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Print On Demand for Ecommerce: What It Is, How It Works, and the Top Platforms for Merchants

Written on 3rd October 2019

Are you a creative person who wants to monetize your skills? Or maybe you’re an ecommerce site owner who’s looking to add personalized products to your catalog. Whatever the case, on-demand printing could be just the thing to help you reach your creative and business objectives.

But how exactly should go about the process? How do you set up a print on demand ecommerce site? What tools should you use?

This article answers all these questions and more. We’ll shed light on the ins and outs of print on demand, offer tips on how to get started, and provide info on the best services out there. By the end of this guide, you’ll have a solid understanding of the concept and have more confidence to sell customizable goods online. 

Let’s dive in!

What is print on demand (POD)?

Print on demand (POD), sometimes referred to as “on-demand printing” is an ecommerce model that allows you to sell customized products that are printed only after an order has been placed. With on-demand printing, you don’t hold on to any physical inventory. Instead, you sign up with a POD platform that takes care of the printing and fulfillment process for you. 

Print on demand is a type of dropshipping practice, in which the merchant doesn’t have to deal with inventory management and shipping. All those components handled by a third party, and the seller doesn’t incur stock holding expenses because they’re not charged for the cost of goods until someone places an order. 

POD fulfillment services versus POD marketplaces

Before we go any further, it’s important to make the distinction between POD fulfillment services and POD marketplaces

The former includes services like Printful and Printify, which serve as your backend fulfillment partner. POD fulfillment services enable you to connect your ecommerce site to their platform, and whenever someone buys from your site, that order is sent to your service provider for printing and fulfillment. 

On the other hand, POD marketplaces handle both the front- and backend of the process. Rather than connecting your store to a POD marketplace, you simply upload your artwork to the site and the company will market and sell those items for you. 

In other words, you license your designs to be placed on physical products rather than selling them yourself. Sites like Redbubble and Zazzle fall under the marketplace category. 

The right option depends on your business model and preferences. If you want to sell your designs under your own brand and have more control over how your items are marketed, then a POD fulfillment service would be the ideal choice. Do note that this option comes with more work because it requires you to set up a customer-facing shop.

On the flip side, if you prefer to let someone else do all the selling, marketing, and printing, then you’re better off with a POD marketplace. With this model, all you need to do is upload your artwork and let the marketplace do the rest. A big downside, though, is you don’t have access to shopper data and you can’t communicate directly with your customers. 

Note: for the most part, this guide will focus on POD fulfillment services.

How POD works

The specific steps for running a print on demand business will vary from one platform to the next, but here’s a general rundown of how the on-demand printing process works.

1. Set up your store

The first step to getting your on-demand printing business up and running is to set up your store. Depending on your POD platform, you can go about this in one of two ways:

  1. Integrate an existing store to the service. Print on demand services such as Printful and Printify can connect to ecommerce platforms like Shopify, BigCommerce, and Etsy. If you have an existing online store, you can integrate it with your POD platform of choice and start selling from there. 
  2. Use the POD site’s platform or marketplace. Don’t have an ecommerce site? Choose a POD service that has an existing marketplace. Sites like Zazzle and Redbubble allow you to create a profile on their platform, and they will sell and fulfill products on your behalf.

2. Upload your designs and select the type of products to sell 

Once you’ve selected a POD service and have your store or profile up and running, the next step is to add different designs and products to your shop. If you’re using a POD fulfillment service, the choices of which items types to sell are completely up to you. 

For example, if you’re a painter who wants to stick to selling wall art, then you can choose to only add framed canvas items to your shop. On the other hand, if you prefer to sell merchandise like T-shirts and mugs, you can opt for that as well. 

3. Sell your products

At this stage, your shop is open to the world and you have products that are ready for printing. If you’re using a fulfillment service, you can start marketing your products and driving traffic to your site. If you’re using a marketplace, your provider will do most of the sales and marketing for you, though you can still promote your work by sharing your profile or product links to your customers. 

In any case, the end goal is to get people to find your items and purchase them. 

4. The POD platform fulfills the order

When someone places an order, your POD platform will print, package, and ship the item to the customer. Once the purchase has cleared, you’ll get paid. 

Pros and cons of on-demand printing

Just like with any business model, print on demand comes with advantages and disadvantages. In this section, we’ll go through the pros and cons of POD. Go through the items below to figure out if this is the right model for your ecommerce business. 

Pros of POD

1. Easy to set up. The vast majority of POD platforms are incredibly easy to use. For the most part, getting up and running involves signing up, creating a profile, and adding products. You can upload your designs in minutes and won’t have to worry about the techie bits.

2. Minimal inventory headaches. The on-demand printing model gets rid of the biggest downside of inventory-based commerce: stock costs. Since items are only printed and created after the customer makes a purchase, you don’t have to worry about getting stuck with merchandise that you’re unable to sell. 

Common issues like overstocks and stock-outs are virtually non-existent, and you won’t have to worry about minimum order quantities and lead times.

