well on to your print-on-demand products. Usually this will involve photographing or scanning your work, then importing it into a graphic editing package like Adobe Illustrator or Adobe Photoshop to be ‘traced’ and touched up. (You should note that, if you’re on a shoestring budget, two free alternatives to the aforementioned Adobe products are Inkscape and GIMP. These pieces of software don’t have as many bells and whistles as their Adobe cousins, but they’re also entirely free, and feature much of the same basic functionality.)
If you don’t have existing designs, but you’re already creating content, try and identify slogans and trends that resonate well with your audience in the work you publish. If you’re a YouTuber, for example, why not start out by browsing the ‘Comments’ fields and seeing what your fans are saying? What parts of your content are they responding to?
If you don’t already have existing designs and slogans to use, then there’s still plenty of inspiration out there to help you get started. A good starting point if you’re completely dry of inspiration is Shopify’s Slogan Maker. Enter a keyword that’s relevant to your personal brand, and get hundreds of suggested slogans to fire your imagination.
Tap into the latest hot topics by checking out Google Trends. Alternatively, run a Google Image search for something as simple as ‘great t-shirt designs.’ Again, it probably isn’t a case of just ripping off somebody else’s work – but this should at least give you a basic idea of what other people are selling, and what might be doing well.
Once you’ve got a rough idea of the sort of design or slogan you’d like to use, you have a few options. Of course, you can design it yourself using one of the tools we mentioned earlier.
Alternatively, you could hire a freelance designer through a site like PeoplePerHour or Upwork. Another great option is to run a design contest through a website like 99designs. Here, you enter a bit of information about your project and your requirements – and receive a host of suggested designs. You only pay one set price, and pick your favourite.
During the briefing process, you can fill out plenty of information about the ideas you have for your design.
Promote & Sell
Once you’ve sourced a design, and uploaded it through your print-on-demand platform, it’s time to promote your products.
If you already have one, use your existing audience. This is a particularly salient point for online influencers; you already have people who are interested in your brand, so put the products in front of them, mingled in with your existing content. This ties into Gary Vaynerchuk’s ‘Give, give, give, give, give….ask’ philosophy. The idea here, is that as long as your content adds lots of value, it’s fine to occasionally be promotional or ask your audience to support you by buying merch. Ultimately, your merchandise adds value to them too.
And, regardless of whether you have that existing audience, you should definitely use social advertising to reach new, targeted customers.
For better or worse, one of the things most social channels (and particularly Facebook) excels at is gathering data from its users – and being able to use that data to serve those users with content that’s relevant and interesting.
So, as a very simple example, let’s say you have a print-on-demand range that’s targeted at Dads, like the below item. You could serve up an ad campaign promoting this item just to Facebook users who are dads – immediately narrowing the focus of your campaign to people who are most likely to buy. You can target users by everything from geo-location and demographics to hobbies and interests, so the options are vast.
We’ve written an extensive guide to Facebook marketing for custom merchandise which is worth checking out.
You’re also going to want to tap into various different sales channels – the more the merrier, really. Just having your products sit on your one store can work, but it’s much easier and more productive to broaden their reach and push them onto sites like Amazon, eBay and others. These are established sites where customers often begin their product searches and are well-accustomed to spending money on. It’s pretty easy and quick to do, too.
This leads you into a whole world of further reading to help boost sales on these platforms.
Thanks for reading!
We’ve scratched the surface of what’s possible with print-on-demand today, but I hope you’ll take it upon yourself to go and give it a try. You’ll be surprised by how easy it is to have a fully-functional store, stocked with products, up and running in just a few minutes.