jacobs media

A "How To" Guide For Station Merchandising

Print On Demand "How To" Guide

A booming trend in online merchandising centers around Print On Demand services (POD).

These services - whether it's for self-published books, art, music or logowear have made a huge dent in the traditional bulk printing businesses in both the online and brick-and-mortar stores.

Essentially, these POD providers take whatever creative you provide through an online interface and make it available in any quantity you desire - from a single printing to the hundreds of thousands.

They literally "print on demand" whatever it is you’re selling.

To go custom shop or not

If you want to print up the same shirt (or other item) more than a hundred times for selling or giveaways, and you have the cash, then the traditional way to merchandize branded products may still work for your stations.  But as we know, sitting on unsold inventory often presents problems.  Custom printing can be practical if you are planning on giving away the items in bulk at events, promotions, etc.

However, if you have a many different ideas/themes you want to explore, many won't sell (or be given away) in the hundreds, your budget is limited, and you can't afford inventory the print on demand is the right choice. 

Advantages of a POD program

  1. No risk / No cost.  With little or no upfront cost, even if you create a design or concept that doesn't sell, you are out only your time.  If you decide that merchandising isn't for you, there's no budget impact.  In most cases, setup is free, there are no design charges and you pay nothing out of pocket at any point.

  2. No inventory.  You don't have to buy anything you don't want.  Everything is printed on demand – as it's ordered. 

  3. No fulfillment.  The online storefronts take care of the production, transaction and delivery.  You receive a check each month for what's sold.

  4. Unlimited space/variety.  Unlike with "real" products, you don't have finite shelf-space.  You can create as many different designs and products as you desire.  You can design logowear for personalities, events, special programs, anniversaries, birthdays, and milestones, campaigns or whatever is hot and relevant at the moment.

  5. Limited competition in the space for radio (right now).  We searched all the bigger POD suppliers and discovered that the biggest radio-related brands are WKRP and KBHR & Chris In The Morning (from the show "Northern Exposure") - both fake.  The vast majority of radio offerings are either non-commercial, internet only or vintage logos for heritage stations in major markets.

The Bottom Line

The chart below provides a simple starting point for your internal conversations about whether to pursue this opportunity.



Print On Demand (POD)

  • No risk

  • No (or very little) upfront costs

  • No inventory

  • No fulfillment/product management

  • Unlimited products / designs

  • Change/add products on the fly

  • No (or limited) physical items on hand

  • If you want a large volume for giveaways, costs will be higher than with custom printing

  • Less profits

  • Limited quality control

  • Your brand's image for quality & fulfillment is in a 3rd party's hands

  • Requires shipping  - no instant gratification

Custom Printing

  • Physical product in-hand for immediate sale/giveaway

  • Often a much lower cost per item

  • The potential to generate more profit

  • More control over finished quality

  • Opportunities for trade/barter

  • Faster delivery to buyers (at events, at the station, etc.)

  • Upfront costs

  • Management of physical inventory

  • Lack of sales could mean financial losses

  • Limited ability to print on various items

  • Limited number of product/design offerings due to cost

  • Station must handle fulfillment

Sources of Print on-demand merchandise

Through our research, we've narrowed it down to these four companies, as "best bets" for you to choose from:

There are hundreds of others, but these four appear to be the options that have the most usage, and the best products and reputations (we lean toward Spreadshirt.com and Zazzle.com). 

The short version

  • Pick one of these POD online stores above and open an account
  • Develop designs for your station and for key personalities/benchmarks
  • Select logowear and other merchandise with your design(s)/images (the more items you have with different logos/images the better - within reason).
  • Embed or link the store on your site.
  • Promote it on the air, on your site, social media, and send out emails to your database
  • Make money

That's it.  Seriously.

The details

However, if you want to create a truly enduring franchise, consider the following key factors and strategies, and review the various providers mentioned above (and any others you discover) to determine how well they fit your needs.  .

Key factors to consider:

1.  Revenue Share

What percentage of the sales you do get or how are the items priced?  This varies from store to store, but it’s a key variable in making a choice.  Read through these other factors, however, because even if the storefront you choose offers a better revenue share or lower upfront costs on items, if you aren't selling anything it won't matter.

Payouts range from basic profit (depending on the price you set for the item relative to its base price in the store) to referral fees (when you send the traffic from your site) to volume rewards (when you sell "x" amount of products) to design fees (if your design is used/sold by others in the shop). 

