caps, tote bag and bottles all displaying branded print on colorful tradeshow desk

What is print on demand? Everything you need to know

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What is print-on-demand? Find the answer and dive into a booming market, growing at a staggering 25.3% annually, making it a hotbed of opportunity for savvy entrepreneurs.

Whether you’re an artist, author, influencer or budding business owner, this flexible, low-risk business model could be your ticket to success.

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know to start and scale your own print-on-demand business:

  • What print-on-demand is and how it works
  • The pros and cons of print-on-demand and why one would choose this business model over other options
  • Key professions that benefit from print-on-demand
  • Common print-on-demand use cases: exploring creativity, testing business ideas, creating limited-time offers
  • The most popular print-on-demand product categories: Apparel, home decor, accessories, stationery, printables
  • Key factors to consider when choosing a print-on-demand company to work with
  • The best print-on-demand sites—VistaPrint, Printify, Printful—their pros, cons and shipping options

What is print on demand?

Print on demand (POD) is a service where products, like t-shirts, mugs and books, are created only after someone clicks the “buy” button. The POD service provider handles all the production, packaging and shipment processes, while you get to collect the profits after covering the base cost of the service. 

This means you can run an e-commerce business without ever touching a single piece of inventory. Instead, items are produced and shipped directly to the customer, saving you from upfront costs and storage hassles.

purple reusable water bottle with colourful brand name printed on the front

How print-on-demand works

From the definition, it might seem like print-on-demand is a magic “make money” button, a money glitch in the universe. But it’s not. It’s just a minimal-risk, low-investment business model.

Here’s a breakdown of how exactly it works:

  1. Choose a platform: Your first step is to pick a POD service provider, for example, VistaPrint. Choose wisely as they’ll be your new best friends in the POD business.
  2. Create your designs: Unleash your inner artist using graphic design software like Adobe Illustrator, or keep things simple with platform tools such as VistaCreate.
  3. Create product listings online: Once your designs are ready to dazzle, upload them to your e-commerce site or the POD marketplace. Craft compelling product listings with SEO-optimized descriptions and high-quality images.
  4. Wait for a customer to place an order: Here’s where the magic happens. A customer browses your store, falls in love with a product, and places an order.
  5. Print and fulfill the order: Your POD provider jumps into action, printing your design onto the selected product. They handle all the nitty-gritty details of packaging and shipping, so you don’t have to.
  6. Get the payment and make profits: You pay the base cost to your POD provider for the production and shipping of the item. The difference between this cost and what the customer paid is your profit. 
  7. The customer receives the product: The final step—your customer receives their order, and you bask in the glory of another successful sale.

Print-on-demand is an exciting e-commerce business option, but there are some best practices to ensure your vision comes to life. Before kicking off your business, check out our guide to starting an e-commerce business.

Pros and cons of print-on-demand

But before you dive headfirst into the world of print-on-demand, you need to weigh the pros and cons (yes, there are some downsides to be aware of—it’s not all rainbows and cupcakes, despite what it might seem at first glance). At the end of the day, knowing the ins and outs of a business model is crucial before making any entrepreneurial moves.

Advantages of print-on-demand

The benefits of print-on-demand are numerous. Let’s look at the most prominent ones:

  • No costs and risks associated with inventory management: Say goodbye to the headaches of storing and tracking inventory. Everything’s handled for you by your POD services provider.
  • Automated fulfillment of orders: Forget the logistics nightmare. POD services take care of production, packaging and shipping.
  • Wide product variety: Since you already print products after the customers purchase them, you don’t have to limit yourself to specific items or styles. Enter various markets by offering a wide range of diverse products.
  • Flexibility: Experiment with new designs and products with minimal risk. If it doesn’t work out, no biggie!
  • Scalability: Grow your business at your own pace without worrying about inventory overflow.
  • Environmentally friendly approach to running a business: Only print what’s ordered, reducing waste and overproduction. Mother Earth will thank you.
  • Global reach: Tap into international markets with ease, thanks to the worldwide shipping options many POD service providers offer.
  • Low upfront costs: Print-on-demand model allows you to start a business without breaking the bank. You only pay for products once they’re ordered.

