It’s not a coincidence that we started talking about print on demand a lot more during the pandemic. When lots of shops joined the Here for Good movement with online stores and direct-to-customer fulfillment to support local businesses, POD went hand-in-hand.
Now, more decorators are evaluating whether adding (or expanding) a POD revenue stream to their shops makes good business sense. “Print-on-demand has definitely been a major topic of discussion over the last year,” says JP Hunt, co-founder of InkSoft. “We’ve seen big adoption of POD printing capabilities to harness the marketing conditions and benefits of adapting to quick turnaround times, replenishment, and short-run length orders.”
If POD solves a problem for your customer, offering this service makes a lot of business sense for your shop. “POD can alleviate a pain point for businesses like corporations, restaurants or schools that maintain online stores and don’t want to deal with inventory,” says Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe. “Imagine the economic engine for you if one corporate store serves 5,000 employees and each gets a $100 credit to order from the store, fees that you bill to the main client.”
We do a dive into what you need to know about adding or growing your POD service, whether you’re a startup or established shop. Here are four overarching questions to review as you consider how print on demand fits into your business plan.
1. Do Your Customers Want POD?
Your shop might have accommodated customers during COVID-19 with online stores and direct-to-end-user fulfillment. Have you surveyed them to see if they want to continue this valuable service?
“We have 300 corporate stores we’re doing embroidery on-demand for, with single-head machines.” Tom Rauen, Envision Tees
Whether you work with companies, schools, teams, groups or bands, they’ve likely enjoyed not needing to take orders or distribute T-shirts, polos, hoodies or uniforms. If a majority of your customers see the value in this service, you’re on the right track and should think about how to monetize this service even more.
For example, Dubuque, IL-based Envision Tees manages more than 300 corporate stores. “We primarily do embroidery with single-head machines,” says Tom Rauen, CEO. “A few of the stores have printed designs that we produce with DTG and heat transfers.”
Rauen points out that POD isn’t just one-size-fits-all with his corporate customers. “Each client is specific, depending upon their industry and the number of employees they have,” he says.
If you’re new, the POD rhythm might take longer to figure out. “Some of the challenges we faced when opening up as a POD shop was knowing what to offer and how to offer it,” says Kyle Perkins, owner of Big Frog Custom T-Shirts & More of Raleigh (@BigFrogRaleigh). “It may sound old school, but we had a ton of people wanting things like one black shirt while they waited.”
After Perkins got his shop’s name out there—and learned what his local market wanted—he realized he could offer light-colored shirts that didn’t require any white base or pretreat quickly, and in 24 hours or less. “For people who wanted a service that required a longer time frame, we told them, ‘Either we can get you an item fast that’s light colored or the option you chose will take longer than you want,’” he says. “Most people who want it fast are usually willing to make the switch.”
Print on demand also allows shops to cater to both individuals and companies. “POD lets customers have what they want, when they want it,” Perkins says. “Many consumers just want one or two shirts with a custom or complex design. They’re not even close to being in the market for hundreds of shirts, so we can serve them as well.”
Lots of decoration types can work for a POD service, if they match what your buyers want and what you’re set up to deliver. Do you fulfill T-shirts in an online store? Do you print trip or family reunion shirts while a customer waits? Shops offer a variety of on-demand decoration options, including DTG, embroidery, sublimation, heat transfers, heat transfer vinyl (HTV), direct to film (DTF) transfers and laser etching.
“Remember, if you don’t have a higher-end DTG printer with pretreat, you’ll need to pretreat your shirt, print it and then send it through a dryer,” Atkinson says. “That’s why heat transfers can be a good alternative for low-quantity orders. Today’s heat transfers offer phenomenal quality. You can even laser-etch a patch on a hat for a dimensional design, so the sky’s the limit.”
2. Is Your Shop Set Up to Offer POD?
Some decorators have worked to offer every single existing and new customer an online store option with direct-to-customer fulfillment, virtually opening up a whole new revenue stream. With that though, comes having the right people, processes and equipment in place to offer POD profitably.
