To sell T-shirts online, you need to have a strong niche and unique designs that will separate your business from the competition. You will also need to select a production method, sales platform, and market your business. But, there’s plenty of opportunity for success. Online T-shirt sales brought in $441 million in revenue in 2017.
Here’s how to start a T-shirt business online in five steps:
1. Find an Opportunity
Finding a niche is critical to having a successful T-shirt business. By nature, T-shirts tend to look pretty similar; it’s hard to create a product that stands out. But that is exactly what you will need to do in order for shoppers to purchase from your store over other more established brands. In general, the T-shirt business is a saturated market. You need a clear vision of what you want your product to look like, who will buy it, and why it’s needed.
2. Create Eye-catching Designs
No matter how you plan to sell your T-shirts, having attractive designs are a must. Eye-catching designs are what will set your products apart from other T-shirt sellers. During the design process, it’s also helpful to choose a particular theme or image for your brand. This can include a set color scheme, fonts, or logo. Anything that will help make your business recognizable.
“Create a strong image for your business straight out. Pick your color scheme, design, logo, your business message, and so forth. Having a strong, professional branding is going to allow consumers to trust in your business and encourage them to invest in you. Hire a graphic designer if you don’t have a clue about this sort of thing. You need to invest in your business for others to invest in you.”
– Mike Sheety, Director, That Shirt
In addition to being eye-catching, your designs also have to be original. Some popular T-shirts feature famous characters and quotes. But that doesn’t mean they are free to use. Disney, in particular, is very strict about allowing outside companies using their characters or other trademarks. Comic books, superheroes, children’s shows, and literary quotes are all elements that are popular with customers but can get you into some serious trouble if you use them without proper permission.
Luckily, there are many inexpensive ways to brainstorm original designs:
- Hiring a freelance designer: If you’re not artistically inclined or not sure how to start, consider hiring an affordable freelancer; Sites like Fiverr and Upwork help you hire experienced designers for individual projects.
- Using a free mock-up generator: Tools like Placeit are great for uploading your designs onto real photos so you have product lifestyle shots; other services like Printful let you mock up basic designs.
- Crowdsourcing ideas: If you are planning on marketing products to your social media followers, ask them what types of designs they would be most interested in; you’ll get some great input and be confident that your final T-shirt product will be a hit.
- Working directly with a wholesaler: Many wholesalers that offer custom printing also have in-house graphic teams that will help you create your designs, often for free.
“Be original and don’t copy others’ designs. A lot of T-shirt designs are covered by federal copyright protection, and new T-shirt sellers think they can print the same designs with no issues. This is certainly not the case. A lot of hard work really does go into designing T-shirts. It’s not as simple as finding popular designs and reprinting them. You have to create your own designs and make sure they’re not infringing on a copyright or trademark.”
– Andrea Sager, Owner, Andrea Sager Law PLLC
3. Choose Which Type of T-shirt Business You Want
There are plenty of traditional and non-traditional options when it comes to selling T-shirts online, and even offline. If you want to start selling right away and for no upfront cost, you can use a site like Teespring or SunFrog to simply create designs and collect profits every time one of your designs sells on their site. Or if you’re looking to create a full-on T-shirt empire, you can build your own business from the ground up.
Types of Online T-shirt Businesses
|Sell Via:||Best for:|
|T-shirt Sales Site||Individuals looking for passive income through low-maintenance sales|
|Ecommerce Site||Those wanting to create a branded shopping experience with the potential to expand|
|Personal Blog||Established bloggers & influencers|
T-shirt Sales Sites
T-shirt sales sites are online platforms that let users create custom designs, which are then posted for sale on the site. Shoppers can purchase products from any number or combination of T-shirt designers. When the order is placed, the site produces the product and fulfills the order. The T-shirt designer (you) just sits back and collects a commission each time one of your designs is sold.
There are dozens of these sites available online, and they each function slightly differently in terms of requirements as well as how and when T-shirt designers get paid. Some operate more as a crowdfunding operation and only produce your designs once a certain number of pre-orders are made. Others will simply host your designs on your site as long as you want them without any minimum customer requirements.
Here are some popular T-shirt sales sites:
If you’re selling through one of these sites, there are a lot of steps you get to skip, such as upfront costs, dealing with in-house production or outsourcing manufacturing, handling shipping, and even navigating ecommerce platforms. You get to keep it simple and skip straight to marketing your business.
“One great way to start a T-shirt business without the overheads and having to fulfill your orders when you are just starting out is to consider print-on-demand merchandise services. These services provide tools to make it easy to choose from a range of different T-shirts and other apparel and add your designs to your own online store. This means you can spend more time marketing your new business and testing different creations and ideas without committing to bulk-sized orders. The only downside is that the profit margin will be much smaller, but once you have worked out your strategy and have tested designs, it’s easy to then migrate your business model to one that bulk orders designs instead.”