Drawbacks of print-on-demand

But there are a few drawbacks of print-on-demand you need to consider in order to make an informed decision. Mostly, the downsides of this business model come down to the increased dependence on POD providers, but there are a few other factors in the equation:

  • Higher per-unit cost: Each item costs more to produce than bulk printing, which can nibble at your profit margins.
  • Limited control over quality: You’re trusting your POD provider with production, which means you might have less say in the final product quality.
  • Potential for inconsistent branding: Variability in product quality and printing can lead to inconsistencies in branding.
  • Variable shipping times: Shipping times can be longer compared to bulk shipping, potentially affecting customer satisfaction.
  • Limited customization options: Some POD providers have restrictions on the types of products or printing techniques they offer, which can cramp your style.
  • Complex returns process: Dealing with returns and customer service can get tricky when a third party is involved, adding an extra layer of complexity to your operations.

Why choose print-on-demand over other options when starting a printing business?

With all the pros and cons laid out, print-on-demand stands out as a compelling choice for budding entrepreneurs seeking a low-risk, high-flexibility business model. It allows you to concentrate on your creativity and marketing efforts while the experts handle production and logistics. So, if you’re ready to transform your ideas into a thriving business, print-on-demand might just be your golden ticket.

Who can use print-on-demand services?

Print-on-demand is a pretty versatile business model that offers plenty of benefits and can support a range of businesses and entrepreneurs in their ventures.

Here are some of the key professions that can leverage print-on-demand to their advantage.

Artists and designers

If you’re an artist or designer, POD is your best friend. You can sell custom artwork on all kinds of products without shelling out for bulk printing. Think about it—your unique designs on t-shirts, mugs, posters and more, all without worrying about keeping stock.

Custom artwork on a t-shirt

Custom artwork on a t-shirt by Lazy

Check out our article about maximizing your reach with custom artist merch for more info and ideas.

Authors and publishers

For authors who self-publish their books and small publishers, print-on-demand is a game-changer. You can print books only when they’re ordered, cutting out the need for massive print runs and storage space. Plus, it gives you the flexibility to offer personalized editions without breaking the bank.

Animals Under the Bed, a print-on-demand art book by Meg Smiley

A print-on-demand art book by Meg Smiley; Source: Blurb

Influencers and content creators

If you’re an influencer or content creator, POD lets you cash in on your personal brand by selling custom merch to your followers.
Look at PewDiePie, for example. He uses POD to sell his custom hoodies and branded t-shirts to his fans. It’s an easy way to engage your audience and make some extra cash without a lot of fuss.

A screenshot of PewDiePie’s e-commerce website that sells print-on-demand merchandise

PewDiePie’s print-on-demand merch via PewDiePie Merch

E-commerce entrepreneurs

Finally, print-on-demand is a stellar option for people who want to start an e-commerce business. For those running e-commerce stores, POD allows them to expand the product range without the headache of inventory management.

Whether you’re starting a new brand or adding new items to your store, POD makes it simple to test out new ideas and scale your business.

Use cases for print-on-demand services

Print-on-demand lets you be agile and responsive to market trends, holidays and customer feedback. Whether you’re testing new ideas or creating special items for specific occasions, POD offers a smart, low-risk way to bring your creative visions to life.

Here are some common and some less conventional yet extremely smart and successful use cases for POD.

Print-on-demand for experimenting with creativity

Got a new design or concept you’re itching to try? With POD, you can experiment without the pressure of large print runs. Test out that funky new graphic or quirky slogan on a few products and see how your audience reacts. If it’s a hit, you can ramp up production. If not, no big deal—you didn’t invest a ton upfront.

