Saturday, September 25, 2010

Pitfalls of PODs

When considering the pitfalls of using a Print-On-Demand service provider, it's important to identify the perspective we're approaching the question from. The first kind of customer is the shopper looking to self-create a product for themselves or as gifts. To these customers, POD services are flawless and offer an opportunity to create unique items at affordable prices. The second kind of customer is the designer/artist/photographer who sets up shop with a POD in order to deliver their creativity to the world. This is where we start to see the "Pitfalls of the POD", particularly when compared to the online t-shirt competition who are doing it all independent of POD services.


1. Quality of t-shirt printing isn't as good as screen-printed t-shirts
In some cases yes, and in others no.
I've bought a number of t-shirts in my 30 odd years and from my exposure to tee printing, this myth is debatable. POD printing on light apparel is on par to that seen on light shirts by screen printers; and in some cases I've received a tee bought online advertised as "screen printed" and I've been more than disappointed with the printing quality. It's true that POD printing on dark t-shirts is still being developed and there are some pitfalls to the process used; one being that in most cases you can not print colours directly onto dark apparel tees. That said, some POD services do offer some unique printing options. Skreened treats colours such as their Galaxy Blue (a nice rich, dark colour) and red as light apparel (Cafepress, for instance, do not), allowing for a nice black design printed directly onto the fabric with a great result. Some other PODs offer specialty types of printing processes with Spreadshirt and ShirtCity delivering flock (felt-like) treatments and more on tees.

2. Tee profits made using a POD aren't as good as when you're independent
On first glance, it would be easy to say that this is true. However...
If you consider the result of a sale which has reaped both a royalty (mark-up) and a referral payment (which is possible through PODs such as Zazzle - 15% referral; and Skreened - 10% referral), then factor in the time you've saved by having that POD service provider pack and ship the order, plus any added extras (ie, envelopes), then a final per tee profit may not be far away from what some independent online t-shirt businesses earn from a sale. You also do not have the risk of upfront costs nor will you ever need to write-off stock as a loss. That said, there is most definitely more selling at a lower profit margin seen when using a POD than matching profits to an independent sale. It is also difficult to match some of the competitive prices online whilst still making a profit.

3. T-Shirt print areas aren't as good as that available through screen printing
True. Print areas are restricted to POD specifications. However...
Not all t-shirt artwork/concepts require the same unlimited print area as screen printing and there are many shoppers who are not looking for a FULL t-shirt graphic. If you fit in that category, then this won't restrict the level of sales you can see online. You can also argue that POD print areas are actually very good with various options available to shopkeepers. For instance, if your design style is linear (panoramic in shape) then Zazzle's 14" width comes close to a maximum screen-print area anyway (without going over the seam that is); or if you can identify areas of your design that can be separated into 12.8" x 12.8" print areas you can use Spreadshirt's option to combine two artwork files to fill most of the t-shirt. Some PODs will also offer printing on the reverse side and/or printing on sleeves, giving designers the flexibility to build graphics all over the tee. However, you'll never be able to achieve a wrap-around tee print using a POD service.

4. The POD has the last say with YOUR customers
TRUE.... For the majority of POD services.
Consider the phrases "to have the last say" and "you're only as good as your last job" - there is something to those statements. All the effort shopkeepers put into making an online sale is devalued once the customer receives their order in envelopes branded by the POD, accompanied by promotional material for that particular service provider. This is the biggest pitfall I see when using a POD, for in the final moments of a sale (or even a giveaway) your customers will always read or see something relating the POD and not to your store. There are exceptions, with Spreadshirt providing unmarked packaging plus shopkeeper invoices when you pay for their premium service. Printfection is another POD who will ship items to your customers in unmarked packaging.

Above: Examples of POD packaging & extras.
Photos from Visit the website to view other examples.

I believe the issue is a continuation of from where the POD came - humble beginnings, where companies such as Cafepress started with just one tee, two mugs and a mousepad (not unlike a print-on-demand store set up in a mall). There was a necessity to promote themselves and they did it well. As those frontier PODs expanded and the landscape changed, they simply continued to operate as before; leaving us with the problems shopkeepers find themselves with today. How does one get a POD to change when they're hand isn't being forced to do so (we need a POD union! The IBPU - International Brotherhood of Pod Users!). It will be interesting to see what other PODs will offer in regards to this aspect of their service, and as a Facebook fan of ours, Rick London, stated when we shared the post How to Market your Brand - 9 Marketing Tips and Ideas, "the first POD on the planet to truly co-brand will become the next Bill Gates (and I mean it). Artists/creators are becoming more savvy; understand the importance of follow up with customers, etc and it is simply impossible with any POD".