“Once an online store is set up, it’s got to be continuously marketed so people know to go to it. Otherwise, it just sits there.” Kyle Perkins, Big Frog Custom T-Shirts
If you haven’t started setting up for POD, consider developing short-run length order and POD capabilities, so you can stop saying “no” to smaller orders. “Don’t forget that these small orders come with retail price points and are high margin,” Hunt says. “Plus, in volume, these orders can make a huge impact on your annual revenue production. POD customers can be powerful sources of referrals and word-of-mouth marketing, leading to other opportunities.”
If growing your print on demand service translates to purchasing new decorating machines or hiring people, then chat with your accountant and review your business plan before making any decisions. “In the POD game, it’s all about your processes, procedures and rules,” Atkinson says. “While the design and decoration might be different, what stays the same is the process. I like this quote from Atomic Habits author James Clear: ‘You don’t rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.’ You need to keep that in mind with POD.”
If you’re starting small or working to offer online stores with a POD component to customers, there are several industry-specific e-commerce vendors you can reach out to if you want to set up your own store or offer them to clients. Check out: InkSoft, Printavo, OrderMyGear, DecoNetwork and Spirit Sale.
You can use one of these online designer tools to set up customized storefronts for your shop, and also to serve your customers’ employees, members, students or patrons. Usually, within less than an hour, you can build a cyber-store with their logo, along with select products and designs that your customers’ audience will love. These storefronts offer an exclusive, personalized experience. Plus, your client doesn’t need to take orders, collect money or deliver the decorated goods, since your shop handles the fulfillment process for them. This can be a very valuable addition to your existing services.
“I’d recommend limiting the number and types of items in each store, making it easier for purchasing and receiving, especially now with inventory issues across warehouses,” Rauen says. Narrowing down the products and designs you offer also eliminates analysis paralysis, so buyers can quickly and confidently make choices.
Atkinson cautions decorators against displaying an exact garment style name and number in your stores. “What if you’re offering POD and can’t get that shirt?” he says. “Some decorators will describe a style as a black 5.5 oz. cotton tee, so they can fulfill the order with several brands. Otherwise, this could become a liability for you in getting an order out the door fast.”
Tip: The more familiar you are with what your customers want, the more easily you can load new products and designs into the stores, as seasons and promotions change. That way, you ensure that the store’s in operation throughout the year, keeping branding opportunities up for your clients, and profits in your pocket.
3. Are Your Online Stores User-Friendly?
If you’re offering your direct customers POD services, your shop’s site should be set up for buyers to easily order online. Many industry-specific vendor ecommerce sites include an online designer preloaded with artwork or fonts so that customers can design and approve their own artwork. In addition, some of these services plug into apparel suppliers’ inventory so a customer can select apparel in-stock apparel styles and sizes. Finally, the buyer can view a virtual mockup of the item before they pay.
“In the POD game, it’s all about your processes, procedures and rules. While the design and decoration might be different, what stays the same is the process.” Marshall Atkinson, Atkinson Consulting & Shirt Lab
Once you’ve set up an online store, it’s easy to process the orders with pre-selected artwork, garment type, sizing, color and print locations. “Gathering that information takes the headache out of having to get it from the customer,” Perkins says. “One of the disadvantages is that people have to know about the online store to start ordering. Just building it doesn’t mean that people will order.”
Tip: That’s why you should help your customers market their online stores. Some shops provide “plug-and-play” marketing packages, including email and social media templates, along with graphics, so customers can start reaching out to their target audiences right away. “Once an online store is set up, it’s got to be continuously marketed so people know to go to it,” Perkins says. “Otherwise, it just sits there.”
If you offer “while-you-wait” decorating, you can set up a kiosk in your showroom for people to easily place their order. Some shops display a DTG printer (or heat press) right in view as well, so customers can watch their job printing. This creates a fun, interactive experience for buyers. A consideration for you is to determine whether you’d have a steady flow of business to make this setup worth it, and if you’ve got a dedicated employee who’s available to take these requests as they come in.
Perkins has a Brother GTX DTG printer in his shop so customers can be part of the process if they want. “They love seeing the ‘miracle’ of DTG,” he says. His shop also offers embroidery, screen printing, single-color vinyl and heat transfers for POD jobs. “Small businesses love these options, especially if they need three or four shirts for a trade show,” he says. “They also love the production speed. We can give them one to two days turnaround, rather than the two to three weeks they get for larger orders.”