Print-on-demand for testing a business idea

Thinking about launching a new product line? POD is perfect for gauging market interest with minimal investment. Whether it’s a new t-shirt design, custom mugs or quirky tote bags, you can test the waters without drowning in inventory costs. It’s a low-risk way to see if your idea has legs before going all in.

Print-on-demand for special items for holidays, events or limited-time offers

The beauty of POD is its flexibility. You can create unique items for holidays, special events (for example, items dedicated to large sports events or festivals) or limited-time offers without worrying about overproduction.

Limited-time beer dedicated to a sports event

Limited-time beer bottle design dedicated to a sports event by cynemes via 99designs by Vista

Check out our small business early holiday planning guide to learn more about seasonal marketing strategies and how you can use them to your advantage.

Quirky Christmas t-shirt design

Quirky Christmas t-shirt design by InQueen via 99designs by Vista

The most popular print-on-demand products

If you’re ready to jump into the print-on-demand market, the first step is deciding what products your business will sell.

Sure, one of the biggest perks of POD is its flexibility and wide product range. You can try out different products instead of sticking to just a few. But even with all that freedom, you’ve got to start somewhere before you can scale up and diversify.

When you’re just starting out, the best approach is to go with the most popular print-on-demand products, which are always… in demand!
According to a study by Grand View Research, the most popular print-on-demand categories in the US are apparel, home decor, drinkware and accessories.

A pie chart showcasing the US print-on-demand market shares by product category

US print-on-demand market shares by product category; Source: Grand View Research

T-shirts and apparel

According to Grand View Research, the apparel print-on-demand market dominated in the US in 2022, with the biggest market share of 39.7%. The reason behind this is the rapid growth of fashion’s positions in the e-commerce space.

There’s already plenty of demand for personalized apparel items, and the figures only continue to grow. According to studies, the global market size is estimated to reach USD 161.85 billion by 2032, exhibiting a compound annual growth rate of 10.9% during the period from 2021 to 2023.

So, if you’re looking for a product category to definitely add to your print-on-demand product range, apparel in general and custom t-shirts in particular (global market size of USD 4.31 billion in 2022) are strong candidates.

Learn more about starting a t-shirt printing business in our ultimate step-by-step guide.

Custom t-shirt design

Custom t-shirt design by bayuRIP via 99designs by Vista

Here are some other apparel products you should consider for your print-on-demand business:

Co-ord for fitness

Fitness co-ord custom pattern design by “Bali Bird” via 99designs by Vista

Home decor items

The next big print-on-demand product category everyone wants a piece of is home decor items. And there’s a good reason why so many print-on-demand businesses decide to tap into this niche—the product range of home decor pieces is very vast, with lots of traditional and obscure things to choose from and offer to customers.

Custom pillows

Custom pillows via VistaPrint

From functional to merely decorative, this product category includes:

Custom coaster with the photo of a dog

Custom photo coaster via VistaPrint

Accessories

The next product category that features a large diversity of items is accessories. From custom fashion accessories like scarves, socks and jewelry to personalized tech accessories like phone cases and laptop skins and sleeves, there’s lots to choose from.

Custom phone cases with watermelon and cheetah prints

Custom phone cases via VistaPrint

Socks with a custom design

Custom socks designs by InQueen via 99designs by Vista

Stationery and office supplies

Even in our increasingly digital world where phones and laptops dominate for notes and calendars, custom stationery still tops the list of popular print-on-demand products.

Custom leather journal

Custom faux leather journal via VistaPrint

Custom notebook

Custom notebooks via VistaPrint

So, when shortlisting the products to offer at your print-on-demand store, make sure to add plenty of office supplies. For example:

Printables (posters, art prints and more)

Printables like posters and art prints are a hot commodity in the print-on-demand world. These low-cost items are an easy sell—people don’t need to think twice about purchasing them.

With the right marketing, you can boost your sales volume significantly. Whether it’s trendy wall art, inspirational quotes or quirky illustrations, printables are a great way to attract customers and keep your cash register ringing.

