Deep Thoughts on the Print-on-Demand Industry

An Introduction

We can split the apparel print-on-demand industry into two groups: those companies that allow users to create and sell custom apparel from a storefront, and those who don’t. In the first group, we have Cafe Press, Zazzle, Spreadshirt, Printfection, Skreened, and a few more. In the second group, we have CustomInk, Customized Girl, Blue Cotton, and many, many more.

All of these companies have one thing in common: they take advantage of the fundamental principles of the long tail. Because they don’t print anything until it is ordered, and because they allow customers to create whatever design they like, their inventory of designs is digital, which means it is essentially infinite. The only physical inventory they need to worry about is the blank apparel, but even that can be reduced to almost nothing by using just-in-time inventory, like we do at Customized Girl.

What Cafe Press and Zazzle Do Well

Cafe Press and Zazzle have done an extraordinary job of recruiting massive armies of storefront owners. Each of these storefront owners bring in tons of sales to their individual stores, but perhaps more importantly, they bring in links. If you were to build a storefront on Zazzle, you would be bombarded with reminders and tools to encourage you to constantly link back to your storefront. This results in excellent organic search rankings. If you’re on Google, and you search “any-word-you-can-think-of” followed by the word “shirt”, Zazzle will almost surely show up as the first or second organic link.

Zazzle, in particular, has also done a great job of cultivating partnerships with major brands such as Disney, DC Comics, Harry Potter, Star Wars, and more. These branded t-shirts represent the “head” of the long tail.

My absolute favorite aspect of Zazzle’s business model is their ability to provide their partners with incredibly specific and powerful data about their own customers. For example, let’s say it’s the year 2006 and Disney is about to release a new Pixar movie, Cars. They’ve been promoting the heck out of it with trailers and TV commercials, and because they’re really smart, they’ve had a Cars Zazzle Store open for weeks. No Cars t-shirts have been printed yet, because Zazzle prints everything on demand. Soon, Zazzle is able to report back to Disney: Lightning McQueen t-shirts are the best sellers in New York and Los Angeles. Mater t-shirts are the best sellers in Texas and Ohio.  Disney can take this information and use it to direct inventory to their brick and mortar stores all around the country. (Just to be clear, I completely made up that data. I’m not even sure Zazzle get’s that specific, but I don’t see why they wouldn’t.)

Taking this one step further, imagine it’s your job at Zazzle to recruit new partnerships. How incredible would it be to walk in a room and say “Would you like to have everything you need to know regarding exactly how much inventory you need and where it needs to go?”.  Seems like a pretty easy pitch.

What Cafe Press and Zazzle Don’t Do Well

Cafe Press and Zazzle claim they sell “custom apparel”, and while that is technically true (you can upload a design to blank items), they don’t sell “customizable apparel”.  They have millions of designs in their shops, but almost all of them were uploaded by users creating designs in Photoshop or Illustrator. If you wanted to find a bachelorette t-shirt design that you could customize quickly and easily by adding your own name, you’d find it rather difficult at Cafe Press or Zazzle. If you did find a design you liked, but you wanted to change the colors, or the font, or the text, well… forget it.

That’s where companies like Customized Girl and Bridal Party Tees come in (and to a lesser extent, Custom Ink which offers a somewhat limited variety of designs you can customize) (also, if it is not obvious, I work for eRetailing, the company that owns Customized Girl and Bridal Party Tees, so this post is not without bias).

At Customized Girl, every design you see was created from scratch in our design center.  There are no uploaded images. Every piece of art you see is from our massive library. This means you can customize the design’s colors, scale it up and down, edit all of the text, change fonts, swap out the item, and personalize it pretty much every conceivable way.

The Future

Cafe Press and Zazzle have fantastic business models because they’ve been able to harness the true power of the internet. If Zazzle had wanted, it could have bought a bunch of direct-to-garment digital printers and then built powerful art and marketing departments to fill up their shop with high quality designs. But they realized that if they created a platform, and opened it up to anyone, then they would be able to grow exponentially.  Now their users are able to create a storefront and sell fully designed t-shirts from their bedroom. The user never has to buy inventory, or print anything, or even deal with customer service.

But the next step has yet to be taken. The next step is to take the Zazzle model, and instead of creating static t-shirt stores, the users can create another Zazzle, or at least another Bridal Party Tees. I don’t think this would be possible with the current Zazzle structure and design center, but if there was another platform, a platform with an incredibly easy-to-use design center, and a storefront that made it obvious each design was meant to be fully customized, then maybe… maybe users could build fully fledged custom apparel businesses.  They could sell softball team uniforms, family reunion shirts, and any other item that might benefit from customization.  There are a lot of different ways this platform could become a reality, and at eRetailing, we’re thinking hard about each of them…


Jeff Benzenberg

Jeff Benzenberg is a digital marketer living in Columbus, Ohio. He spent 13 years at eRetailing, eventually becoming their Director of Marketing. He is now a Client Strategy Director at Conversion Path. He likes movies about time travel and songs about shipwrecks. SoapFusion is his personal website.