Everything you need to know about a drop ship t-shirt business

Everything you need to know about a drop ship t-shirt business

A drop ship t-shirt business is one of the easiest creative businesses you can launch.

If you’ve already got an audience with a specific interest, this can be a great way to leverage an additional revenue stream.

If you don’t have an audience, it will be a little harder, but it’s still an option. Facebook ads let you get very targeted with advertising and you can build audiences and create designs specifically for those niches.

In this article I cover most of the important aspects of running a drop ship t-shirt business that you need to consider. Starting with the most important question.

Why drop ship t-shirts?

This is a very easy business model to adopt, requiring little of your time once it’s setup.

It’s likely that the people you sell to or who follow you share interests and use the same language. You can take advantage of this to create designs that will appeal to people in your niche.

It could be that you don’t even sell anything right now, but have an engaged audience. Perhaps followers of a Facebook page or Instagram account. Selling t-shirts that resonate with this audience can be an easy first step to monetizing these followers.

Even if the idea of selling t-shirts doesn’t seem to gel with your main business, it can be a powerful way to build your brand. You don’t have to use this extension of your business as a new revenue stream, though in many cases you could combine the best of both worlds.

As you’ll see, you can introduce custom t-shirts very easily with minimal impact on your normal routine. Creating designs needn’t be as difficult as you think. Once created and uploaded, the drop ship model means you need to do very little other than promote designs to your audience.

Specify your niche or niches

Whether you have an audience already or not, spend some time getting clear about you’re going to design for.

You probably have a strong idea about your typical audience member, but it can be very useful to clearly specify who they are.

Searching online will find you plenty of resources on how to create customer avatars, so I won’t touch on it here.

When you’re tightly focused on who your audience are, you can reap several benefits. This helps you identify where they hang out and there you can find what’s really important to them.

You likely already speak the same language, but it will be useful to keep a finger on the pulse of the community.

Being very aware of your audience can help not only your designs, but also your marketing. This in depth knowledge will help you build stronger connections with your ideal customers.

What kind of designs

At this point, you may be thinking I can’t design t-shirts, especially if you’ve got no design experience. However, being a great designer isn’t necessarily important.

For low cost t-shirts, the idea is often more important than the execution. People are buying the t-shirt because they want to share the message with others. They’re not buying it as a family heirloom to be passed down the generations. It will probably be a duster in a year or so.

Pay a visit to visit to amazon.com and search for “funny t-shirt”. I don’t think I’m being too much of a design snob when I say the results you see don’t have the highest of design values. Also quite a few designs are nothing more than text.

Now remember, Amazon is showing you the t-shirts they think are most likely to sell first. Hopefully you can see how the idea is more important than the execution.

Don’t buy the “ugly sells argument”

That isn’t to say you can’t create more polished designs, just you should consider what sells where you’re selling. Some platforms may be more design focused. In this case it often makes sense to apply your designs to higher quality t-shirts.

And certainly don’t believe that this is proof that ugly sells. More often than not it’s contrast, not ugliness, that leads to ugly selling.

In the case of marketplaces like Merch, I believe it’s simplicity that helps less accomplished designs perform well.

More polished designs will often have more elements, even if just a text design. In presenting the text in a more sophisticated way, may be less clear. So as a customer scans through a page of t-shirts, the more involved design may slow or even block the perception of the message.

Meanwhile, a t-shirt immediately adjacent and with the exact same message may be clicked upon because the simple text treatment makes the message more easily understood.

Put simply, don’t make your design more clever than the marketplace’s customers.

Easy product research

Having stated that the ideas are most important, if you want to increase your chances of success from the start, don’t feel you have to come up with the ideas.

Go to the marketplace you intend to sell in or that is most closely aligned with your design vision. Now search on the kind of keywords that are important to your niche.

What kind of designs are returned? Which are selling well? You may not be able to see this information, but most marketplaces have review systems that can be a good relative indicator of success.

You can use this research to avoid starting from scratch and completely reinventing the wheel.

Now’s an apt time to consider a couple of dictionary definitions.

inspiration
/ɪnspɪˈreɪʃ(ə)n/

noun
the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.

