By Victoria Greene for Edwardsturm.com.
If you’re a new ecommerce entrepreneur, print-on-demand and dropshipping are really quite amazing services. Of course, like many tactics, they have their drawbacks, but generally speaking, it makes the process of setting up a new online store and delivering unique products to customers very easy.
Essentially, these tactics allow you to be almost completely hands-off when it comes to order fulfillment, so you can spend all of your time focusing on actually running and promoting your store. Dropshipping has been around a while, and of course there are lots of big vendors to choose from, but the difference when using this with print-on-demand is that it gives you an edge.
Why? Because even though the base product is the same – whether that’s a print, a t-shirt, a mug, or a tote bag – the print makes it unique, and therefore you are in less direct competition with other suppliers. Creativity helps you stand out.
Having set up a few online stores that use the print-on-demand and dropshipping model, I’d like to share just a few of the lessons I’ve learned. Disclaimer: most of my experience has been with Shopify and its associated print-on-demand apps. There are many other platforms worth exploring as well.
Lesson #1 – Do Your Research and Know What’s Important to You
When it came to setting up my online store, I knew I wanted to use Shopify. It’s easy, it’s plug-and-play, and I knew there were plenty of apps that would allow me to quickly set up a print-on-demand and dropshipping arrangement.
Plenty of apps indeed. I eventually narrowed my choices down to three:
There are lots of others as well, but these were the top three that caught my interest, due to their apparent popularity, service descriptions, and star ratings.
If you’re interested, there are a lot of articles that go in-depth comparing the different print-on-demand options with one another. If you’re planning on doing this sometime soon, then you should definitely read them. One tip: don’t read comparisons that are written by one of the services in question – they will obviously skew the comparison in their favor.
You should also make a point of reading the bad reviews. When I started, I very much liked the sound of Inkthreadable. It integrates with Shopify, it’s a British company (this was for a UK store), and it boasts worldwide shipping with low rates. So why didn’t I go with them?
However, after surfacing this review, I couldn’t go with them:
Other reviewers also complained of slow delivery. I didn’t want to take that risk, even though I liked the sound of the company in principle. That left Printful and Printify.
What I discovered, after much research, was that out of the two, Printify had suppliers based in the UK, while also shipping out to the rest of the world. It also had the most affordable garments.
While Printful, on the other hand, offers slightly more choice: screen printing and embroidery, integration with more platforms, etc., it was important to me that UK customers would receive their orders quickly. The Printify reviews also generally looked good.
So, I set up a print-on-demand dropshipping store using Shopify and Printify. Here’s what I learned next.
Lesson #2 – Order Samples, Definitely Order Samples
They say you should order samples – they advise correctly.
Even with a service like Printify, where the design tool gives you a pretty good idea of how the print will display on the final product, I cannot stress enough the importance of ordering samples. Seeing something on a screen can never compare to handling it in real life.
It’s annoying because yes, you will have to fork out for them. However, the risk otherwise is that you won’t have a sense of the quality of the print or the products.
Case in point: I ordered some t-shirt samples and I’m very glad I did, because I picked up on some quality control issues early on that I was then able to flag up with my contact at Printify.
Something that occasionally happens, with digital printing on fabric in particular, is that you get a fine white line around the edge of your design. This is because first they print the shape in white, then they print the design on top. If the two aren’t perfectly aligned, you get this noticeable white edging. It doesn’t look terrible, but it doesn’t look great.
Every little issue that occurred I photographed and forwarded to Printify. The results have since been much better. I was also able to assess the quality of the garments and get a feel for the sizing – helpful when it comes to writing descriptions.
Another thing to bear in mind with anything print-related is that the contrast of the design is often reduced compared to what you see on screen. The samples I received showed that a few designs needed to be edited in order to bring up the contrast in places where colors were merging together. These designs now look considerably better – and we wouldn’t have known without ordering samples.
Lesson #3 – It’s a Tradeoff, so Is It Worth It?
So – all in all, print-on-demand services can make your life as an ecommerce entrepreneur much easier. But the tradeoff is that your profit margins will not be as high compared to stocking and shipping the items yourself. So it’s a question of what’s important and achievable for you.
You can free up a lot of time, storage, and possible wasted stock by going with the print-on-demand dropshipping option, but you might make only $5 per t-shirt, for example.