As a user of POD services, I feel that a compromise would be a great step forward and a gesture that would show shopkeepers that they are valued. It's clear that databases/back-end systems are constantly becoming more sophisticated, so why can't the POD set their system to identify: a) a "marketplace" sale which then gets processed as per usual in all the branding glory the POD wishes to use; and b) a shop and/or referred sale which then gets processed as a shop sale which is shipped to the customer in unmarked packaging with an invoice that notes the name of the store/brand (at a minimum). I'd have no issue with the POD including a notation that "the t-shirt was printed and processed by POD Company Name on behalf of Shopkeeper Name". That would be a real partnership, which is exactly what this should be viewed as. In all my time in the graphic design industry working with printers on reports, brochures, banners etcetera, I've never seen a printer send out the finished product with a marketing brochure about their services. In fact, as a client of the printer you can often send your own labels for shipping boxes, for without YOUR client customer needing what you have to offer, you wouldn't need the printer (who would find themselves with one less paying job).

There are some tricks you can try to reduce the impact of the branding problem. Right now GritFX have printed up some postcards (branded on the reverse with our details and sans any POD reference) which we then pack and ship as giveaways. You could do the same with buttons which can be printed in bulk at a reasonable price. When running a tee giveaway you can have the tee printed and shipped to yourself and then re-ship it. However, when thinking about this you'll have to judge if the added expense (and time) is worth the effect and possible result. Using the POD "gift message" options are also another way to reach out to your winning fan and re-iterate your brand and name - and if you have your own domain, make sure you add your URL at the bottom of the message. These may help with your marketing and can reduce the problem, however it doesn't eliminate it and when I look to the 10 or so giveaways I've run since GritFX was established in 2008, we've had more than one fan drop the POD service provider's name when thanking "us" or mentioning their win online... and I don't blame them! If I too wasn't familiar with the POD/Shopkeeper relationship, I'd probably thank them also.

On that note, I'd like to close out this post with a diagram that shows just how problematic this can be (using the running of a tee giveaway as a scenario). The POD receives their profit AND they receive a thankyou!!! Say what!!? You're trippin'!! No. It happens...

Pitfall of POD - they have the last say with YOUR customer!

Related post: "Which POD Get's Your Nod"

Created By: Amanda Vare "Manz", GritFX, Movies, TV, and Pop Culture Tshirts


  1. Great post. I really like the idea of "This T-shirt (or item) was printed and processed from POD on behalf of shopkeeper".

  2. After speaking to peers that use a POD vs myself who prints as an independent, there seems to be ALMOST a good balance of good and bad between the both of them.

    There definitely needs to be some give and take between the POD and the shopkeeper to make everyone happy.

    Great post!

  3. Thanks Valerie. It seemed like a simple compromise to me - glad you agree :)

    @ Kelly... it's true. Was also my intent to keep this post as fair and balanced as possible. There's most definitely pitfalls but also valid reasons to use PODs. I'd have zero complaints if POD branding was reconsidered.

  4. Excellent post. Over the last couple years, as I've gained some traction, I see myself wishing I could pull away from the dependency on PODs.

    However, I'm not going LeBron here. PODs have made me what I am and for that I am ever thankful. (Of course, my peers deserve half the credit, too.) I have low overhead (save CafePress fees), no inventory to manage, free space to display my work with as much customization as I can muster with my rusty HTML skills and an audience that is finding my work through all the designs that are out there in a POD search results list.

    But this is as big as I want to get right now as this is not my full time gig. It's an individual experience and individual preference. Do I wish CafePress promoted my brand more in its shipping of orders from my gallery? Heck yeah! Do I want to be totally independent and have to do all the work myself? Maybe, someday.

    But think of it. Twenty years ago, you couldn't print your own work with the technology that was available in the market place. Independents probably had very high overhead. Ten years ago, PODs were just getting off the ground and the technology is getting better. Who knows? In another ten years, technology could be available, for an affordable price, to do your own printing in your own home.

    To bridge that decade gap, it would be nice if PODs offered a way to utilize your own labelling and branding for orders from your shops. It is possible. My 9-5 job offers customer centric packaging and private labelling all over the world. What those kinds of services will do to the compensation structure for designers could be negative in terms of profit but the margin might be able to handle if you can get your name on the customer's mind when they answer the all important question, "Where did you get that shirt?"

  5. That's one amazing reply Mongo!
    Reading over your comment made me realise there is actually a third kind of POD customer - the designer who wants to sell online without doing a thing past the design process... to them, they'd want the POD promoting the marketplace as much as possible!

    Appreciate you taking the time to share your views. You touched on a number of great points... wrote your own mini post :)


  6. Hey Manz,

    Great article. It's great to hear what our power users are currently concerned with. Co-branding is certainly an area where we can improve. It seems to be a matter of matching up our set of concerns (keep people coming back, keeping confusion to a minimum, web development and priorities) and the shopkeepers set of concerns.

    Speaking for Skreened, we started by imagining a shopkeeper more like Mongo describes. Someone who is excited about uploading some graphics, sending some friends over and collecting payments - and for the most part, that remains our user base.