And

plagiarism
/ˈpleɪdʒərɪz(ə)m/

noun
the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own

Best I put my hands up right now and say I’ve plagiarised both those definitions from Google Search.

Do not do the same.

Adapt, improve and add a splash of you

When you look at what’s already popular, you’re just seeking inspiration. Don’t copy designs wholesale.

Sometimes many different sellers are using the exact same phrases and in that case you might consider doing the same. Bear in mind though that text can be copyrighted, so try to put popular phrases into your own voice.

With the design too, you should obviously makes yours look different and hopefully more appealing. You can change fonts, images, colors and layout, so ensure you’re creating a design that is truly distinct.

Some people use this approach on an ongoing basis, but it can be useful when you’re starting out. It will help you to see what’s working already and make it a little easier for you to gain traction.

As you become more experienced, you should be better positioned to produce designs that are going to resonate with your audience.

How to create designs

There are two types of apps that you can use to create your designs. Raster apps and vector line apps.

You’ve probably heard of Adobe Photoshop. This is a raster app. Without getting into any detail, raster apps create images of a fixed size. If you need to scale an image in the future, particularly increasing the size, the image quality will be degraded.

A less well known Adobe app is Illustrator and this is a vector line app. The designs created with this can be resized to any size without any loss of quality.

For most people, I recommend using a vector line app, unless you can only produce your designs in Photoshop or similar.

The advantage of vector line designs is the flexibility if offers you. If in the future you need to use a new company to create your t-shirts and they require your artwork to be uploaded at a larger size, you can easily create new artwork.

If you use raster software, increasing the size of your artwork will negatively imapct the image quality.

If you’re happy to spend money on software, a monthly subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud might seem an obvious choice. That will give you access to both Photoshop and Illustrator. However, you can pick from a selection of tools that will cost you nothing.

Online apps

If you have a good internet connection, you may favor online apps for creating your designs. Let’s list a few that you may consider, in no particular order.

  • Canva
    One of the best known online design apps. The downside is it’s a raster app and you may have difficulty creating artwork at some larger sizes. However, if you use it already, you’ve got no learning curve.
  • Befunky
    Again it’s a raster app or rather apps. There are several different tools you can use.
  • Vectr
    As the name suggests, this is a vector line app, so resizing your designs will never be a problem. You’ll face a bit of a learning curve but it’s not too bad for a vector app. You can also download this as a desktop app.
  • Gravit
    This is another vector line app that you can use for free.

Desktop Apps

All these desktop apps are free and can be used with Windows and Mac.

  • Inkscape
    This probably has the steepest learning curve, but it offers a strong alternative to Adobe Illustrator. That said, if you use Illustrator, it will take some getting used to, but I actually prefer it to Illustrator for some tasks.
  • Boxy SVG
    This is a bit simpler and more user friendly, but will still let you create good looking vector graphics. You can also use this online in your web browser.
  • GIMP
    If you really need to create raster graphics, you can look at GIMP. The gap between it and Photoshop has widened considerably in recent years, but it’s still a powerful app. You will find quite a steep learning curve and it can drive Photoshop users loopy, though the interface has improved in recent versions.

Mobile apps

There are various vector line apps available for iOS and Android. These are a few that you may want to try out.

  • Adobe Illustrator Draw (iOS / Android)
  • Vectornator Pro (iOS)
  • Infinite Design (Android)
  • Autodesk SketchBook (iOS / Android)
    This is a raster app, so you will be limited if you ever need to resize a design.

Free fonts

Your computer generally doesn’t come with many fonts installed. If you want a wider selection, there are plenty of free fonts available. Bear in mind that when it comes to free fonts, more often than not you get what you pay for. There are a huge number of low quality free fonts.

Here’s two places you can download fonts.

  • FontSquirrel
    All the fonts on this site can be downloaded and used for free in commercial products.
  • Google Fonts
    While the main reason for this service is supplying fonts for websites, you can also download the fonts.

If you search for “free fonts”, you’ll find a massive selection to choose from. Always ensure that any fonts you download clearly state they’re free for commercial use. If they say free for personal use, you can’t use them on t-shirts you’re planning to sell.

Graphics

There are sites where you can download free graphics too, though on some you may need to check you can use them for commercial products.

