What Is Print on Demand? Guide to Selling Custom Shirts, Books and More Online
Selling merchandise online is a major revenue stream for entrepreneurs, creatives and established businesses. But designing products, finding manufacturers, building up stock, fulfilling orders and handling shipping 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 design and sell custom products without the hassle of buying and managing inventory. Creating your products and adding them to your eCommerce site can be done quickly, easily and with a very low initial investment.
In this blog we'll cover everything you need to know in order to start your own print on demand business, including:
What is print on demand?
Print on demand is a service that gives designers and entrepreneurs the opportunity to customize products and add them to their stores without needing to worry about investing in manufacturing products, managing inventory or fulfilling orders.
Most print on demand companies offer a wide variety of white-label products, like t-shirts, tote bags or homeware, which you can customize with your own artwork or branding. It’s a great way to start your own eCommerce business, whether you want to monetize your art, promote your brand, or sell t-shirts online.
Unlike the traditional path, where you manufacture, store and ship items yourself, with print on demandPOD the supplier handles the entire process for you.
How does print on demand work?
Choose the products you want to sell. There’s a massive variety to choose from, including clothing, accessories, homeware, prints, furniture, books and more. It’s a good idea to buy the products you want to sell first so you can test their quality.
Upload your designs. Your print on demand service of choice should be able to generate mockups, so you’ll see exactly how the design looks on the product.
Integrate the print on demand service with your online store. While not every print on demand company integrates with every eCommerce website builder, it’s worth it to find one that does so you can easily manage your products and orders.
Choose product photos, variants and determine prices. When you integrate your products onto your store, you can select the perfect mockup to use as the product photo, the variants you want to offer (like t-shirt colors), and how much you want to charge.
Let them fulfill your orders. Once the orders come in, information is automatically sent to your print on demand supplier. They will handle order fulfillment, manufacturing and shipping. Some services will even do all of this under your brand, with your labels.
Most importantly, when working with print on demand suppliers you only pay for products once they’ve sold. They charge you for each item, including manufacturing and fulfillment, so the price you set for your products will ultimately determine your profit margin.
Pros and cons of print on demand
Print on demand simplifies both manufacturing and selling by providing custom dropshipping services. This is one of the most accessible ways to get into eCommerce and there’s no doubt it has advantages, but it has its drawbacks as well.
Here are some pros and cons of starting a print on demand business:
01. It’s simple to set up and you can start selling right away, without even leaving the house.
Traditionally, you would have to find a manufacturer for your product, which requires research and know-how. Print on demand provides high-quality, reliable manufacturing services, without the hassle of finding a reputable factory.
02. You don’t have to worry about shipping. You don’t even need to store inventory of your own.
Save on storage space and hours of logistical work - making sure items are in stock, fulfilling orders and shipping packages to their correct destinations.
03. Low initial costs and less risk.
Besides saving on storage space, print on demand also lets you sell without minimum orders. This means you don’t have to invest in building up an initial stock before you can start selling.
01. Limited customizability.
While the manufacturers are top of the line, the customization options aren’t endless, and you have less control over the manufacturing process.
For example, you can’t choose any fabric you like, or get products in non-standard sizes.
The same is true for packaging. Some POD services let you customize packaging to reflect your brand. But they don’t provide unusual packaging, limiting your creativity and branding possibilities.
02. Less control over shipping and returns.
Different print on demand sites have different shipping partners and policies. For example, not all services ship worldwide. The terms may vary as well, like shipping times and rates.
Return policies also differ. Some services offer free returns, while others have stricter policies. Either way, you’re not in control over how returns operate.
03. Lower profit margins.
Handing over the keys to inventory management and fulfillment means you’ll have to pay more per product.
Working with small batches of product also raises the price. Some print on demand services, like Printful, provide warehousing for an additional cost. This means you can buy products in bulk, ultimately lowering your wholesale price and increasing your profit margins.
Print on demand services
Before you jump in and start selling custom products, it’s important to choose the right service for your needs. Do your research into the different print on demand companies and see what options are best for your brand.
Consider what products you want to sell. Not all services offer the same variety. Customization options may also differ from company to company.
You should also look at the wholesale prices. Some services may provide cheaper products, but the quality might suffer. Think of the retail price you want to sell at, and find a print on demand service that provides a decent profit margin at that price.
Shipping is another important factor. Not all companies ship globally and the options and terms can vary. Take note of shipping locations and rates as well as fulfillment times, before you make your decision.
If you already have an online store, make sure the print on demand site you choose supports your eCommerce platform.
These are some of the top print on demand sites:
Their product selection is wide and covers all popular options, from clothing to phone cases. They also provide design services at an additional cost. So if you don’t have your own designs, that’s not a problem. You can use their premade designs or hire their services to tweak your existing designs and optimize them for print.
With Printful you can create your own storefront on their platform, or integrate with an eCommerce platform like Wix Stores.
Printful is free and has no minimums, so you can get started right away with no risk. They also offer warehousing, if you want to work in large quantities, taking on a little more risk and saving on wholesale prices.
Some of the best features are the extras. Printful has a simple and useful mockup generator to create images and videos of your products to display on your site. They also offer customized packaging, which is a great addition if you want to provide your customers with a fully branded experience.