You are free to set your own margins, of course, but you’ve still got to pay the supplier their set rate. The more you charge on top, the more expensive the product is for the customer. You still have to maintain reasonable prices – you can only charge so much for a graphic tee.
If you were to buy and print garments in bulk, you would get the stock for much less. You can also achieve faster turnaround times. However, then you have to take on the whole shebang of shipping and fulfilment – and that’s a lot of work. Plus, if you’re unlucky and you don’t get many sales, you’re left with unsold items.
If you’re busy getting on with your life, it’s not always feasible to be popping to the post office with bundles of parcels twice a day. The great thing about print-on-demand is you can try it for one year, see what customers like, and then switch to a more profitable model once you know what’s likely to sell.
In summary: it’s a great option for new stores who are still testing the water.
Lesson #4 – Print-On-Demand Means Slower Delivery Times, but Less Waste
Printify, for example, says to allow 3 working days for production. For other services it may be slightly more, or slightly less. On top of that, you’ve got your shipping times. So for standard domestic delivery, to allow for production and shipping, you’re looking at something like a 6-day turnaround. For international delivery, those times get much longer – sometimes extending to two or more weeks.
Personally, I had initially hoped for a faster turnaround than this. One of the frustrating things about Printify (that I didn’t realize right away) is that, while they claim to offer express shipping too, this doesn’t extend to their UK suppliers, which is a real annoyance.
The option to choose express shipping seems like it should be a given. What’s more, I checked the individual supplier’s website, and they do actually offer express shipping. The two just haven’t connected.
All of this can feel frustrating, but in theory it’s alright, as long as you’re super clear with your customers about when they should expect their delivery to arrive. We are all so used to the luxury of next-day Amazon deliveries these days. Expectations need to be carefully managed.
It does mean no wasted stock, though. And that’s a good thing, not just financially, but in terms of saving resources. You won’t have to sit and cry in a warehouse full of boxes of unsold t-shirts.
Lesson #5 – It’s Scalable and You Get a Lot of Support
Scalable, yes!- Because it’s on demand. You don’t have to think about ordering stock, ever. I can’t stress enough how useful this is. Orders are placed, and products and garments are printed and shipped – whether that’s 1 item or 100 items. It’s all good.
When I first started using Printify, I shortly received an email from one of their employees reaching out to establish herself as my point of contact. We’ve been in touch several times and I have to admit, this level of support, particularly when it’s your first run, is incredibly helpful. It’s not always that clear how to do things, especially if you’re a novice.
Plus, you can openly express your dissatisfaction if something isn’t up to scratch, because your contact is, in effect, the middleman between you and the supplier. It all gets passed on for you. The contact always emails back the same day as well.
Lesson #6 – You Have to Relinquish Some Control; This Is Hard If You’re a Perfectionist
I am a perfectionist. While this seems like it should be a good thing, it can also make each and every task stressful and difficult to let go. If you too are a perfectionist, then you will understand.
Seeing garments coming through with very tiny print faults at the beginning was frustrating and worrying. Was this the standard my customers were going to receive? Each time it happened – and it happened maybe two or three times, apparently due to a ‘warehouse move’ – I was quick to email photos of said faults right back to Printify.
Quality control, even if you’re not a raging perfectionist, is still very important.
Now, there are no more samples coming in. The store runs itself, the customers place orders, the orders are produced and shipped. I never see them. I don’t get to check them. Someone else does – and part of me still wonders: will their standards be as high as my own?
Yes, print-on-demand dropshipping is very easy, but you’re not the one in control (which is hard if you like to have control). So you just have to compensate by being very clear about your standards and what you expect during the sample-ordering phase. Remember, at the end of the day, damaged goods reflect badly on you as a brand because as far as your customers know, it’s coming directly from you – not a third party supplier.
You should also not be afraid to ask questions, even if they might seem stupid. Yes, the system is easy to use, but it’s certainly not foolproof. Sometimes you need somebody to tell you what’s going on.
In conclusion, yes, I think print-on-demand dropshipping is pretty great. You’re probably not going to get a perfect model, but the truth is that if it didn’t exist, myself and many others probably wouldn’t have gotten our businesses off the ground.
I personally do not own a warehouse – and I am terrible at wrapping parcels. I will, in all likelihood, continue to work with Printify, but I will always be mindful of the little things that can go wrong and the importance of quality and clear communication.
And hey, if you’re thinking of starting an online store anytime soon, consider doing search engine optimization. There’s more to being successful with an online store than you might think.