Custom artwork on a poster

Custom poster with artwork by Lazy

Check out our article if you’re looking for trendy poster design ideas for your print-on-demand business. Then, read our ultimate guide to poster design to get started with your project.

How to choose a print-on-demand provider

The success of your print-on-demand business hinges significantly on the provider you choose to work with. Their product quality, shipping reliability and overall service can make or break your business. If they deliver high-quality products on time, your customers will be thrilled. If they don’t, you’ll be dealing with complaints and returns, which can quickly sink your reputation.

Selecting the right vendor requires a lot of responsibility and attention to detail. You can’t just pick the first provider you come across. You need to dig deep and assess their offerings, service quality and reliability.

With many print-on-demand service providers available on the market, it might seem overwhelming. But don’t worry, we’re here to help you navigate this crucial decision.

Factors to consider when choosing a print-on-demand provider

Examine the product range of the print-on-demand supplier

When choosing a print-on-demand supplier, the first thing to examine is their product range. Look for a provider that offers a wide variety of products, including the types of items you plan to sell, such as apparel, home decor and accessories. The more variety they offer, the more opportunities you have to expand your product line and attract a diverse customer base.

Range of categories and products on VistaPrint

Range of categories and products on VistaPrint

Additionally, check if they provide different sizes, colors and customization options. Offering these options can cater to diverse customer preferences, enhancing their shopping experience and setting your store apart from the competition.

Assess the quality of products offered by the print-on-demand provider

Quality is key when it comes to choosing a print-on-demand provider. Start by ordering samples of their products to assess print quality, material and durability. This firsthand experience will give you a clear idea of what your customers can expect.

Also, read customer reviews and testimonials to gauge product quality and consistency.

Customer reviews

Source: DepositPhotos 

By the way, according to statistics, 25% of consumers worldwide are willing to pay a higher price for sustainable products, and this figure jumps to 73% for Millennials and Gen Z. With this in mind, pay attention to the sustainability and eco-friendliness of the service providers.

Running a background check to ensure they’re eco-friendly and sustainable can appeal to a growing market of environmentally conscious consumers, potentially boosting your business’s appeal and profitability.

Consider the printing technology

When evaluating a print-on-demand provider, ensure they use high-quality printing methods like Direct-to-Garment (DTG), screen printing or sublimation, depending on your needs. Also, verify that their technology delivers consistent results across multiple orders to maintain product quality and customer satisfaction.

Pay attention to the fulfillment and shipping of products

Testing and assessing shipment in advance is crucial, as it directly impacts your pricing model and the value you offer to your customers. Evaluate the provider’s average fulfillment speed—how quickly they process and ship orders. Faster fulfillment can enhance customer satisfaction and keep your business competitive.

Shipping key on the keyboard

Source: Depositphotos

Look for providers that offer multiple shipping options, including international shipping if you plan to sell globally. Diverse shipping options cater to different customer needs and broaden your market reach. Additionally, ensure they provide tracking information for orders. This transparency builds trust with your customers and helps manage their expectations.

Look for integration with E-commerce platforms

If you don’t have experience running an e-commerce business and want to avoid spending extra cash on custom website development, look for a print-on-demand service that offers easy integration with e-commerce platforms.

Choose a provider that seamlessly integrates with your preferred e-commerce platform, such as Shopify, WooCommerce or Etsy. This will simplify the process of adding and managing products in your online store.

Ensure the integration process is user-friendly and that the provider offers support for setting it up. A hassle-free setup means you can get your store up and running quickly, without technical headaches.

Check for branding options

If you want to build a strong and independent print-on-demand brand, it’s crucial to check for branding options offered by the provider.

Look for providers that offer custom labels, packaging and inserts. These touches can make your products look more professional and help reinforce your brand identity.

Custom thank you card design

Branded thank you card design by aran&xa via 99designs by Vista

Compare pricing and fees

While this factor is listed last, it might be the most crucial one affecting your decision—pricing directly influences your profit margin.

