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What is print on demand? A guide to selling custom shirts, books, and more

a guide to print on demand

This post was last updated on September 23, 2022.

It goes without saying that selling merchandise online can be as rewarding as it can be lucrative. But designing products, finding manufacturers, building up stock, and fulfilling orders is far from simple.

That’s where print on demand comes in. By connecting your online store with a print on demand service, you can sell custom products without the hassle of buying and managing inventory.

But what is print on demand exactly? How is it different from dropshipping? What are some print on demand business ideas? Read on to learn everything you need to know to start your own print on demand business.

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What is print on demand?

Print on demand (POD) is a form of dropshipping that lets you sell customized products. Under this model, you’re responsible for creating the design, choosing which products to print it on, and listing those products for sale. A third-party supplier will then print your products and ship them directly to your customers as orders come in.

While POD has historically been known as an easy way to start a t-shirt business, today there are hundreds of print-on-demand products to choose from, including ballcaps, phone cases, homeware, shoes, and more. Artists, influencers, and brands alike are using POD to sell a variety of merchandise.

POD is especially attractive for new entrepreneurs because of its low cost of entry; most POD services are 100% free to join, and you only need to pay your suppliers once a customer places an order. You don’t need to pay for storage space, nor purchase products in bulk ahead of time.

Print on demand vs. dropshipping—what’s the difference?

Print on demand is a subset of dropshipping that still allows you to outsource manufacturing and fulfillment to a third party.

The key difference is this: In a pure dropshipping model, you have limited say in the design of the product. You choose from the product options and variations that your suppliers offer (though some may offer white-label services).

On the other hand, print on demand gives you a much bigger voice in the design process. You can customize products using your own patterns, logos, colors, and designs. Products are printed on a per-order basis, meaning the supplier will only manufacture the amount of products ordered by a customer and print according to his/her specifications.

There is a tradeoff to having this level of customizability though. With POD, you’ll likely have a smaller selection of products to choose from than you would with pure dropshipping. It may also take your suppliers longer to fulfill POD orders, since all products are printed after an order comes in.

One way to close the “shipping gap” is to choose a supplier that ships from locations that are close to your customers. You can additionally offer free shipping or other perks to compensate for bigger shipping windows.

How does print on demand work (and how do I get paid)?

So, what do you need to do to start a print-on-demand business? How do you start making money from your creations? Here are several essential steps for getting started.

  1. Connect your online store to a print-on-demand partner. For example, search the Wix App Market for a POD solution like Modalyst, which offers a large variety of high-quality products. Note that some POD companies do not integrate with eCommerce website builders, so you’ll need to make sure to find one that’s compatible with your platform when making your eCommerce site.

  2. Choose the products you want to sell. Let’s say you want to sell kitchen accessories to foodies. You may consider selling products like oven mitts, aprons, or coffee mugs.

  3. Upload your design. Add your custom design to your POD platform, which will generate a mockup of your design. If you’re using Modalyst, as an example, you’ll receive images of the product and (if applicable) photos of real-life models sporting your customized merchandise.

  4. List your products for sale. Import your POD products to your online store. Then choose your product images (most POD services will provide images or offer samples that you can take photos of), your variations (like color and size), and how much you want to charge.

  5. Forward orders to your POD provider. When you receive an order from a customer, you’ll need to route orders (either manually or automatically) to your supplier for fulfillment. Your supplier will handle manufacturing and shipping. Some services and print on demand companies will even do all of this under your brand using your labels and packaging.

  6. Pay and get paid. This step may happen concurrently with step 5—when you receive orders, you’ll need to pay your supplier the agreed-upon price for each product (which will typically include the cost of shipping). You’ll then retain the leftover money.

Who can benefit from print on demand?

One of the beauties of the print-on-demand model is that any types of businesses can take advantage of it. If you’re new to eCommerce (see our guide on what is eCommerce), POD offers a low-risk way to test the waters. If you already own an eCommerce business, POD can help you offer new product lines and scale your business faster.

A few other common use cases for POD:

  • If you’re an artist or designer, you can start a POD business that can help you make money as an artist

  • If you operate a service business, POD can help you sell branded items and open up another revenue stream

  • If you’re a content creator or influencer, you can start selling branded merchandise

You can even tie a print-on-demand business into a favorite hobby. For example, if you manage your local soccer team, you can embrace your inner Ted Lasso by creating and selling merchandise with your team’s logo or catchphrase.

How do I find a print-on-demand company?

There are two main types of print-on-demand companies to be aware of:

  1. Print-on-demand services, which include popular platforms like Modalyst, Printful, and Printify. These services let you sell your products on your own online store alongside third-party marketplaces like Etsy or Amazon.

  2. Print-on-demand marketplaces like Redbubble or Zazzle. Many of these do not integrate with third-party channels, including your own online store. Instead, they list your products for sale on their own websites and pay you a commission for every sale you make.

If you have your own online store, then you’ll want to make sure to choose a print-on-demand service that integrates with your eCommerce platform. You can start by browsing the top print-on-demand companies and finding one that suits your needs.

modalyst's homepage

Top criteria for choosing the right print-on-demand supplier

As you evaluate different suppliers, create a list of questions and requirements, including things like:

  • Product offerings. Each print-on-demand company will offer different types of products. Peruse their full product catalog and make sure they offer the products that you want to sell and those that can make you a profit.