    For entrepreneurs who are looking to build a strong and recognizable brand from POD sites, let me be one of the first to admit, it might not be the best way to go.

    Building a great brand requires tremendous resource and control over every aspect of the customer's experience. I think POD services, in some ways, are a niche market to a certain type of designer.

    But with that said, I'm super supportive of people's entrepreneurial journeys and I'd encourage anyone who is passionate about building a solid brand and company to do it!

    It's a ton of work, and it can take a substantial up-front investment to deal with both the expected and unexpected, but it's a journey on which you'll likely learn a lot about yourself and maybe even strike it rich.

  7. Hi Daniel,
    What an honour it is to have you reply with such a detailed point of view of the POD proprietor... thank you! As a Skreened shopkeeper it means more than I can say.

    I love the forthrightness to point 3. There are definitely battles other than POD packaging and delivery of product. That said, some changes would aid us in our efforts.

    I think there are two kinds of designers using the POD - one who relies on the POD for ALL sales; and those who spend countless hours promoting... like myself. A large part of the appeal for myself (and I imagine for others like Mongo) is that we can offer a large inventory of designs, on more than one product. That is one of the amazing opportunities that the POD business structure brings!! I truly believe that some co-branding would go a long way in keeping these designers happy and increasing the numbers who use POD services.

  8. And in here is the new POD business model which I wish the bigger companies would pick up on. The power users, such as the folks here, generate a fair about of search traffic through their own efforts, yet the POD companies model still assumes they have 99% of the converted sales through their own methods. I can say from my own experience this is not the case at all. Although the POD I use does allow me to print my name on the receipt, I do not get to do any quality checking and I have no way to apply labels. Similar to others I have started to apply my own labels to give-aways, at least get the website name out their a bit. But I would certainly pay more for a label service. I do want to point out a middle ground however, which some companies use I have seen, which is to use POD as a provider and print standing inventory in small batches. This is a risk and an investment, but it allows to ship tees with a personal touch. All and all I think there is an opportunity here for POD's to support their power users, hope they think the same way!

  9. heyy manz,

    thanks for this article, and sorry for the late response (I've actually read this post beginning of this week, but just now I find time to respond a bit more in depth)

    the "white label issue" is an ongoing hot topic, for both our partners and for us at Spreadshirt, it's a big challenge to get it done and its also a critical issue for our success.

    I like the idea of the "technical processed by", which is sort of the way we see ourselves. we actually come from this side of the business -- we started as a platform for shoppartners, we always wanted to build a service for people who'd sell their ideas and creativity online to others. And this is how we usually act: to keep it simple we rather use completely unbranded inserts (for our endcustomers' orders too) or don't add anything to our orders. also, we enable our shoppartners to customize their shops (e.g. with their own CSS or the API) to get a completely own look & feel. and as you mentioned, we allow to add own logos to invoices.

    end of the shameless plug ;) of course there are technical and legal limitations, and as the Spreadshirt "brand guy" I think there is also some risk .. for both your and our success, which is why I'd like to share some insights with you:

    1. our shops have a very broad CVR range: great brands, solid communities, that use our platform for merchandising have a better conversion than a lot of our "standard" partners. but then, sometimes "standard" partners (with a Spreadshirt logo etc.) have a better CVR than a white label partner. -> when we examined this further, we saw that our brand, and some of the credentials (e.g. the "trusted shops" label that we use in Europe) can raise the trust factor and help you (as a white label partner) selling, too. Of course we don't want to overbrand it and push you aside, but we know our brand and our reputation can help you selling, too.

    2. With a range of the partnerships with bigger companies, they actively ask us to put our logo/brand in their shop and communication, since they see the benefits and take us as a trusted & reliable brand for POD.

    3. that said: of course "Spreadshirt is taking over my customer" is a point that we hear often and take seriously -- but in fact, it's been a low risk so far: only 3.6 % of our customers who ordered at Spreadshirt (directly) ordered from a (standard/premium) partner before. which is the main reason why we think both our direct to consumers and our partner business can go hand in hand.

    So yes, it's sometimes a difficult relationship, e.g. when you have special requests where we sometimes need to take a more global look at the benefit for the "average" partner and customer .. and we also may be a better platform for some partners than for others -- but we know "where we come from" and we have no motivation to compete in every niche with our partners, who usually are much closer to their customers and do a better job with maketing to their target group than we do anyway.

    Thanks again for the great discussion and cheers from Germany,


  10. Thanks for the article, and interesting posts that followed. I'm POD publisher (having spent 20 years in b2b publishing), and have been working with a number of graphic artists worldwide to launch into the POD merchandising/T-shirt business, so this article was extremely useful!

  11. Does having someone else's brand stench on it have anything to do with low sales? I haven't made any sales at red bubble, would that be the case if I had printed them under my own brand name? Do I need to tell more people about my stuff, or is it just not any good to begin with. It's all very depressing, and confusing to me.