hances are, you’ve been hearing a lot more about print-on-demand (POD) this past year. It’s grown so much, that POD is almost unquestionably a service that decorators need to offer. “With ecommerce, consumers have new expectations,” says JP Hunt, co-founder of InkSoft.
“Consumers expect rapid fulfillment and the ability to buy the quantities they’ll need – on demand."
- JP Hunt, co-founder of InkSoft.
"POD empowers new and highly profitable sales opportunities for shops. These smaller orders have a powerful compounding effect—and can make all the difference when it comes to growth, profitability and customer satisfaction,” Hunt says.
Of course, getting started with POD presents some real challenges, like homing in on the best systems and methods to execute it in your shop. However, there’s loads more opportunity with POD, like capturing revenue from underserved clients. “Think of smaller organizations and groups like the tennis team, chess club, or bachelor and bachelorette parties,” Hunt says. “You can seize these smaller opportunities profitably with print-on-demand capabilities, resulting in retail prices and higher profits.”
Kyle Perkins, owner of Big Frog Custom T-Shirts & More in Raleigh, NC, opened his shop using a print-on-demand business model to start out, with a Brother GTX printer in his showroom to easily show customers the capabilities of DTG with. “Our business model was set up to display DTG’s benefits for smaller, quicker jobs, and that’s our sweet spot,” he says. “However, not every shop needs to offer POD, if they mostly fulfill large screen-printed orders. I like POD, but it’s not a fit for every customer and every shop.”
Whether you’re a new shop owner considering print-on-demand, or you’re an experienced pro looking to focus more on it as a service, here are six questions you should ask yourself first—to see if POD is a viable, long-term and profitable option for your business.
1. Do my customers want POD?
While printing one-off T-shirts and sending them to buyers’ homes was big during COVID-19, do those same people want to continue working with you this way? For example, if you drop-shipped team or club uniforms to a school in the past, do they want to resume that? Or, do they love the convenience of having you ship each uniform to students’ homes? If yes, you’re on the right track to continuing or expanding your POD service.
“Don’t just jump to DTG for print-on-demand. Make sure you have the customer base to cover it. There are lots of other imprinting choices to start with, like heat transfers or direct-to-film.”
- Keith Burwell, Owner of Precision 1 Apparel
“You need to know your customers’ expectations before offering POD,” says Perkins, whose shop is known for working with rush and smaller orders (to the tune of printing up to 10 white tees in an hour or while customers wait). “Knowing your general production schedule ahead of time and planning around is beneficial,” he says. “If the order comes from an online store, we process that just like a POD customer walking in, with shipping of course.”
For Precision 1 Apparel, the pandemic sparked a flurry of requests, many from social media influencers, for online stores. “This was new for us, so we had to develop a way to onboard orders, create a production schedule and designate a shipping station, with staff in place to fulfill these orders,” says owner Keith Burwell, who’s found the most success with DTG orders.
Tanya Doyscher, owner and graphic designer at The Visual Identity Vault, also began offering DTF (direct to film) to local schools. “By doing DTF, we could offer awesome new designs, and the response was very favorable,” she says. “We’re transitioning these sales into POD webstores where customers can choose their design and garment, and we fulfill the orders.” Longer-term, this approach will result in less on-hand inventory in Doyscher’s shop, and the ability for her to change up customers’ designs more often. They're also able to create special offers on designs for limited time periods.
So, whether you send email surveys to your clients or personally talk to them about how they want to work with you going forward, base your decision about POD on what your market wants. You’ll also need to find out whether you can charge more for POD services, and if your clients truly value what it offers them.
2. Is my shop set up for long-term success with a POD offering?
The key to print-on-demand is allowing customers to self-service and order online. “POD’s main benefit is to handle short-run smaller orders,” Hunt says. “Ecommerce and online design technology paves the way for easy order placement automation.”
(There are several industry-specific e-commerce vendors you can reach out to if you want to set up your own POD store or offer them to clients. Check out: InkSoft, Printavo, OrderMyGear, DecoNetwork and Spirit Sale.)
The next consideration is having the right equipment mix to print in-house, or to start with wholesale heat-applied transfers. “Many successful shops actually use a combination of in-house print capabilities and wholesale transfers to have options depending on their average orders,” Hunt says. “You need to carefully choose quality decoration options to ensure your shop’s quality and reputation aren’t in jeopardy.”
Your on-hand inventory is another important factor you’ll need to consider to fully optimize the benefits of POD. “Think about all of the rush orders you typically turn down, or can’t address,” Hunt says. “Maintaining a range of popular product colors and sizes allows you to have pick, print, pack and ship capabilities. On-hand inventory allows you to save one to two days on additional production steps and labor costs.”
Finally, making sure you’re able to deliver on advertised or promised turnaround times is crucial. “Find suppliers you trust to work with, especially if you’re outsourcing any part of the POD process,” Doyscher says. “The failures we see are those shops that advertise their POD turnaround times and then don’t meet them. That causes a lot of problems for everyone and unhappy customers.”
Tip: Consider adding a rush fee to POD orders, so you can monetize this value-added service and capability.
3. What decoration options will I offer for POD?
We already touched on using heat transfers for POD. However, there’s a wide range of options you can choose from. First, you need to know what types of decoration methods work best for your POD service, and if they align with what your clients want. For example, decorators offer a variety of imprint methods for POD, including DTG, sublimation, heat transfers, vinyl, HTV (heat transfer vinyl), DTF, and even embroidery or laser etching.