– David Alexander, Designer, Developer & Digital Marketer, Maze Press
Branded Ecommerce Sites
Creating an ecommerce site using a platform like Shopify, Squarespace, or Square is a relatively easy way to sell T-shirts online and have greater control over the website, marketing, and sales process than using a T-shirt sales site. I typically recommend Shopify for a simple ecommerce operation. But there are also a number of free ecommerce website builders available and other subscription ecommerce solutions.
Who Should Sell T-shirts Online With a Branded Ecommerce Site
While T-shirt sales sites are a great form of passive income, they are limiting in terms of the types of products you can sell, the presentation of your products, packaging, materials, and so on. If you want to have more creative and logistical control over your products, sell a variety of goods, and make higher sales margins (as opposed to passive design commissions), building your own website is a good option. But it comes with personal investments of both time and money.
Pros of Creating a T-shirt Website
There are many advantages to building your own ecommerce site, including:
- More control: Unlike T-shirt sales sites, you can customize your products down to the last detail, and have complete control over product descriptions, photos, branding, and pricing.
- Make higher sales margins: T-shirt sales sites are producing and shipping your product, so they take a higher percentage of the total sale. It’s true that there is less work on your part, but the potential for profits is also smaller because you’re receiving a smaller cut from each sale.
- Expand product lines: Having your own ecommerce site means you’re not limited to just T-shirts. You can sell anything.
- Multiple sales channels: You’re not limited to just selling on your website—you can also sell through social media apps like Facebook and Instagram, or even a local market.
“To start a successful T-shirt business, you’ll need to sell and advertise on many channels, including your own site, other marketplaces, and social media sites. Thus, it’s imperative you select a management system to be your hub, or central database, for your products and processes, which then is extensible or has existing apps and plug-ins to integrate with other marketplaces and social media sites. Evaluate the various platforms available, such as BigCommerce, Magento, and Shopify, then make your selection and don’t look back!”
– Bob Herman, Co-founder & COO, BloodyToe.co
Cons of Creating a T-shirt Website
There are also some downsides, or at least things to be aware of, to embarking on your solo ecommerce journey:
- Higher costs: Managing your own site requires using an ecommerce software platform, purchasing a web domain, sourcing your own products, managing shipping and order fulfillment, and any advertising costs.
- Bigger time commitment: You’ll be responsible for fulfilling all orders, updating your site, providing customer service, and managing your financials.
- More responsibility: Offering a product to customers is like making a promise; those who buy from you will expect a quality product in a timely manner and friendly, responsive customer service if they have any questions.
Creating a branded ecommerce site to sell your own T-shirts can be a simple process with the right tools. Shopify has an easy-to-use website builder, plus tons of plug-ins to help source, ship, and create products. With Shopify, you can also expand into social media sales and sell your products in-person with their mobile point-of-sale (POS) app. Shopify has everything you need to start an online T-shirt business at an affordable price. Visit Shopify to get started.
Selling T-shirts Through a Personal Blog
Maybe you just read through the last section on building an ecommerce site and thought, “Wait a minute, I already have a website!” Or maybe you have a sizeable social media following that you are looking to monetize by selling to them directly. If either (or both) are the case, then this section is for you.
If you already have a personal blog up and running, you’re more than halfway through the battle. No matter what topic you blog about, there’s an opportunity to make money through T-shirts. As we covered in Step 1, the most successful online T-shirt sellers cater to a specific niche. So, do you have a particular saying you use a lot? Fancy name for your blog? Logo? Catchphrase? Anything like that makes for a fun and unique T-shirt design.
When it comes to how you will actually sell the products on your blog, it depends on what website builder you are using. If your blog is on WordPress, BigCommerce has a new WordPress integration that makes adding ecommerce a smooth process. You manage the front end of your site on WordPress like usual, and BigCommerce hosts your catalog, order management, shipping, and payment processing on the back end. Visit BigCommerce to get started.
Sell T-shirts Online With Affiliate Marketing
If you are looking to monetize your social media followers instead of selling T-shirts directly through your blog, there are ways to make money with affiliate marketing sales. There are many affiliate marketplaces, but if you have a large social following, the easiest way is through a direct affiliate program with a top-tier online brand. Direct affiliate programs give you the advantage of brand recognition. Many of these programs are free to join and even offer lots of flexibility.
One popular program is Amazon’s Influencer program. If you’ve ever seen someone on social media with a link to their own Amazon Store, that’s what this is. Basically, you pick out the products you recommend (in this case, your favorite T-shirts), add them to your store, and earn money through qualified purchases.
Apparel items can earn up to a 7% commission. That’s nowhere near a traditional 50% retail markup, but considering all it takes is adding an Amazon link to your social bio, you really have nothing to lose. To learn more about Amazon’s Influencer program, read our guide on Amazon’s Affiliate Program.
