What is Print on Demand?

Written by Dani Sherman

Print on Demand: An Overview

Print on demand is a printing technique that enables the production of single or small batches of physical items.

Typically, the printer takes an image or a design that you’ve provided them, and then prints it onto any of a range of products. You -- the customer or the e-commerce business owner, can then choose to have the printed item delivered to you, or have it shipped to another location, that being your customer's.

If you own an online Print on Demand (POD) business you are creating your own designs at home, visually (and virtually) launching them into your ecommerce store through the use of mock-ups and presenting them to potential customers. 

Once you sell an item, the printing partner (of which there are many) takes over all production and fulfilment tasks, including shipping.

The main advantage of this set-up is that it allows businesses to print products in small quantities without having to invest in inventory and securely store it -- or even ship it.  This means they can save money on both material and labour costs. Hence, the phrase ‘On Demand’.

There are no minimum orders, and no fulfilment request is ever too small for your production partners. You could order a single button! Remember, the product is created only when the order comes through.

There are five key advantages to this business model:

  • Low overhead and investment risk (You don’t pay for the product until you sell it)
  • No need to store inventory (in your garage, basement, or paid storage facility!)
  • The entire process is automated
  • More printing partners now fulfil globally, streamlining the process of delivery
  • You can monetize your time and creativity to earn passive income (by tapping into trends hobbies, and holidays to steer your store’s offerings --the very fun part!)

Let’s break them down…

Print on Demand Means Low Overhead and Investment Risk

Not too many years ago, if you wanted to start a retail business, you'd have begun by scouting for physical, brick-and-mortar premises from which to operate. In a good location you could get it. Because location in business is everything, right? (Not for us, anymore).

And, there was that daunting business plan to draft, to prove your idea worthy and that you had all conceivable angles covered. (Paul O'Mahony humorously calls it "your first piece of fiction").  Not to mention-- you might have had to hire a market researcher to help with that. More expense, just to get started!

Then, there were of course the banks to consider. The biggest potential obstacle! Opening a business was a big fiscal commitment, even before you opened your doors and made your first sale. You had to come up with the goods, so to speak-- before buying the goods-- and waaay before your first sale.

Would you have lost a bit of sleep over all of those moving pieces? Um, yeah!

The emergence of print on demand as a most convenient and viable business model has changed the retail landscape, especially in the past decade or so. We’ve all seen shops within shopping malls with their Closing Down sales as a regular occurrence.

Department stores, these once lauded ‘Cathedrals of Commerce’, evolved to sharing the retail market with suburban shopping malls, and both have shrunk at pace. 

No doubt you might still enjoy meeting friends for a coffee or lunch and a ‘bit of shopping’ at your own local mall, and that’s always a great day out.

But – seen from the other side, when it comes to putting your business-smarts on, how confident would you really be opening a new store in a struggling mall, intent on making a good living out of it – never mind just ‘breaking even’? Just pause and reflect on that one!

Closing down sale in brick and mortar retail shop

Print on Demand or brick and mortar?

The beauty of print on demand, aside from that ‘being able to sleep at night’ thing, is that it is just as it sounds. Print.On.Demand.  

You neither buy nor hold any inventory. You do not need a physical premises with its dizzying array of associated running costs. Staff, heating, lighting, and cleaning, just for starters. 

No visit to the bank manager for that hefty business loan either (making fear of rejection on that score obsolete!).  You will be amazed at what little upfront costs are required to open an online retail business in Print on Demand.

When a customer orders an item from your online store, they pay immediately. You in turn put the order through to the relevant POD (Print on Demand) production and fulfilment partner, paying for the base cost of the item plus shipping (which the customer has already paid to you). 

The fulfilment partner then prints the requested design onto the desired product. After a few days (depending on the printing partner’s schedule), the item is then shipped to the customer.

So, you have received payment from the customer (your retail price for the item and its shipping cost), paid the supplier the base and shipping costs, and kept the difference as profit.

It’s a very flexible and fluid system – and one that you will come to love!

Man using laptop to work on his online business

Print on Demand = earn money from home!

POD doesn’t care about your artistic ability, age, nor previous experience. You just have to be prepared to learn, and put the work in. The rewards of a supplemental income will keep you engaged and expand your business. Consider it ‘Adult Education’. It's never too late to get started! Sound good? 