  • Pixabay
    While this is primarily a photos site, they also list graphics for download. All downloads are free and you can use the files in commercial projects.
  • Openclipart
    The quality is very variable, but again all are free and can be used commercially.
  • Vecteezy
    This site contains a wide range of vector line graphics. The license may vary by download, so always ensure they can be used commercially.
  • FreePik
    This site allows you to use many of their downloads for free in return for an image credit. However, a monthly subscription isn’t expensive and removes the need for a credit on most graphics. Note you may not be able to use some as is and will be required to adapt them in some way. All downloads come with a license.

Hire a designer

If you really don’t want to create your own designs, you can hire someone to do it for you. Here’s a few sites you could look at to find low cost design help.

  • Fiverr
    It used to be that all gigs on this site were just $5. Things have changed and most things cost rather more now. If you hire someone here, make sure the price you’re paying includes a PNG file with transparent background. Many sellers charge more for this.
  • Upwork
    You can find designers from around the world to quote on your design projects.
  • Freelancer
    This is another site that allows you put your design jobs out to tender with designers around the world.

If you intend to go this route, try to ensure that every brief you supply is absolutely clear about your requirements.

Misunderstandings between client and designer are very common. To try and avoid mistakes, have a friend or family member read your brief and explain back to you want they think you want. This will help to highlight missing information that you need to add to your brief.

Where to sell

There’s a wide selection of places you can sell your t-shirts online. I’ll list some here along with any pertinent information relating to them. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but just some of the best known names.

  • Merch by Amazon
    This requires you to apply for an account which could take weeks or months to get approved, if at all. You are restricted to how many designs you can upload, though you are moved up through their tiers as you sell more t-shirts. Initially, this was north America only, but it’s rolling out to other countries.
  • Zazzle
  • Cafe Press
  • Spreadshirt
  • Redbubble
  • Society 6
  • Threadless
  • Etsy
    This requires you to integrate your shop with a drop ship print on demand service. You’ll see some of the options below.
  • Your own site
    This requires a bit more work, but if you send or intend to send your own traffic to your t-shirt pages, you really do need your own site. You probably should read Should you build a drop ship t-shirt site if this applies to you.

All but the last two options handle most everything for you. They provide the marketplace for you to list your t-shirts and handle all aspects of the sale, fulfillment and shipping.

These are convenient and also give you access to their customers. No need for you to find traffic.

Be aware, though, that these marketplaces are quite full with other sellers. It can be hard to get your products seen, particularly as these sites will prioritise displaying products that they know are already selling.

If you’re going to sell on your own site or Etsy, you need to find a drop ship print on demand service. Again this isn’t an exhaustive list. Unless stated otherwise, they all offer WooCommerce and Etsy integrations.

Who to print with

If you’re going to sell your t-shirts on a marketplace type site, this section isn’t relevant to you.

This is only relevant if you’re selling on Etsy or your own site. In this case you will need to select a drop ship print demand service to partner with.

I listed some of the best known services above. However, you will find quite a few other services online. You may find they offer more specialist products that aren’t available from the bigger names.

There are a few factors you should consider when selecting a service. The most important points are listed here.

Where do they ship to?

This is one of the most important things to consider. Obviously you don’t want to spend time researching a drop shipper if they won’t ship to where many of your potential customers are.

What products do they sell?

This is one of the key factors in picking a drop shipper. While I’ve focused on t-shirts only, you can easily apply your t-shirt designs to other types of products.

Some products like sweatshirts and hoodies are quite a natural progression from t-shirts. Others, such as phone cases and posters, less so.

When starting out, I recommend you focus on t-shirts and find the designs that work for your audience. When you start to have sales success you can look at expanding and applying designs to other products.

It makes sense to consider other products from the start, though, as it’s easier to start with and continue with a drop shipper, than switch start with one and switch to another later.

You may be able to use multiple drop shippers in your store, but that could lead to complications in setting shipping prices.

What are their product prices?

It’s likely you’ll consider product ranges and prices in tandem. There’s no point selecting a drop shipper based on their product range if their prices are so you won’t be able to make a profit.

Ensure that the prices you’re looking at include the cost of customisation and aren’t just the base product price.