Start by comparing the base costs of products among different providers. Lower base costs can lead to higher profit margins, but make sure you’re not sacrificing quality. Be aware of any hidden fees, such as subscription fees, setup fees or transaction fees. These can add up and eat into your profits if you’re not careful.

Best practices to choose the best print-on-demand provider

  • Start small: Begin with a small order to test the provider’s service and quality before committing to larger volumes.
  • Monitor performance: Continuously monitor the provider’s performance and customer feedback to ensure they maintain high standards.
  • Stay updated: Keep an eye on industry trends and new providers that may offer better services or innovative solutions.
  • Negotiate terms: Don’t hesitate to negotiate terms, especially if you plan to place large or frequent orders.
  • Diversify providers: Consider using multiple providers for different product categories to diversify risk and ensure a broader product range.

3 best print-on-demand sites

Depending on your specific business needs, you might want to consider some niche print-on-demand companies.

However, if you’re just looking for a range of high-quality products at a fair price, here’s a list of the best print-on-demand sites with a proven track record of satisfied customers.

VistaPrint

Screenshot of the homepage of VistaPrint

VistaPrint for print-on-demand services

VistaPrint is a well-established player in the print-on-demand space, known for its wide range of products and professional-quality printing.

Product categories: Business cards, apparel, promotional items, marketing materials and home decor.

Shipping locations: Ships to over 120 countries worldwide.

Pros: High-quality products, extensive customization options, robust customer support.

Cons: Slightly higher prices compared to other providers, longer shipping times for international orders.

Start a print-on-demand business with VistaPrint

Printify

Printify is a popular choice for entrepreneurs looking for a versatile print-on-demand service with a large network of print providers.

Product categories: Apparel, accessories, home decor and stationery.

Shipping locations: Ships to most countries globally.

Pros: Competitive pricing, wide variety of products, easy integration with major e-commerce platforms.

Cons: Quality can vary between print providers, occasional delays in fulfillment.

Printful

Printful is renowned for its high-quality products and reliable service, making it a favorite among many e-commerce businesses.

Product categories: Apparel, accessories, home decor and art prints.

Shipping locations: Ships worldwide, with fulfillment centers in the US, Europe, and Mexico.

Pros: Excellent product quality, fast shipping, seamless integration with e-commerce platforms.

Cons: Higher base costs, limited branding options for packaging.

Ready to start your print-on-demand business?

Embarking on a print-on-demand journey can be a game-changer, whether you’re looking to start a main business or a side hustle.

The print-on-demand market is fast-growing with low entry barriers, so if you play your cards right and apply all the knowledge from this article, you have a high chance of making good money.

But this success hinges on choosing the right partner.

Among the top providers, VistaPrint stands out for its high-quality products, extensive customization options, and robust customer support. With VistaPrint, you can confidently step into the print-on-demand arena, knowing you have a reliable partner to back your entrepreneurial ambitions.

So, why wait? Dive into the exciting world of print-on-demand with VistaPrint and watch your creative ideas turn into a thriving business.

FAQs about print-on-demand

Can you really make money with print-on-demand?

Absolutely, you can make money with print-on-demand. Top-performing apparel print-on-demand stores typically sell between $50 and $100 on average per order. With the right marketing strategies, quality designs and a reliable print-on-demand provider, you can build a profitable business.

How much does it cost to print on demand?

The cost of print-on-demand varies depending on the provider and the products you choose. Generally, you’ll pay a base cost for each item, which includes the price of the blank product and the printing. Additional costs can include shipping, customization options and any platform fees.

Is print-on-demand free?

Print-on-demand itself isn’t free, as you’ll need to cover the base costs of the products and any associated fees. However, it’s a low-cost business model since you don’t have to invest in inventory upfront. You only pay for the products when a customer places an order, which minimizes financial risk and upfront investment.

How can you scale your print-on-demand business?

To scale your print-on-demand business, expand your product line, optimize your marketing efforts and streamline operations. Focus on offering more products and designs, using effective marketing strategies and ensuring a reliable provider handles production and fulfillment.