CafePress Creates Cash for the Casual Online Seller

If you want to sell your customized wares online but don't want to go through the process of setting up your own store and payment processing, try using on-demand services such as CafePress. We show you how.
Quite a few years ago, I thought it would be fun and possibly profitable to sell a wall calendar based on a popular Web site I had created. Researching my options at the time, the only way to produce a quality calendar at a reasonable wholesale cost was to have them printed in bulk by a press. This required investing a good chunk of change up front and hoping to sell enough calendars to push this venture into the black.

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One day I received a dozen cartons full of calendars, and began marketing them in earnest. I sold a few hundred. But the commercial press had required me to print thousands. My garage is still piled with old, sagging boxes of unsold calendars, a testament to the risks of making an upfront investment in inventory — particularly inventory with a built-in expiration date.

If you're interested in starting or ramping up a casual online selling business, this doesn't have to be you — not anymore. Especially if you want to sell branded or designed products ranging from t-shirts to greeting cards to calendars, mousepads, posters, and even more esoteric things (thongs! dog shirts!).

Thanks to the maturing e-commerce industry, you can now outsource your whole supply chain — from production to shipping to returns — to "on-demand" vendors. The most famous, CafePress, boasts over 2.5 million "shops" — or customers who sell products through the CafePress service. Their success has inspired several competing on-demand services, including Zazzle, Printfection, and Spreadshirt.

On Demand E-Biz Basics

CafePress has popularized the on-demand model for millions of sellers using a simple and straightforward business strategy. As a seller, you can choose from a large number of products including clothing, stationery, posters, stickers, buttons, and mugs, to name a few. You create and upload graphic designs, which CafePress will print on products as they are ordered by customers.

Because you don't need to maintain any inventory or pay for products that may not sell, there is very little financial risk as a seller in the on-demand model. But life always seems to involve compromise. The tradeoff is that your profit margin may be quite slim, too. CafePress charges a "base" price for each item. For example, the base price of a white t-shirt is $14.99. As a seller, you can charge customers anything you want at or above the base price. So, if you sell a t-shirt for $16.99, you've earned $2.

Although CafePress does not impose a limit on how high your markup is, the reality is that it will be difficult to sell items above a certain price point. Especially with so much competition for commodity items like these, not just in the retail world, but even through other CafePress sellers.

Stocking pre-printed t-shirts with your design produced by a local screen printer, for example, could yield a significantly higher profit margin on that $16.99 price, but of course carries the risk that you will be buying inventory that doesn't sell.

One investment you may want to consider is opening a CafePress store, which is a $60 per year for a "premium" account. Although a basic store is free, premium stores allow a much greater degree of customization. You can sell the same products at the same markups through either store, but a premium store can be designed, either using provided templates or by your own Web designer, to look and operate like a standalone shop rather than a "booth" inside CafePress' virtual marketplace. Some premium store owners will leverage this capability to integrate their storefront into an existing Web site brand, so that visitors see a seamless experience between site and store.

Besides the decision of whether to go free or premium, setting up a store at CafePress requires little more than filling out their submission form with data like your name and address (so that you can receive a check for your earnings). Of course, you'll also need designs to actually sell through your store products.

Designing for CafePress

Creatively speaking, you can sell nearly any design you want on most of CafePress' products. The key word there is "nearly." In fact, CafePress maintains a "Content Usage Policy" which does prohibit a variety of designs. You can't sell designs that infringe on copyrights, of course, such as brand logos and characters from film and television.

CafePress also bans material it deems offensive, for instance, racist or hate speech, plus nudity that is not "artistic." As you can imagine, there is a lot of grey area here. CafePress reserves the right to make the final decision on borderline cases, which is one of the hot topics in CafePress community message boards. Some sellers are not always happy about their designs being pulled, although in some cases they have been able to successfully appeal. Understandably, CafePress is cautious about protecting its own legal liability. Legalities aside, one design question that is more clear-cut is your picture's resolution. The best answer: 10 inches by 10 inches at 200 DPI or, put another way, 2000 x 2000 pixels. Designing your image to this resolution will provide the optimal picture quality on clothing, print products and mugs. For these or any products, you can also download JPEG-format templates with sizing guidelines that you can lay into your graphic design software.

Although it certainly helps to have experience with graphic design software to produce the best quality products, CafePress offers helpful tips to get you going.

Virtual Stock

Because CafePress can produce so many products with your designs, it is tempting to stock your virtual storefront with every conceivable item, from t-shirts to clocks to throw pillows. There's nothing stopping you, of course, and no extra cost for selling as many products as you want.

Shoppers, though, may find it difficult to navigate so many choices. Think about your audience and which products they are most likely to buy. Few people will have the patience to sort through lots of irrelevant items to find what they're looking for. Shops run on premium accounts have more flexibility to divide product offerings across multiple category pages, to provide a more focused and streamlines experience to visitors.

The perennial question when selling any item through CafePress is how to price it. Because CafePress base prices run high, the reality is that you don't have very much room to improve your profit margin. Browse other CafePress shops — particularly those who sell designs in the same category as your own (such as pets, holidays, or humor) — and look for pricing patterns. In a low margin business like on-demand selling, generating appreciable profits will have to rely on volume.

One perk for CafePress sellers is that you can buy your own stock at the base price. After all, it doesn't make sense to charge yourself your own profit margin. Some people use CafePress this way not to sell at all, but just to create and purchase customized products for their own use, such as shirts or hats for an amateur sports team or other organization.

(Continue to Page 2 for More Tips for Selling on CafePress and its Competitors)

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