The print-on-demand wave is hitting everyone’s shores, says Marshall Atkinson. He looks at what you need to do to take advantage of this tsunami of opportunities

Something has been happening in this industry for a few years now, and with the proliferation and boomtown growth of online stores it is something for decorators to seriously consider. What am I talking about? Print-on-demand, of course.

In manufacturing there has always been a need for ‘just-in-time’ methodologies to reduce cost and labour, and move things through the funnel faster. The explosion of the notion of printing on demand has seen this type of idea take hold and, for many, it is a new main business focus.

This article will take an approach in two different directions. The first will explore companies that use print-on-demand services, and the second will focus on the shops that do the print-on-demand fulfilment.

Print-on-demand customers

One of the interesting side effects of the Covid-19 pandemic is that plenty of people either lost their jobs or, due to furloughs or reduced hours, just weren’t working as much and so sought ways to create a side hustle to get them through, or wanted to start a new business. Here’s where online store platforms such as Shopify and Etsy excel. Virtually anyone can create a store selling merchandise and make money. All you need is some basic marketing chops and some creative ideas to bring your new business to life.

These are the folks that need the decoration services. On Black Friday alone, sales on the Shopify stores platform were US$2.4 billion. That’s good anytime, but during a pandemic it is absolutely awe-inspiring. Sure, a chunk of these sales was produced by the shops that set up the stores, but a lion’s share of the work went to contract print-on-demand decorators to fulfil these orders.

Technology and connectivity

Unless the online store owner already has a relationship with a contract decorator, the majority of these orders were funnelled through technology applications such as Gooten, Printful, Printify, Teelaunch, and MerchLoop, to name but a few.

These tech companies have the relationships for the production, shipping and fulfilment end of the work. Most ship any order within two to five business days depending on the time of year and service level agreement. The advantage for the online store owner is that they obviously don’t have to touch any of the orders. Ever. This means that more people can build either direct or passive income streams without having to actually do the manufacturing end of the apparel decoration. It is simply handed off to a trusted partner to fulfil.

Building the brand

What makes the print-on-demand craze so intriguing is that many of the fulfilment providers are able to assist in making the online store owner look
incredibly professional.

The orders can be printed and shipped all under the online store brand. Logos, packaging and branded packing lists can be included with each shipment. This is important because with online stores, creating a unique and delightful experience is a great way to build a customer base that keeps coming back for new designs or fun offerings in the future. Who doesn’t want repeat customers, right?

New and fresh designs, coupled with active drip-marketing strategies are great ways to build a reliable customer base that wants the next brilliant creative idea from the online store.

Print-on-demand fulfilment business

On the other side of this coin are the shops that do the fulfilment work. These usually are not the run-of-the-mill contract players, but shops that have invested heavily in workflow processes, technology, and digital print production. Literally thousands of orders a day are processed, printed, and shipped out the door. The shops doing this work are constantly being evaluated on quality, efficiency, and error rates. Too many mistakes can cost a once-solid partnership with an online fulfilment provider, so great care is taken to minimise challenges.

Print-on-demand workflow

The process starts with the technology that allows for thousands of orders to be placed into the contractor’s system automatically without any manual data entry.

Everything is seamless and usually paperless at this level. Touchscreen workstations and hand-held tablets are synced to the system, and employees are able to update their piece of the workload constantly. Inventory is picked, and a small barcode sticker is placed on the garment that identifies the order and design to be printed. Each shirt is stacked up on carts with other garments for orders. As the garments are picked and the barcodes are added, the system is updated as to the progress.

Then the garments are staged in production for digital printing. Here’s where the shop starts the pretreatment step, if needed. Again, the barcode is scanned and the system updated. This allows the pretreatment to be only applied in the specific area, like a left chest, for example. Afterwards, the stacks are moved to the digital printers. The barcode is scanned for each shirt and the details of the order and design appear on the printer monitor. The garment is placed correctly on the platen and the shirt is printed. With the scan the system is updated again.

Depending on the digital printing equipment used, it is common for the print department to use ‘pods’ of several direct-to-garment printers per dryer. This allows for maximum output and cost efficiency. At the end of the dryer, staff members scan the barcode, and the system is updated and a shipping label is printed for packaging. If the order has more than one shirt, the garment is placed in a bin for holding until the remaining items are produced, and then everything will ship together. Any special instructions, packaging or inserts are handled at this end based on the information that appears when the barcode is scanned.

When the order is shipped, the system is updated and any tracking information included. Most of the tech platforms are synced to the system so that their customer receives the tracking information automatically.

Where print-on-demand is going

So, do you need a Shopify or Etsy store, technology partner, or other gadgetry to succeed with print-on-demand? Actually, no. You can easily compete and do this with a simple online store on your webpage, and even use heat transfers or embroidery for the production.

The idea here is that the garments are being decorated as the orders come in. This eliminates the need to overproduce inventory that isn’t necessary, and keeps the end customer happier as they get their order quickly. If the workflow is built right, and the correct processes are in place, this can represent a big benefit to the shop.

An interesting sidebar to the fulfilment centre’s needs is that some shops are now making more money on the fulfilment and shipping end of the production than they are on the decoration. This is due to the personalisation and complexity of managing an overwhelming wave of orders. Customers are willing to pay these fees as it is actually cheaper to have the decorator handle it than it is to have a distribution centre send out the orders themselves.

Are you ready to jump into the print-on-demand movement? Think about how you can add a new customer segment or help existing ones with this idea. Plan the work, and work the plan: 2021 is going to bring all sorts of new possibilities.

Marshall Atkinson

Marshall Atkinson is a production and efficiency expert for the decorated apparel industry, and the owner of Atkinson Consulting and co-founder of Shirt Lab, a sales and marketing education company, with Tom Rauen. He focuses on operational efficiency, continuous improvement, workflow strategy, business planning, employee motivation, management and sustainability.