No Need to Store Inventory with Print on Demand

We’ve already touched on this one, in that you do not need to put funds upfront for bulk wholesale orders. Thus, saving yourself thousands of dollars of gambling with the bank’s money.

The trickiest thing about the old retail model is that you never knew how much-- or indeed even if any particular item would sell enough to cover your initial costs. The stock could sit indefinitely in your storage place of choice, be it basement, shed, garage or commercial unit. And then you had the added worries concerning damp, pests, fire, flood and theft of your precious cargo.

I remember a multilevel marketing scheme (MLM for short) of a few decades ago, that will remain nameless-- but was very popular at the time. My mother was recruited by a friend of hers, and began this enterprise with the hopes of ultimately making a salary-replacing income stream.

I’ll never forget the scene of filled-to-the- brim boxes piled in our basement, sitting in silent reproach as they waited for demand to deplete them. And they waited. I think you know how this story goes.

She was left with an abundance of purchased stock, sitting there like so much dead money. With everything from toothpaste to vitamins to granola bars. It broke my heart to watch.  Mom, I love you for trying. And-- thanks for the free granola bars! You taught me how to laugh in the face of a challenge.

Boxes of merchandise awaiting sale

POD means no upfront stock purchases!

Thanks to the golden age of the internet, you now do not have to have bought nor handled the stock that you sell in your online business. It exists only at your printing partner’s warehouse, becoming real only when you send them your design. In effect, your inventory is digital. This is nothing short of revolutionary.

The Entire Print on Demand Process is Automated

Print on Demand (POD) fits the dropshipping business model. Sometimes, these terms may be used interchangeably. But they can mean different things, depending on what’s being offered to the customer.

What is the definition of dropshipping? Dropshipping is a business model where e-commerce sellers do not keep goods in stock. They simply act as a mediary between the supplier and the customer.

Dropshipping is a method of running an online retail business without having to buy or store inventory. Instead, when a customer purchases an item from your POD store, you purchase that item from a wholesaler/printer and have it shipped directly to the customer's door.

Diagram of the dropshipping process

POD Dropshipping model:  Follow the money

We have already covered the benefits of not paying upfront for stock or storing it. Let’s turn our attention to the automation side.

You will have a selling platform from which you’ll present and sell your (virtual) items. There are several of these platforms, with the most popular being Shopify, Etsy, Amazon, eBay, and Redbubble.

Your printing partner – let’s say for example, Printful, will have a catalogue of their product offerings. These catalogues are usually extensive, with some seasonal additions. The items are too numerous to list here, but you can take a sneak peek on their website: https://www.printful.com.

Go to the ‘Catalogue’ tab and you’ll see just how varied their inventory is.  This will give you all kinds of ideas of the merchandise that you would like to offer your customers.

The key to working with your print and fulfilment providers is integration. What this means is that once you open an account with them, you’ll be prompted to Connect Your Shop. You simply then click on the appropriate button that matches your store’s platform, and voila – you can start loading your shop’s virtual windows with whatever products fit your niche and purpose.

Sometimes, though rarely, a production partner may not be able to connect automatically, and they’ll request an API code from your store’s backend to link the two together. This is more straightforward than it sounds – and you’d be given clear instructions in their FAQs or on-page to do this.

It really is as simple as copy/paste and save! But again, you may never run into this as most partners are point-and-click integration nowadays. Everything is becoming more and more seamless to make it easier for sellers to get going and work effortlessly.

So, integration with production companies allows you to access, apply your design, and carry over draft products, all with the appropriate SKUs (Stock Keeping Units), product photos, descriptions, and shipping profiles. This forms the container of the listing in your shop on your chosen platform.

After you have reviewed and perfected your listing (perhaps by reviewing sales margins and expanding descriptions), it goes live-- meaning that it is published by you and becomes visible to your site visitors. It is no longer in draft state, but you can return and make edits as required, republishing your listing after changes.

Repeat this process with all of your store’s products as you build your store, and then, eventually—you’ll get your first sale! Something that you’ll always remember.

Woman happy after making first sale with online business

Print on Demand pays! 

What now, you ask? Again, integration comes to the rescue. It will pull in your order automatically and charge your credit or debit card for the base cost of any item(s), plus the appropriate shipping charges. In the meantime, your customer has paid you. See how that works?