You might know that DTF is POD’s latest darling. “Traditionally, direct-to-garment has been viewed as the best POD method for apparel,” Hunt says. “However, direct to film, heat-applied transfers are gaining popularity for good reason. You can purchase DTF transfers wholesale, or produce them in-house with specialized equipment. DTF transfers are more flexible in terms of substrate and application, and their wash durability and hand have a slight advantage over DTG.”
Doyscher loves DTF for POD. “DTF has allowed for no weeding and quicker turnaround times,” she says. The Visual Identity Vault, which has had POD success with vinyl and embroidery, also sublimates hard goods like tumblers, bag tags and plaques, and canvas prints for quick-turn gifts.
Big Frog offers two services for POD: vinyl and DTG (on non-white garments). “Our minimums are very low, and most people are surprised by that,” Perkins says.
“If someone needs an item absolutely at this moment, and we’re backed up with large, previous orders, customers can pay a rush fee to be bumped to the front of the queue.”
- Kyle Perkins, owner of Big Frog Custom T-Shirts & More
Ultimately, the best types of decoration for POD are ones that work well for small quantities and minimal setup. If you survey your customers, you’ll also get a clear idea of the most common types of POD requests you might get, whether it’s numbers on the backs of jerseys or family reunion tees.
Some POD-focused shops, like Big Frog, are able to print T-shirts within an hour or “while you wait.” However, don’t think that you need to just jump to DTG for POD, if you don’t have the customer base to support it. “Figure out what works best for your business model,” says Burwell, who started out screen printing one or two-color jobs, then quickly switched to DTG for POD.
Finally, the artwork and what material you’re decorating on will be a big determining factor in what your shop considers to be a reasonable minimum quantity for a POD order. “Making decisions about quantity to drive decision making largely comes down to understanding the economics and costs involved for your production options,” Hunt says. “Routing jobs to the most profitable production method is a key determinant. Costing varies wildly for each apparel-decoration business.”
4. What staff and equipment do I need in place for POD?
Of course, some shops were already set up to handle POD before COVID-19, but if you’ve been doing it “on the fly” during the past year, now it’s time to pause. Do you have the equipment, staff, resources and right workflows in place in your shop to do POD comfortably or even to expand?
“Print-on-demand production processes aren’t radically different from traditional print production runs,” Hunt says. “The same staffers can and should be cross trained to handle orders and short run POD jobs. As POD order and revenue volume scales in your shop, it’ll eventually make sense for you to dedicate a team to focus and execute on these orders. At this stage, cross training is still an important consideration to have a high-performing team.”
If expanding your POD service means investing in new equipment or people, then it’s time to look at your business plan and even talk with your financial advisor to determine if there’s a promising ROI to your investment. Plus, if you’re adding a DTG machine to your shop, for example, remember that there’s always a learning curve. That can include how to print certain products on platens, knowing how to print in different locations, or print on different fabrics (which is key, especially if customers bring in their own products for you to print).
Since The Visual Identity Vault is newer to POD, Doyscher reviews her orders weekly and assigns the jobs to her production staff. “Communication is the biggest factor,” she says. “The shop uses Monday.com to keep track of deadlines, including when garments need to be ordered and when jobs need to go out.”
5. Does my shop’s POD model prioritize self-service?
Your website should make it easy for customers to order online. For example, some shops add an online designer to their sites and preload it with clipart and fonts to give them a helping hand. These programs also give customers the ability to upload their own artwork as well. Then, the customer can select a shirt style and color that’s in-stock, and preview a virtual mockup of the order before they approve and pay for it.
You can also include a laptop or two at kiosks in your showroom for people to use in your store. That’s where, if you’re set up to produce on demand, you can use DTG to print the order right then and there, or ask them to come back in just a couple of hours. This type of on-demand service offers instant gratification on customized items that can keep a segment of your market happy and coming back for more.
However, this is also where you might need to have some employees focused solely on helping to fulfill those orders. Then, you’ll have to determine if doing so is giving you the ROI that makes allocating those resources worth the trouble.
6. Have I connected my POD model to webstores?
One easy way to promote and fulfill your POD services fast is to offer clients the ability to create an online store that they can sell decorated merch or company swag on. If you can set up a customized online storefront for them at no cost, you’ll immediately create an additional place for your shop to bring in more orders from.
“POD and online stores are a match made in heaven,” Hunt says. “It’s inevitable that certain product SKUs will outperform others. For smaller quality orders and products, POD allows shops to fulfill orders regardless of popularity. This helps you avoid cancellations and refunds due to low-performing sales on certain products. In the end, it’s about aligning with consumers' expectations and delivering on the orders they placed.”
Webstores are huge for The Visual Identity Vault. “Your success depends on getting the word out about your services,” Doyscher says.
When a group or organization signs on, we get them involved in choosing some products, and getting the word out to their supporters through email and social media.”
- Tanya Doyscher, owner and graphic designer at The Visual Identity Vault
Precision 1 Apparel uses InkSoft to set up online stores. “Mixing in POD with our normal day-to-day screen printing and embroidery has been a learning curve,” Burwell says.”But we can get the stores set up quickly, and as things pick up even more, DTG has saved us for fast turnaround times.”
For an online store, you’ll choose the products and designs in advance, so it’s even easier to fulfill and send out the orders as they come in. As you become more familiar with each set of buyers, you’ll get comfortable pre-printing certain items, so that it’s an even faster grab and ship.
Plus, Perkins says that since customers can order online, they don’t have to spend time on the phone for each order. “Online stores make the ordering process much easier,” he says.
POD Can Bring Your Shop Lots of ROI
In this newly forming economy, print-on-demand can work for you and your clients, so take a good look at whether it makes sense at a workflow and profit level for your shop. POD can differentiate your print team, so now’s the time to make your move.