3. Hands-off fulfillment. Another big headache in retail is order fulfillment. The process of packaging and shipping items has a lot of moving parts and can be difficult to manage, particularly for small businesses and artists.

POD platforms can take care of this entire side of the business, so you won’t have to deal with getting the items into the hands of your customers.

4. Freedom to focus on what you’re good at. All of the above leads to the biggest pro of on-demand printing: you have more time and freedom to focus on the things you like doing in your business.

So, rather than packing products or worrying about the logistics of shipping, you can spend more time on the tasks that you’re actually good at: creating art, building a community, and/or developing your business strategy. 

Cons of POD

1. Lower profit margins. When you work with an on-demand printing service, the cost of goods will be higher compared to buying wholesale, which means your margins will be lower. For example, a white V-neck women’s shirt costs $24.95 on Printful. Meanwhile, you can purchase a similar product on a wholesale site like Alibaba for as low as $6.23 — with a minimum order of 1,000 pieces.

Alibaba is undoubtedly cheaper, but it comes with higher risk and order quantity requirements.

2. Limited control over the customer experience. While having a hands-off fulfillment process has its advantages, it gives you less control over how your items are packaged and shipped. POD platforms have generic fulfillment processes, which means you can’t create amazing unboxing experiences or add a personal touch (like freebies and business cards) to your orders.

As such, if you’re trying to build a strong brand that makes an impression at every touchpoint, then on-demand printing may not be the best option for you.

3. Limited data (compared with dropshipping non-customized items). This point relates to POD platforms versus “traditional” dropshipping sites like Alibaba. If you’re the type of seller who likes to make decisions based on market data, then POD probably isn’t the best route.

Sites like Alibaba has more data on ratings, reviews, order volumes, and top sellers, so you can glean insights into which products to sell in your store. POD platforms don’t always offer these details, so you can’t easily predict top sellers and market winners.

4. Limited product types. The types of products you can sell will be limited to the offerings of your POD provider. This won’t be an issue if you’re selling common items like T-shirts and mugs. But POD doesn’t work well for sellers who want to customize extremely specific or niche items.

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For instance, if you want to customize, say, window blinds, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a print on demand platform that does that. Or if you’d like to sell customized apparel that’s made out of special fabric, then you might find it difficult to source that through a POD provider. 

Common print on demand products

Speaking of products to sell, let’s look at the most popular items that you’ll find in on-demand printing sites. 

Apparel

  • Men’s tops 
  • Women’s tops 
  • Dresses 
  • Leggings 
  • Skirts 
  • Shorts 
  • Hoodies

Accessories

  • Bags 
  • Jewelry 
  • Socks 
  • Hats 
  • Caps 
  • Visors 

Wall art

  • Posters 
  • Wall decals 
  • Canvas prints 
  • Framed art
  • Wall tapestries

Homeware

  • Pillows
  • Pillowcases 
  • Mugs 
  • Blankets 
  • Towels

Tech Accessories

  • Smartphone cases
  • Popsockets

How to start a print on demand ecommerce business

Now that you have a solid understanding of on-demand printing, let’s discuss how you can successfully get up and running with print on demand. Here are some pointers to keep in mind when starting and running your POD business.

Choose the right provider

Look into the following factors when weighing different providers:

Integration with your existing systems 

This is an important factor if you’re selling through your own ecommerce website. You want your print on demand platform to play nice with your shopping cart.

Look into solutions that integrate with your ecommerce platform. Whether you’re using Shopify, Bigcommerce, Woocommerce, or any other online shopping cart, set your sights on POD services that have an existing integration. Doing so will not only make it easier to get up and running, but it’ll also create a seamless experience for you and your customers. 

Merchant policies

Review the seller policies of the POD solutions that you’re considering. What’s their turnaround time? When do you get paid? How much is their cut? These things have a significant impact on your business, so choose a platform with policies you can get on board with. 

Fulfillment methods 

You’ll also want to look into how products are created, packaged and fulfilled. Some POD sites have in-house facilities that handle the creation, packaging, and shipping of the item. Others rely on third-party networks. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. It all depends on your preferences and types of products you’re selling. 

Costs 

You’ll want to look into the costs of using the POD service. In addition to the per-item charges, you should also consider subscription fees. Some on-demand printing services come with monthly expenses for using their platform, and this is something you’ll need to consider when selecting a provider. 

Product offerings 

Think about the types of products you want to customize and sell, then make sure your POD platform has those items. Again, this shouldn’t be an issue for common merch like mugs and T-shirts, since virtually all major on-demand printing solutions offer these items. 

But if you’re selling niche items, you may need to search a little harder. 

Order samples firsts

At this stage, you should’ve narrowed down your choices for an on-demand printing provider. Before signing up for a solution, it’s a good idea to order item samples first. This will allow you to get a first-hand look at the items so you can evaluate the quality of prints and caliber of materials.

The product sampling process varies from one provider to the next. Some solutions may offer discounts if you’re buying samples, while others will take full price. 

