If you are looking for an eCommerce venture that will maximize your resources and not require excessive startup costs, look no further than print-on-demand (POD). As a relatively new operational pipeline that has disrupted industries as diverse as publishing and fashion, maximizing the potential of POD can lead to a profitable new revenue stream or a means of improving an existing value proposition.
eCommerce is on the path to domination. From large scale corporations to SMEs to individual creative professionals, various players are finding online avenues to create, market, and sell their products. Take a look at this graph from Statista, which tracks the growth of eCommerce sales since 2014, with projections to 2021. It’s not hard to see what the message of this story is.
People for print!
Remember when the first portable e-reader arrived on the scene? Crowds were aghast, bemoaning the death of the printed book. Interesting. Because in a 2015 study by Deloitte, the prediction was made that print would still account for 80% of book sales worldwide. Perhaps way back in 2015 that might have been the case, but the facts can’t possibly reflect the global population to be such a band of print-reading Luddites.
Surely that number should have declined as eBooks become more readily available? The numbers, I’m afraid, tell a different story. According to the Association of American Publishers, there was a dramatic decline of 18.7% in eBook sales in 2016. Whether it’s that pulpy smell or the experience of turning the page as a story unfolds, it would seem that people prefer print.
As serendipity would have it, technology has provided the opportunity for people to enjoy print books as much as they always have, and with minimal cost to the publisher. POD has eliminated the nightmare of immovable stock in the backroom. How does this work? Quite simply, only giving people what they want when they ask for it. Let’s take a closer look.
How does POD work?
Due to the development of toner-based or inkjet printers, publishers found that they could reverse the product to customer pipeline by only printing books once they had already been requested. The ramifications of this are not hard to see – the risk to the business is almost entirely eliminated.
For the eCommerce entrepreneur, the excitement doesn’t end in the publishing house. The same principles can be applied to merchandise of just about any sort. From printing on keychains and mugs for promotional gifts to developing full online clothing lines, POD is opening up possibilities for ambitious businesspeople in various sectors.
Here’s what a typical experience would look like for you, if you were to embrace life as an eCommerce POD entrepreneur:
- Create your store on an established eCommerce platform
- Choose a compatible POD plugin
- Upload your designs to the store
- Promote your store using digital marketing channels
- Your customer selects a product from your online catalogue
- The choice bypasses you and heads straight to the third-party
- Your customer receives their product without any production intervention from you
Does that mean that you do not have to be involved in production at all? While it sounds too good to be true, that’s exactly what it means. And what about shipping? Yup. That’s also taken care of. It’s time to have a look at the nuts and bolts…
Your POD store
You might be thinking that to set up an operation that can run this smoothly should surely take a lot of effort and technical know-how. The reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, the hardest part is determining what you would like to sell. The further eCommerce platforms develop, the easier the technical side of setting up a store has become.
There are various options for eCommerce platforms available that suit the needs of different business types and entrepreneurs. I’ll break it down for you so you know where next to turn.
What is the best eCommerce platform to use for a P.O.D. store?
The quick answer is whatever is most relevant to your business needs. There are two major types – self-hosted and hosted stores. Your selection should be based on your technical know-how, the degree of autonomy you would like to have, what integrations you would like to include, and how quickly you would like to get set up.
1. A self-hosted store
As the name suggests, this is the option for you if you are looking to create, maintain and troubleshoot problems with your store yourself. It’s a great option if you are either a coder or have access to a developer whom you trust.
Having a self-hosted store means you have complete control over all elements of its creation. You can customize your store in any way you like and, if you or your developer has the ability, can let yourself run freely when it comes to integrations.
But be warned—only go this route if you are absolutely confident that the technical skills needed to get your site up and running are within your reach. Remember that you may be looking at additional costs upfront and/or down the line for store setup, server hosting, and site maintenance.
Here are two popular options to set up your self-hosted store:
Magento is an Adobe Company that provides open source eCommerce solutions. Its products include Magento Commerce, Magento Order Management, Magento Business Intelligence, and Magento Marketplace. It offers major flexibility, but be warned – you need to be a proficient developer to get the store up and running. It is a solution better suited to larger businesses that are already operating and are looking to bolster their eCommerce division.
WooCommerce is a popular WordPress eCommerce plugin. Currently the most widely used platform available, it too is open-source and requires that you first set up a WordPress site for your store. Like Magento, technical know-how is a must. WooCommerce will work for you if you already have an online presence with a WordPress website.
2. A hosted store:
If you’re looking for quick revenue with minimal effort, opt for a hosted store. Quite simply, they’ll take care of everything for you. You do not have to be able to code, nor employ someone who can. They will look after the hosting and server maintenance for you, leaving you with very little else to do other than focus on your product.
Shopify is the most popular hosted platform. Here are just some of the reasons why:
- Easy to use, no matter who you are
- A huge catalogue of themes to choose from
- Integration with Paypal
- A vast array of plugins to improve customer experience and maximise the profitability of your store
Once you’ve decided which eCommerce platform to use, here is your next step – how do you transform your eCommerce store with POD? With a POD integration, that’s how.
Integrating a POD service
Alongside the development of POD supply chains has been the software to match. POD services can be invisibly hosted and fully-integrated with your online store. That means that your customers will not have to jump through external hoops to get their merchandise printed. In fact, they won’t even know that those hoops exist.