Something that’s easy to overlook is whether the location of a company affects the prices in some locations. For example, companies based in the European Union may have to apply VAT to products sold in the EU. That will drive up the price of each product and obviously impact on the prices you set.

How long do they take to produce customised products?

The time to produce products tends to vary between drop shippers and also between product types. With some more unusual products, you may have to accept longer lead times.

Check whether they refer to working days when giving their usual lead times. For example, eight working days is virtually a week and half once the weekend is added in.

What are their shipping terms?

You need to consider the cost of shipping and how long it will take to each destination. Some drop shippers may offer free shipping, but check how long that option will take. You’ll also want to consider shipping time in tandem with the production time. Will the overall time be acceptable to you customers.

Don’t forget to check the shipping cost of additional items. In some cases this could have a dramatic effect on shipping even if the base cost for one item is similar between two drop shippers.

A lower additional item cost will make it easier for you to use shipping as a sales tactic, such as offering free shipping at a certain threshold.

What is their support like?

There are a few things to check here.

Do they have good help documentation on their site. It’s usually quicker if you can answer your own queries without having to contact them.

Ideally they will specify how long they take to respond to customer queries. If not, try sending them a query and seeing what the response is like. If you ever have an irate customer complaining to you about a product related issue, you’ll want to know you can get quick answers from your drop shipper.

If you don’t have a genuine query, pick from the FAQs page. As well as helping you judge their speed, it will help you gauge their attitude to their customers. Do they answer fully or just send a dismissive link to their FAQs page?

I prefer companies to have a dedicated support ticketing system as this suggests they take customer support seriously.

That may not always be possible though. However, I have rejected a drop shipper who had a unique product that I thought would be perfect for my ideal audience. In their case, they routed support requests through their general contact form and said replies would take up to two working days. They were true to their word too.

Your customer reputation relies on your drop shipper. Even if it means compromising on your product range, don’t partner with a company that you don’t trust to offer good and timely support. They won’t be the ones that your customers complain loudly about on social media.

What is their returns policy?

In most case, you drop ship partners will only take responsibility for returns in the event of a production error. Make sure you understand exactly what is and isn’t considered their fault.

You want to understand this before you get specific on your terms and shop policies.

Be clear about your terms and policies

Again, if you’re going to sell your t-shirts on a marketplace type site, this probably won’t apply as the marketplace will handle all this for you.

It’s vitally important that you clearly state your terms and conditions to your customers. In practise, most customers will order without ever reading them. However, if problems arise, you can direct customers to these so it’s clear what, if any, recompense may be due.

Make sure you cover every circumstance you can think of so there’s no room for ambiguity.

Most, if not all, countries have legislation that cover online and distance selling. You should take some time to familiarize yourself with the legislation in all countries and/or states you sell into.

For example, some countries require distance sellers to accept returns within a specific time period. However, this may not apply to customized products produced specifically for the customer. In most cases, print on demand goods should be considered as being custom produced for a customer.

If these things apply to your store, make sure their covered in your terms.

Another potential issue with drop shipping can occur when goods are shipped across international borders. It may be the the receiving country will apply import duty that must be paid before delivery. Again you’ll want to be clear that you’re not liable in the event that such duty is charged.

In a perfect world, you’ll pay a professional to draft your terms for you. If you can’t stretch to that, at least check out the policies of other sites selling t-shirts to see what things you need to cover on your site.

Conclusion

Hopefully this article will have answered many of the most important questions if you’re considering selling drop ship print on demand t-shirts. It may also have prompted you to think about some things that you hadn’t previously considered.

It’s not been intended as a comprehensive guide to getting started. You’ve still got a lot of things to work out for yourself.

That said, you should have noticed some of the links throughout the article that will lead you to more information on the subject, both on this site and externally too.

If there’s any specific information that I’ve missed and you believe would increase the value of this article, please take a moment to visit the contact page and share your thoughts.

I’m Ian Pullen and when not working as a dog and cat butler, I’m a designer/developer and writer who works on projects for solopreneurs, SMBs and multi-nationals like Unilever and Lenovo.
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© Ian Pullen - Shoestring Hustle 2018

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