This is a critical step, so don’t skip it. The products you sell directly impacts your reputation among your customers, so you want to make sure they’re up to snuff. Low-quality prints and items also lead to higher return and refund rates — which you obviously want to minimize. 

Come up with great mockups

Ready to start selling? Be sure to create high-quality mockups for your products. Mockups allow you and your customers to visualize how a design would look when placed on a product. Done right, mockups can prod people to make a purchase, so make sure to choose high-quality ones for your store. 

The good news is that most print on demand sites offer mock-up generators that you can use for your site. That said, you can go a step further and use specialized mock-up software like PlaceIt to create your assets. PlaceIt offers a wider assortment of models and environments and helps you generate mockups that stand out. 

Be smart about pricing

In order for your business to be profitable, you need to price your products properly. Your profit margins are entirely up to you, but a healthy margin would sit at around 40% or higher, depending on your costs. 

This means that if your POD solution charges $10 for an item, you should sell it for at least $16.67 to hit a 40% profit margin. 

Use a profit margin calculator and enter your costing and profit info to determine the right price. Some print on demand sites offer this tool for free. Printful, for example, has a Profit Calculator page for its various items. The page lists the cost of each product, and you can enter the price at which you plan to sell it. Printful will automatically calculate your profits based on your input.

 PlaceIt also a handy profit calculator for on-demand T-shirt printing services. It’s a Google Sheet that lists the common POD sites, along with the base cost of each product and the profit you stand to gain. It’s a great tool for comparing multiple POD providers at the same time. 

Do note that the tool is made for POD marketplaces (e.g., Teespring, Redbubble etc.) and only includes data for T-Shirts. 

Top print on demand platforms for ecommerce

Need help deciding on a print on demand solution provider for your business? Here are some of the POD platforms to look into:

Printful

Printful is one of the most popular on-demand printing services on the web. A highly established and reputable company, Printful has locations in Los Angeles, CA, Charlotte, NC, Riga, Latvia, Tijuana, Mexico, and Barcelona, Spain. 

Printful has a wide selection of product offerings, from apparel and accessories to homeware and art. The solution also integrates with a wide range of ecommerce platforms and online marketplaces, making it a great choice for online sellers.

Another notable thing about Printful is it doesn’t outsource any part of the fulfillment process. The company handles everything in-house — from printing and packaging to shipping. Printful also offers custom branding solutions so you can add your logo to packing slip and packaging. 

Pricing: No subscription fees. Click here to see Printful’s per-item costs. 

Integrations

  • Shopfiy 
  • BigCommerce 
  • Woocommerce 
  • Amazon 
  • Ecwid 
  • Inktale 
  • Weebly 
  • Squarespace 
  • eBay 
  • PrestaShop 
  • 3dcart
  • Magento 
  • Wish 
  • Launch Cart
  • Storenvy 
  • Big Cartel

Printify

Launched in 2015, Printify is a transparent POD solution that leverages a network of printing facilities primarily in the United States, the United Kingdom, and China. Since the production of goods is farmed out to third parties (instead of being handled in-house like Printful), the cost is relatively lower. 

Printify is free to use for smaller merchants, though it charges a subscription for additional features and perks. The company also has a wide catalog of products on which to print, including apparel for men, women, and kids, as well as accessories and homeware. 

Pricing: Printify has a free tier that offers unlimited product designs and 5 stores per month. The subscription also comes with a Mockup generator, integrations with shopping carts, manual order creation, and 24/7 merchant support. 

You can opt for a Premium subscription for $29 per month. It comes with all of the above features plus customer order input and up to 20% discount on all products. You can have up to 10 stores under the account.

Merchants that process over 10,000 orders per day can opt for an Enterprise account which comes with unlimited stores per account, and additional perks like early access to new features, custom API integration, branded customer support, and a dedicated account manager. Pricing information for Printify’s Enterprise option is available upon request. 

To learn more about Printify’s per-item pricing, click here

Integrations

  • Shopify 
  • Etsy 
  • eBay 
  • WooCommerce 
  • Printify API

Gooten

Another popular ecommerce POD service, Gooten handles the printing, packing, and shipping of products so merchants don’t have to worry about fulfillment. Similar to Printify, Gooten uses “a network of experienced, hand-vetted manufacturers and providers” to handle orders. The company uses its own API to dynamically route orders to the best vendor to ensure that orders are fulfilled efficiently. 

Gooten prints on 140+ product types, covering categories like apparel, homeware, accessories, and more. It also integrates with a number of ecommerce platforms, has an API, and supports custom order forms. 

Pricing: Gooten is free to use. You can view the platform’s price list for various items here. You can also download a gated price list for select product on this page.

Integrations

  • Shopify 
  • Etsy 
  • Amazon 
  • Mobile App 
  • Custom order form 
  • API

Final words

Whether you’re an artist who wants to sell your work or you’re an ecommerce merchant looking to add customization to your offerings, on-demand printing could be a viable option for you. Just remember that the success of your POD business hinges heavily on your printing and fulfillment partner. That’s why it’s essential to do your research and figure out the best solution for your business.