There are instances in which you would not want automatic fulfilment, and that involves custom orders. Say that you offer a mug-- with a custom, or personalized message to be chosen by the customer. There is therefore no print-ready slogan or image on your product listing linked back to the source (the printing and fulfillment company’s warehouse). In this case, the customer uploads their chosen design to you to complete the transaction. And, you have sold a mug. Congratulations!

But, remember – the production company doesn’t yet have the information that it needs, that being the specific design ordered by the customer. In this case you would keep back custom orders for manual fulfilment.

Then, you promptly pass on the design to production via a portal on their website before an item hits the actual production line. You may have a few hours’ grace, but the best practice is to do it right away-- before you forget, and it becomes a bit messy to fix!

Plus, manual orders usually add a day or two to production as they must be approved, and you don’t want to slow this down even more, needlessly.

Finally, the production and fulfilment company will ship your product directly to the customer. And the cycle is completed. Nothing to do now but get ready to rinse and repeat this whole process!

More Printing Partners Now Fulfil Globally

This one is very straightforward. With increasing competition in the market, printing companies want to make your online selling experience even easier. They are vying for your business and value your working relationship. And we couldn’t be happier about that! Of course, they are also expanding their own bottom line by serving up efficiency.  It's just nice when everybody wins.

Here is a list of just a few POD companies and their global production/fulfillment sites (aside from the United States):

  • Printful: Spain, Latvia, United Kingdom
  • Printify: Australia, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, Poland,
    United Kingdom
  • Gelato: 33 Countries! Including the United Kingdom
  • Gooten:United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico, Italy, Korea, Australia

Sometimes, each location will be product-specific, for instance phone cases only are printed and dispatched from a certain location, and sweatshirts from another. You’d have to research the specifics of each when deciding which print provider to use.

Think Big T Shirt ecommerce

The POD process is easy to scale

You Can Monetize Your Time and Creativity

Inspiration is all around us. It is in songs, social and mainstream media, art, and our surroundings –by no means an exhaustive list!

One of the best things about this business of POD is that it can be a creative outlet for you – all the while allowing you to make money online. That is time well spent!

Your creativity is only limited by your imagination. And, like a muscle – creativity—and in tandem an understanding of what sells can definitely be developed. You may even wish to start carrying a small notebook, or make notes in your phone, when inspiration strikes, as it often does—from anywhere.

Broadly speaking, you are best to focus on ideas and activities that have somewhat of a universal appeal, albeit in niches. You will find your audience by catering to those interests. For instance, consider what might be ‘in-jokes’ with the golfing set, or with any other sports or hobbies. That is a great starting point.

Family and relationships is another sure-fire winner category. Just consider: birthdays, engagements, weddings, anniversaries, births and adoptions, and graduations etc. These are termed evergreen themes or niches. The family and relationship category also lends itself exceptionally well to personalization, and you can charge a little more for that extra step in the production process.

And, we know that people definitely love their pets! And most often, they want to show their allegiance to their favourite breeds. There, you have built-in niches to explore. And it’s another great avenue by which to offer personalized products to your customers. Food bowls, mats, blankets and bandanas are just a few of the possibilities that pet lovers will eagerly seek out and buy.

A word about trends:  We always recommend steering clear of jumping on the bandwagons of any trademarked or copyrighted materials, such as movies, sports franchises, or books and the like.

You might think that it’s worth the risk to capitalize on themes that people are buying in droves. You might be very tempted to latch onto it – even for a short while-- especially if you see other people who have listed those types of designs in their own shops. They just haven't been caught up with yet.  Let them risk it!

Please know that it is not worth the risk of being chased by legal entities for copyright infringement. You do not want your store shut down by the platform (at the very least), nor expensive legal bills dropping when all you wanted to do was to make money online, not lose your life savings.  

Also, it’s fundamentally not cool to steal somebody else’s work for profit. Just don’t do it!

So, always exercise your own creativity, or else buy the commercial rights to images and fonts via subscription sites. Many are reasonably priced, and you'll have precious peace of mind when putting work into the public domain.  We'll talk about this form of outsourcing in future posts, and how it can help you develop your brand's image and offerings.

Woman happily working on her online business

POD creativity at work!

We hope that this has given you a good general introduction to the world of Print on Demand, what is involved, and its possibilities. If you have a computer, a Wi-Fi connection, and the desire and focus to learn while you earn, creating your own online business – you are good to go! 

We look forward to assisting you as you venture into the POD space, and will provide further learning on our weekly blogposts.

Nothing to do now, but get in the game!  

Let's do this!

Dani x