Most services have other payouts beyond simply just selling the merchandise, and they vary, but the conventional wisdom is that all, except Cafe Press (which has recently capped commission payouts), come out about the same.

2.  Types of products

What types of merchandise would work best for your station/brand?  Most of the stores carry the same basic products whether its boxers and baby doll tees or hoodies and hats.

Cafe Press has arguably the largest selection of merchandise, from clocks to license plate frames to various other non-traditional “schwag items.”  A company called Skreened (www.skreened.com) touts the fact they only sell American made apparel, and Printfection is big on organic-based products while Zazzle is well known for their paper/printed goods.

Strategically, consider the core logowear and other merch that best suits your brand, and develop a dream list of products you'd like to offer.  Then determine which of the stores will are most likely to be able to fulfill the bulk of your list.

There may be advantages to using more than one provider as well.  Not that many (or any) of them integrate with one another, but if you have a web developer on staff, she can often pull them together on a single page on your site.  Additionally, it can afford you extra exposure (see below) by being linked to more than one shop.

3.  Quality of products

This is a subjective area, and varies dramatically from one provider to the next and depending on types of items you are selling.

For the most part, the four primary services mentioned here offer decent quality items.  There are variances in printing techniques and quality of clothing, but none of them is substandard as far as we've been able to discern.

Your best bet is to order a few key items from each store and decide for yourself which ones do the best job, from color reproduction, image placement, and durability.  It could take a few dollars and add time to your process, but you'll know what your listeners are getting when they order – an important key.

4.  Print area / Customization

Each of these companies offers different types of printing options. Some will allow you to use nearly the entire front of a shirt, while others more severely restrict your printing area space.  A few will let you print both sides with no additional fees, and Spreadshirt.com will let you print on sleeves and other non-traditional areas.

First, determine your design.  Then find the POD partner most able to meet your vision.

Spreadshirt.com offers the most flexibility and functionality with their T-shirt Designer Application.  For a great example of how powerful it is visit the Chuck Norris Facts T-Shirt shop.  It even allows for the consumer to custom design their own Chuck Norris shirt, or add their own favorite quote.

The T-shirt Designer feature at Chucknorrisfacts.com

5.  Custom stores

All of the bigger POD services will offer some form of custom store from which you sell your items.  The differentiator is whether they have an API or some other format you can use to actually embed the store into your site directly (not forcing your listeners to go to their storefront URL) and do they charge for this feature?

There are various degrees of difficulty in setting up these storefronts, but most are fairly straight-forward if you have experience with blogs or content management systems. 

Cafe Press is the only major player charging for this service at present.

Example of a highly customized Zazzle.com store

6.  Store/Site-wide affiliation and current traffic levels of site

This aspect can be incredibly important depending on what you are doing with your store.  Many POD users are speculators and gamblers - trying to catch the next viral wave of visual trends, whether its licensed items like "Twilight" and "Harry Potter" or offering their own cartoon characters or cute animal pics or clever sayings.   They don't have a built-in audience like you do, so they are heavily reliant on "foot traffic" into these storefronts - whether it's from being featured on the front page of CafePress site or a site they advertise on (see below for an example), or coming up on a paid search result in Google for "red panda shirt" that Zazzle has bought.

Advertising example from Cafe Press

Your station isn't as dependent on the POD provider site because you have a cume and a database.  Most of your business will be generated from traffic through your site, social media or email campaigns.

That said, don't discount the impact of being featured in some way by your POD provider - there are reports of this having short-term impact on sales in the 100%-1000% range just for creating the "foot traffic" to your offerings.

7.  Ordering/Fulfillment Process

Go into this with the realization that shipping time will vary depending on the location of the recipient.  Every site has a turnaround time assurance (usually within 48 hours; CafePress.com and Printfection.com promise 24 hours on most orders). 

We've walked through each of the purchase processes, and while each has its quirks, none of them was overtly flawed or raised any red flags in terms of the transaction process.

It's probably the least important of these elements, but if you are concerned knowing these services are representing your brand to your best listeners, then you may want to test out the delivery and checkout systems yourself before you commit.

It's likely no single POD provider will fit all of your needs.  In that case, you'll have to either dig deeper for a more specialized service or make some compromises along the way, whether it be product type, store customization, revenue share or print area.