This is how easy it is to set up a POD plugin to a hosted platform (like Shopify):
- Select your POD add-on or plugin from the relevant App Store
- Follow the step-by-step instructions to install your plugin and integrate with your store
- Rely on POD companies to manufacture and ship items to your customers without having to fork out upfront production costs.
The beauty is, once you have your idea, you can be up and running within 24 hours.
Now for the fun part—what are your product ideas?
POD design possibilities
Whether you want to design smartphone cases that sport the design of your grandma on a landline phone or use your pet hamster as inspiration for a new line of tote bags, the world is pretty much your oyster when it comes to POD design.
What are other people doing with this new freedom? I’ll take you through some of the most popular POD merchandise available today. This is just a fraction of what is available!
Popular POD merchandise
The last thing I want to do is curtail your imagination here. If it is small enough to be shipped, you can probably print on it. However, there are certain merchandise items that have proven to be appropriate to different settings, and certain reasons for entering this dynamic market.
Here are a few ideas to get whet your appetite:
1. The merch mecca
T-shirts, tanks, and vests are everywhere. Walk into any microbrew pub, tourist store, or gym, and you are bound to find a customized line. From SMEs to large companies, it’s a no-fail branding solution. What’s more, customized t-shirts can quite literally be music to your ears. As this Forbes article points out, t-shirts for musicians are instrumental in promoting international brand recognition.
2. The fashion guru dream
As a startup fashion designer, the gap between dream and actualisation can seem too far to cross. Imagine you could design your own line and not pay for it until after your new followers become customers and pay for their order? Yes, it’s true, your new line of bodysuits could be out on the virtual shelves overnight.
3. The end of the “starving artist”
It’s true… POD has provided a platform for artists and creatives to monetize their craft by providing something akin to online gallery space – with no overhead. The real joy is that is doesn’t end with canvas printing. Designs can be placed onto cards, invitations, keychains, smartphone cases, postcards… the list is almost endless.
The process of creating designs
If you feel your artistic abilities have never extended beyond different renditions of the stickman, that’s ok. You do not have to be Rembrandt to reap the benefits of custom print-on-demand.
Alongside the growth of POD has been the development of the digital freelance market. Now you can connect to a host of talented designers at affordable rates through platforms such as Upwork, Toptal and Fiverr.
As someone who has used freelancers for a range of different tasks in my own business, I have one piece of advice: make your briefs as clear as possible. If you don’t, you will land up in endless revision cycles that can cost you time and money.
But what if you want to do your own designs?
For the more talented among us, creating your own designs can be truly fulfilling, especially when you see them flying off the shelves.
If you’re already a designer, you’ll be familiar with Photoshop, InDesign and Adobe Illustrator and know what your preferences are. There are however specific criteria when it comes to designing for POD.
Here are my top 3 tips:
- Make sure that have met the technical specifications of the product. The right resolution and file type must be taken into consideration. Know bleed and safe zones.
- Offer multiple colours. While this may not be possible for all of your products, where possible, offer variations in different colours. This will increase the profitability of each product type with minimal effort on your part.
- Give your customers options. While quality is of major importance, so is choice. You want your customers to feel that your shop provides them with a host of options.
Finally, it’s time to launch your store. How do you get people to visit and buy?
Promoting your store
If you have not done so already, your first port of call will be to get clued up about digital marketing trends. In the world of the online marketplace, you need to learn how to sell online.
The good news is, you may have already started working on promoting your store without even knowing it. Let me share some ideas with you.
1. Monetize your existing followers
Your followers on social media are already your fans. They are either personal connections (friends and family) or they appreciate your work. Start with them. They will want to spread your work far and wide. Use your own personality and connections to grow the reach of your work.
2. Use Instagram and Pinterest
As visual platforms, Instagram and Pinterest are highly appropriate to advertising merchandise. What’s more, Instagram has surpassed Twitter for the highest number of active users. It’s a no-brainer. These are the modern-day town-criers for POD stores.
Note: Read a great case study here of how artist Mathieu Laca used Instagram to increase the traffic to his site by 688%.
3. Add a Facebook Shop
Facebook has created plugins that allow you to easily set up a Facebook store that is linked to your main site. Have a look here for details on how to get your Facebook shop up and running.
eCommerce is the site of the modern gold rush. Entrepreneurs are planning for those digital nuggets that will bring the best return on their investment. The growth eCommerce is showing no signs of slowing down, with Digital Commerce 360 reporting a growth of 16% in 2017 compared to 2016. That means that shoppers spent $453.46 billion on the web in 2017.
Print-on-demand is fast becoming an integral part of this growth. From its position as a means of positively disrupting the publishing industry, POD has provided an eCommerce avenue that can prove highly profitable for enterprises of all sizes.
The most exciting part for budding entrepreneurs is that nobody needs to fork out huge upfront costs to get the business started, and ongoing overheads are minimal. It is risk mitigation at its very best, enabling creative digital businesses to sell unique products all around the world.
Charlie Carpenter is the co-founder and CEO of Kite. He is a mobile advocate with over ten years of industry experience.
After working for large and small agencies for many years, he co-founded Kite; a software solution for print-on-demand, zero inventory merchandise, and personalised photo print goods. As well as an entrepreneur, Charlie is a seasoned product strategist with experience of various types of digital projects which include: Responsive and Adaptive Websites, Mobile & Tablet Apps, Hybrid Apps, Cross-Platform App development. You can connect with Charlie on LinkedIn, and follow him on Twitter.
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