4. Is Your Shop Set Up to Offer POD … Profitably?
“I’ve seen shops that are killing it with hundreds of stores to the tune of millions a year,” Atkinson says. “The key is selecting the right tools for your use case. Then, you need to keep a close eye on your metrics. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. You can switch and add tools as you grow.”
“Print on demand has been a major topic of discussion and we’ve seen big adoption of POD printing capabilities to harness the marketing conditions and benefits of adapting to quick turnaround times, replenishment, and short-run length orders.” JP Hunt, InkSoft
Finding the right software to plug into your system is another way to make your POD system run efficiently and be profitable, if you’ve grown enough to start outsourcing the decoration. “With Shopify, there are a lot of third-party apps that connect to POD fulfillment centers that can do the production for you if you don’t have the capabilities or resources in-house,” Rauen says.
Atkinson watches many next-level POD shops outsource their DTG decoration. “They’ve got a partner company tied in, and they’re super-focused on the analytics and logistics so that they’re highly efficient and profitable,” he says.
The idea behind POD, Atkinson says, is only printing the orders that you have on your plate. “The goal is not to have any inventory,” he says. “Some shops take orders, and then close their online portal to then print everything that came in, which may not be efficient. How are you set up to do the decoration?”
For example, you might have an online store with 20 designs for a sports team or a band that you print on demand, six here, even 20 there. “But what happens when there’s a big victory and you’ve sold 700 shirts in 30 minutes?” Atkinson says. “You only have two DTG presses and now you’ve got four days of work. There’s a tipping point number you need to know: What number triggers a bulk printing? Suddenly, it might make a whole lot more sense to screen print those shirts.”
When you understand your numbers and processes, it’s much easier to decide whether 100, 500 or 1,000 shirts constitutes a bulk order. “Then, how will you aggregate those 700 shirts?” Atkinson says. “You’ll need to gather the shirts and shipping addresses, and then print and ship them. Preprinting every shirt isn’t sustainable. But neither is DTG printing every single shirt. You need to understand what works best for your shop.”
What to Do Today
If you’re serious about offering POD, first commit to it internally in your shop. “Online stores and ecommerce must become a core competency and competitive advantage for you,” Hunt says. “Offering online stores is good for your customers and good for their business in terms of competitive distinction and major efficiencies.”
Howard Potter, CEO of Utica, NY-based A&P Master Images, which manages hundreds of online stores, recommends this list of to-dos as you plan your POD moves:
- Evaluate online software to build and manage online stores for your shop and for your customer.
- Evaluate software, whether you buy it or have it built custom like Potter, so your team can efficiently receive, process and fulfill all orders.
- Evaluate the decorating equipment you’ll need. “However, with fulfillment on a small to medium scale you’re using more technology and staff than your equipment in most cases,” Potter says.
- Set up a computer and printer for shipping and receiving hooked up to a scale to give you exact weights to not overpay on shipping.
- Invest in packaging, as well as some that have your shop’s name and logo on it. “We have our own custom mailers and packing tape,” he says.
- Organize your team to have POD roles to play. “Each person should be responsible to control the ins and outs of fulfillment,” he says.
This blog’s Decorating Tip is about keeping your shop stocked and organized. First, Ramona McKee, owner of Quick 2 Stitch, recommends adding Harbor Freight or a similar catch-all hardware store to your shopping list. “Before you say, ‘That’s not for me,’ the list of stuff, like lights, tools, heat guns and more, that we can bring into our shops, will blow you away,” she says.
And Cool-Stitches & More Owner Sheila Graham never says no to filing cabinets if someone’s giving them away or selling them. “There’s so much storage in them and you can paint them to make them look great,” she says. “In my shop, I have two four-drawer ones. They hold my hoops, stabilizer, lots of extra thread, vinyl and more.”
SHOP alphabroder USA, alphabroder CANADA and Prime Line BRANDS TO FIND PRODUCTS OF THE MOMENT.
Laurie is part of the marketing team for the leading supplier in the industry, alphabroder. During her free time, Laurie likes to ride horses, sail and spend time with her husband and her two children. Reach her at Lprestine@alphabroder.com