4. Choose a T-shirt Production Method
Now that you have your concept and your sales channels ironed out, here comes the murkier process of choosing a T-shirt production method. There are essentially three main options you can choose from: making the T-shirts yourself by buying blanks in bulk and screen printing them; purchasing a large number of your custom T-shirts pre-made from a wholesaler or manufacturer; or you can use a print-on-demand (POD) service that will create and ship custom T-shirts for you as are they are ordered.
Each production method has its advantages and disadvantages. Printing the T-shirts yourself will allow for the highest profit per sale, but it is labor-intensive. Purchasing your T-shirts pre-made from a manufacturer or wholesaler will offer slightly smaller, but still great margins at the risk of having excess products. With both of these options, you are also responsible for shipping orders. Print-on-demand services are the most expensive option, but they require little action from you once it’s properly set up.
Screen printing is the most practical method for creating your own custom T-shirts at scale. Screen printing is a technique that uses a mesh screen to force-transfer ink onto a surface—in this case, T-shirts. Screen printing is the preferred technique because it allows for a vibrant, multi-color, and high-quality end result.
A semi-professional screen printing press costs several thousand dollars. It’s certainly an investment. But if you are serious about printing your own designs, doing it yourself will allow for the greatest sales markup. Plus, owning your own equipment means you can expand into new products, change designs, or even create custom orders.
Other than a screen printing press kit with stencils, ink, and so on, the next important product you will need to invest in is T-shirts. Since you are purchasing blanks, you can really save by purchasing in bulk for the best prices. Make sure you specifically source from a wholesaler or manufacturer to get the lowest prices.
Now that you have your T-shirt printing down, you also will need a process for shipping orders. You will need to purchase shipping supplies and choose a shipping company. But thanks to fulfillment companies like ShipBob, this doesn’t have to take much time out of designing and printing your shirts. ShipBob will stock, pack, and ship your shirts at the lowest possible price. They’ll even store ready-made shirts in their warehouse for you. Visit ShipBob to speak with a representative.
It’s definitely worth noting that producing your own custom T-shirts to fulfill orders is going to require space. You will need to set up a printer, have room for shirts to dry, and have an area dedicated to packing and shipping orders. Realistically consider your available space (and any potential roommates) before going too far down the in-house production road.
Tip: Heat transfer production methods are less expensive than screen printing, especially when it comes to upfront costs. But the quality and durability of the product come nowhere close to the quality of screen printing. If you are trying to build a brand, it’s better to invest in the higher-quality printing method.
Print-on-Demand T-shirt Services
Using a print-on-demand service is the same concept as selling your designs on a T-shirt sales site. But instead of hosting your design on a third-party website, print-on-demand services allow you to sell through your own site, keep your individual branding, and maintain appearances of a completely self-contained small business.
These businesses use a technique called drop-shipping, where the retailer passes customer orders through to their supplier, which handles fulfilling the order. Many drop-ship and print-on-demand suppliers will brand the order under the retailer, so customers are none the wiser that their product isn’t coming directly from the retailer.
Print-on-demand services are popular because they allow T-shirt businesses to skip the in-house production and screen printing that we covered above. Plus, you won’t have to deal with the hassle of shipping orders yourself. The downside is that drop-shipping companies typically charge higher rates than traditional wholesalers because they are providing as much service.
Printful is a popular print-on-demand service that integrates with most ecommerce platforms, so when customers place an order on your website, the order goes straight to Printful. It then prints your tees, fulfills your orders, and ships them to your customers. And if you’re testing out brand concepts or different tee designs, the POD option lets you do it risk-free. Visit Printful to sign up for free.
“A convenient way for starting a T-shirt business is to begin with Shopify and add a print-on-demand app to your store. Those drop-shipping companies take care of printing your T-shirt and shipping it directly to the customer when you receive a new order. There are several print-on-demand apps to choose from on Shopify, but the most popular ones that you should consider are Printful and Printify.”
– Hassan Alnassir, Founder & Owner, Premium Joy
Buy in Bulk From Manufacturers
Purchasing your custom T-shirts from a wholesaler or manufacturer is the middle-of-the-road option. The cost will be somewhere between printing your own T-shirts and using a drop-ship or print-on-demand company. You won’t have to worry about purchasing a screen printer, but you will still have to ship and fulfill orders yourself.
There are countless suppliers you can purchase custom T-shirts from. Many of them will even have their own art or graphic design department to help you create your designs for free. You can search for companies online via wholesale directories. Or visit apparel, gift, or general merchandise trade shows to see each company’s product in person and see their design work for yourself before committing.
5. Market Your T-shirt Business
Product marketing can be a tricky business. It’s also one element of selling T-shirts online that will forever be an ongoing process. There are many different elements that go into marketing a product. You have to consider pricing, paid and unpaid advertising strategies, branding, sales channels, and more.