  • Customizability. While every POD solution allows for customization, some will have more customization options, as well as printing options, than others. Think about the colors, complexity of design, and materials you’re looking to use. Can your POD company support this?

  • Production and shipping times. Surveys show that nearly all consumers (91%) expect an order to arrive within one week, and 66% expect free shipping. Ask your potential supplier(s) about expected shipping and production times, plus costs. Check that you can turn a healthy profit while covering the cost of each item.

  • Product quality. It’s always wise to ask for samples and consult reviews online before entrusting your business to a supplier. The last thing you’ll want is to find out that customers are unhappy with your product quality, and are therefore apprehensive to shop or recommend your brand to a friend. Double check that your products don’t only look good, but are also durable against smudging, chipping, and other potential issues.

How to succeed in print on demand: six expert tips

Achieving long term success requires more than great designs. These six tips and tricks can help you form a strong foundation for your print-on-demand business.

01. Choose a niche

Your POD business can’t be all things to all people. Selecting a specialized and well-defined segment of customers (think: hockey fans, coffee drinkers, nostalgic ‘90s kids) will help you narrow your scope. This not only comes in handy when deciding what products to sell, but also when making decisions about your branding, your designs, and your overall marketing strategy. Don’t cut corners at this stage. Choose your niche wisely and perform thorough research into their needs, wants, and behaviors.

02. Order samples

While you won’t be able to inspect every item before it’s sent out to your customer, you should always order a sample to ensure that your suppliers share the same quality standards as you. Product samples are useful for product photos as well, giving you more creative freedom when creating your listings and marketing content.

03. Keep these POD design tips in mind

To ensure your products come out as best as possible, you should submit your designs in the correct format, size, resolution, and color profile.

  • Image format - Most print-on-demand services accept PNG or JPEG

  • Size - This depends on the product you want to print your design on. The standard print area on a t-shirt, for example, is 12” x 16” (3600 x 4800 in pixels)

  • Resolution - The resolution of an image refers to the density of the pixels. Basically, higher resolution means sharper and higher quality images. Resolution for print is expressed in DPI (dots per inch). You should export your design files at 300 DPI for best results.

  • Color profile - This refers to the method of color mixing. Without getting too technical, it’s recommended that you save your designs as RGB.

You can use any graphic editing software to create and export design files ready for print. Or, some POD sites provide editing tools within their platforms, alongside pre-made designs that you can use.

When you upload your designs, double check that you place and size the images correctly on your products. You don’t want to accidentally print a cropped or off-centered version of your design.

04. Write unique product descriptions

Don’t settle for supplier-provided product descriptions. Take the time to write original and rich product descriptions that speak to your customers’ emotions and help them envision themselves using your products. What problems do they help to solve? What values or interests do they tap into? Custom descriptions can help you to close a sale and enhance your store’s search engine optimization (SEO) strategy.

05. Focus on cross-selling and upselling

With POD, you have the option to offer your designs on a variety of objects without adding more to your workload. While you might’ve initially imagined selling fun coffee mugs, you can experiment with selling matching carafes, coffee-themed t-shirts, and other swag. Make it easy for shoppers to discover these products by adding “related products” sliders, product bundles, and other cross-selling features to your online store.

06. Be transparent about shipping

From your customers’ perspective, nothing is more frustrating than making a purchase, only to find out that it won’t be delivered until much later than expected. Avoid these situations by giving estimated delivery times on your product listings and/or checkout pages.

If you know that a busy selling period is approaching (e.g., the holiday season), give your customers a heads up that they should place their orders by a certain date to guarantee on-time delivery. This can help to create a sense of urgency, though you’ll want to make sure that you’re tightly aligned with your suppliers before making any promises.

Other print on demand FAQs

Is the print on demand market saturated?

Make no mistake, print on demand is a popular eCommerce trend. In 2019, the global digital printing market reached $25.7 billion, according to data from ComCap. Today, the market continues to grow at a healthy 3.7% CAGR and is expected to reach $35.7 billion by 2028.

On one hand, the print-on-demand market is more crowded than it was four or five years ago. But, there’s still plenty of space for new print-on-demand entrepreneurs to succeed.

How do I avoid copyright infringement in print on demand?

One of the biggest danger zones for new POD sellers is navigating legal waters. The designs that you print must be original, and you must be aware of copyright and trademark laws so that you can steer clear of any legal gray areas that could put your business at risk for a lawsuit.

This primer on intellectual property for print on demand gives you a five-point safety checklist for steering clear of legal issues.

How do I create a print-on-demand store with Wix?

Wix eCommerce offers integrations with today’s top POD companies. Simply search the Wix App Market or navigate to Store Products > Find Products to Sell within your Wix dashboard. Once you’ve selected your partner, you can import your products to your Wix store and customize your listings, pricing, and shipping policies before putting them up for sale.

Are you ready to start selling print-on-demand products today? Learn how Wix’s print-on-demand solution can give you the tools you need to get started on the right foot.

Geraldine Feehily headshot

Geraldine Feehily

Marketing Writer, Wix eCommerce

Geraldine is a marketing writer for Wix eCommerce. She uses her broad experience in journalism, publishing, public relations and marketing to create compelling content and loves hearing user success stories.

Allison Lee headshot

Allison Lee

Editor, Wix eCommerce

Allison is the editor for the Wix eCommerce blog, with several years of experience reporting on eCommerce news, strategies, and founder stories.

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