Printify is another long-standing print on demand site. It’s geared towards business-minded artists and creatives, making manufacturing and retailing as accessible as possible with no prior knowledge necessary.
On Printify, you can choose from over 300 customizable, white-label products. All products and shipping options have fixed prices, so you know exactly what your expenses are, upfront. This can help you calculate the profit margin you want, and set your retail price accordingly.
You won’t get your own storefront on their website, but Printify easily integrates with popular marketplaces and eCommerce providers, like Wix eCommerce.
Opening your store and building a catalogue are free and there are no order minimums, so you don’t pay until you receive an order. Orders are automatically transferred to Printify, which handle fulfillment and shipping.
With Printify, you can expect quality images using the mockup generator. But the biggest benefit is the possibility of ordering samples. You can know exactly what your products look and feel like, ensuring your customers get the highest standard.
Redbubble differs from Printul and Printify in that it’s a marketplace of its own. On Redbubble you’ll be able to open your own store on the platform, but it doesn’t integrate with any other marketplace or eCommerce platform. This makes it less appealing if you already have a website or online store. It also means you get less store analytics, which can be used to optimize your business and provide marketing data.
On Redbubble you’ll choose from a wide range of popular products and add your designs to them. Being focused on artists, they automatically watermark your designs, to protect your intellectual property.
Redbubble offers free shipping worldwide and a free return policy. But unlike other print on demand services, you’ll only get paid once a month, if you’ve reached the $20 threshold, otherwise your payment carries over to the next month.
SunFrog is one of the largest marketplaces for custom products. While they offer a variety of products, it’s really all about t-shirt designs.
What separates SunFrog from other similar print on demand sites, is that you can sell other users’ designs in your store, earning a commission on the sale. This means you can start selling custom products right away, without even designing any.
Being a marketplace of its own, SunFrog doesn’t integrate with other eCommerce platforms. But it does track visits and conversions and lets you create retargeting marketing campaigns.
For a deeper dive into the different print on demand options, check out our article on the best print on demand companies for 2021.
Print on demand design tips
To ensure your products come out as best as possible, you should submit your designs at the correct format, size, resolution and color profile.
Image format - most print on demand services accept PNG or JPEG.
Size - 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 - refers to the method of color mixing. Without getting too technical, it’s recommended you save your designs as sRGB.
You can use any graphic editing software to create and export design files ready for print.
When you upload your designs, it’s important to make sure you locate and size the images correctly on your products. You don’t want an off center image on a t-shirt, a square photo on a round pin, or a pattern that cuts itself off, to name a few common design mistakes.
Don’t worry if you’re not a designer yourself. Some print on demand sites provide premade designs you can use, or offer design services to help you flesh out your vision. So you don’t have to be a designer to start dropshipping custom products.
Tips and tricks for a successful print on demand business
A profitable print on demand business requires more than great designs. It takes a real marketing effort to get shoppers to visit your website or online store and buy your products.
These are some tips to get your print on demand business up and running, and build a passive revenue stream from online sales:
01. Create product mockups
eCommerce isn’t an easy job. Even if your online store gets visitors, there’s no guarantee of making a sale. To give yourself the best odds, you should make sure your site looks amazing and your store looks as professional as possible.
One of the most important factors in online sales is having high-quality product images. So make sure the print on demand service you choose has a mockup generator and use it to create product images and videos for every single product.
02. Order product samples
Many online stores rely on repeat customers. In fact it’s significantly easier to get a satisfied customer to return, than to convince a new customer to buy.
Getting repeat business has a lot to do with the quality of your products. No one will want to buy more low-grade t-shirts, or recommend them to their friends.
If possible, order samples of the products you want to sell, before you start selling. Make sure the materials are decent and that the print is exactly the way you want it to be.
03. Market on social media
This should be obvious by now, but every brand needs a social media presence.
Using social media like Instagram, Twitter or TikTok, is the primary means of communication with your potential customers. It doesn’t matter if you’re an artist, influencer or entrepreneur, if you sell products online, your brand must maintain an online presence.
Besides being a place where your audience can find you, social media is also a major platform for marketing. Facebook ads, for example, let you accurately target your audience, ensuring every marketing dollar is well-spent.
04. Find your niche
A common eCommerce strategy is finding a niche to create products for.
Marketing becomes much easier when you only cater to a small, well-defined group of people. You won’t have to cast a wide net in hopes of getting different customers. Rather you can focus on one group of shoppers, and optimize your entire business to attract them.
A niche can be any defined group you can think of, the options are limitless. For example, football fans, coffee enthusiasts or nostalgic 90’s kids.
When your print on demand business caters to a certain niche, you can design products just for them, brand your store accordingly and run your social media accounts as a true fan yourself. This all helps in creating a community of customers that will keep your eCommerce business running.
You can find your niche anywhere. If you don’t have a certain field in mind, you can browse social media to find one. See what’s trending on Twitter, or join popular Facebook Groups that discuss certain subjects. Reddit is another good option to find highly specific threads, known as subreddits.
It’s all about finding a group of people, identifying a common need or desire they have and creating the right product for that audience.
Ready to get started? Create your print on demand business today.
Rom is a writer and content creator, who specializes in eCommerce, sustainability and agriculture.