Here are a few top areas of consideration when marketing your T-shirt business:
Price Your T-shirts Strategically
Price is one of the biggest factors when it comes to a shopper’s decision to purchase. Ff you want to dive into the basics, our guide on how to price a product walks through basic terminology like markups, profit margins, and keystone pricing.
One of the most common pricing strategies is psychological pricing. Ever notice how many price tags often end in 9? $9.99, $19.99, and $99.99 are all common promotional prices because they subconsciously tell the brain that you’re getting a good deal. Ending your price in odd numbers, especially nines, indicates a great deal. A $20 price tag and a $19.99 price tag are essentially the same. But one price is proven to be more effective than the other.
Also, be sure to scope out the prices of your competitors. You don’t need to have the least expensive prices, but you certainly shouldn’t have the most expensive prices either, especially when you are just starting your business. Having a mid-range price point and a high-quality custom product is a great way to build your brand.
Don’t Forget About Packaging
Creative packaging is essential for helping startup retailers stand out and develop their brand identity. Our article on creative packaging ideas outlines different providers, costs, and tips. Simple things like branded tissue paper or logo stickers can go a long way. If your packaging is pretty, customers are more likely to share their experience with your product online via an unboxing video or Instagram post.
“On-brand, attractive product packaging is essential. People choose to buy from small businesses over big box stores because they want that personal touch and connection. Show your customers you care and stand out from the crowd by putting a little extra time and effort into gift-wrapping your products. Plus, having unique packaging encourages customers to share on social media. Unboxing videos on Instagram are very popular, and can be great word-of-mouth marketing for your small business.”
– Taylor Mack, Online Bookstore Owner & Marketing Blogger
Consider Additional T-shirt Sales Channels
Once your business is up and running, consider using additional sales channels as marketing tools. Ideally, you will have a Facebook page for your business. Instead of just posting pictures of your shirts, you can actually create a catalog and sell your products through a Facebook Shop. You can also connect your product catalog and sell through Instagram Feed posts and Stories. If you use any kind of mainstream ecommerce platform, they likely have a tool or plug-in to help you manage this.
Another way to advertise your T-shirts is to literally take them to the street. Participate in local markets, pop-up shops, and community events to help spread awareness of your business. Even though you’re an ecommerce seller, you’re likely to gain a strong fan base of friends and neighbors in your town, which is not a bad way to start.
Start a T-shirt Subscription Service
One great online marketing strategy is to start a T-shirt of the month club. Platforms like Cratejoy make it easy to run a subscription service, providing both a marketplace to find new customers and the software to manage subscriptions. Your customers can subscribe to receive merchandise from you monthly. Visit Cratejoy to start a free 14-day trial today.
Use High-quality Product Photos
If you’re selling online, having high-quality product photos is a must. Luckily, you don’t need a professional or even fancy equipment to take quality pictures. Our product photo guide even shows you how to take great shots with your iPhone.
Other Business Considerations
If you are starting a T-shirt site, or really any kind of retail business, there are other general, yet important elements to consider. Things like having a mapped-out business plan, investing in the right tools, and protecting your business assets are critical to iron out while your business is still small, especially if you want to grow your business.
Build Out a Business Plan
If you’re looking to do anything more than just passively sell designs on T-shirt sales sites, it’s really important to map out an ecommerce business plan. This will cover all of your market research, sales channels, revenue projections, growth ideas, and long-term goals.
All modern ecommerce businesses start out online, but eventually open brick-and-mortar showrooms or sell products to other retailers. Now is the time to think about where you see the future of your T-shirt business and plan out what is needed to make that happen. If you are looking to take out any business loans or funding, having a business plan is usually a necessary step in the application process.
Invest in Software
We’ve already touched on the importance of having an ecommerce management platform. But you also need to consider how you will accept payments online. There are tons of options when it comes to selecting an ecommerce payment processor or merchant service provider. Many ecommerce platforms even have built-in payment processing.
As an online seller, you will also have to grapple with sales tax. As of 2018, online sellers are responsible for collecting and remitting state sales tax for almost all orders. The specific laws vary by each state and by how big your business is. It’s more important now than ever to invest in high-quality shipping and accounting information. QuickBooks is a popular and trusted accounting software for small businesses.
We’ve covered the three primary ways you can start selling T-shirts online. The easiest way to make passive income is through a T-shirt site. But you can make the most money by building your own ecommerce site and using a print-on-demand vendor, like Printful, to create T-shirts that sell in your own online store.
You’ll need to set up and maintain a website and handle your customer service, but they do the printing and shipping of orders for you. Again, with little to no upfront costs. If you decide to go with this plan, we recommend using Shopify to create your website. Visit Shopify for a free 14-day trial.