Consider the aspects that are most important to your organization and work from there.  Each of the four providers mentioned comes out at least "good."  They get far more positive reviews than negative ones from their users, and all offer a fairly dynamic retail space to be partnered with.  Spreadshirt.com was most responsive to our various inquires for more details, and also seems to have the most "buzz" on the forums and blogs dedicated to POD at present.

Here's a grid outlining some of the basic features of each service:





Revenue Sharing 

You set price of items

20% commission Referrals & incentives 

You set price of items

Volume bonus and 15%-30% on referral 

You set price of items

Volume bonus

Limited commission 

You set price of items

Volume discounts

No commission plan 
Products 300+  350+  250+ ** 300+ 
Custom Stores 

Yes, no charge

Full branding

Open API

Vector graphics

T-shirt Designer app* 

Yes, no charge

Full branding

Open API

Zazzle University 

Limited customizations

Fee for custom shop 

Yes, no charge

Full branding of store & checkout area, packaging & email messages 
Store Traffic 
 3 million monthly
13 million monthly 9.5 million monthly 1 million monthly

*Spreadshirt.com has the T-shirt designer application that offers numerous customizable features for you and your customers.  You can review the application here: http://www.spreadshirt.com/create-your-own-t-shirt-C59

** The CafePress.com site says 250+, but they have a more diverse product line than any other store.

Strategies That Work

I spoke with Mark Venezia, VP of Sales and Marketing at Spreadshirt.com and he had some helpful suggestions:

He feels that radio and entertainment outlets would be wise to include jersey T-shirts, unisex v-neck T-shirts, baseball caps and unisex hoodies.  Those are top sellers in his experience for radio-type brands.

In terms of best options for designs that could sell well, Venezia offers the following thoughts, some of which we've echoed above:

  • Promote them online and on air (we'd also suggest via social media)

  • Feature funny “lines” from on air personalities on the shirts and other items

  • Set up contests to give away some merch

  • Ask listeners what they would like to see on logowear

He reiterated the key considerations that the process of setting up a store is easy, risk free and it can be done in about a day once you've established your creative.   

We'd further suggest that in addition to the station as a whole, you should focus on your talent - have each jock create their own branding (integrating the station logo of course) and offer a variety of items.

The key is to have plenty of variety for sale, frequently update your offerings with new material (but not so much that it's overwhelming). 

It sounds remedial, but sell items people will buy.  Track purchases and shelve items that don't sell.

But don't be afraid to fail with a given item either. If it works, do more.  If it doesn't, move on and try something else.  In a recent Wall Street Journal article about POD, Dan McCall, who has had much success in this space (www.libertymaniacs.com) reveals that “25% of our designs sell so poorly, it wouldn’t be justifiable in a traditional retail environment, where someone had to hold inventory.  But in print-on-demand, your only capital investment is your time.”

Start with one POD partner, but don't be averse to trying several.  Many of the bloggers who discuss their POD strategies indicate that having two or more stores makes a big difference in their monthly revenue.  Not all stores offer the same products, and as noted, visibility and search referral varies from one site to the next.  Start with one, but as you grow, consider adding one or more other POD partners.

Zazzle offers" Zazzle University," a series of videos and instructional webpages to teach you "all there is to know about Zazzle" which covers everything from titles and tags for better search visibility to how to add products to Facebook and automating your product tweets to various financial and money making tips.  It's an excellent resource for the beginner at POD stores.  Even if you don't use Zazzle, the information there will likely be very helpful in  general.

What's In It For Me?

We want to be careful about discussing actual mentions of exact dollars here, because the variables are significant: quality of the design, picking the right products, integrating the merchandise into your site, your overall site traffic, how much you charge for it, and not the least of which is how much you promote it on-air, online, via email and through social outlets.  And of course, there’s the station itself, its health, size of the cume, importance of the personality, and the database.

A realistic goal might be $1,000-$2,000 a month (based on various articles and blog postings we've scoured) if you do everything right, offer an attractive inventory, and promote it well.  The rough figures we have been provided from these stores range from as low as $100 month to $10,000 a month. 

Beyond that, the sky’s the limit.  You'll be able to track the direct correlation between promotion and sales and learn quickly which calls to action work best.  Some of the shops offer email newsletters that you can track as well.

Ultimately, if you commit to a merch program, you’ll add to the bottom line and at the same time, you'll be creating new marketing outlets for your brand while giving your audience the chance to display your logo and identity.  It may take a year or so to learn this turf and to develop systems that work for your station.  But our hope is that merch and logowear can become a long-term revenue line that can grow you financially, as well as with market visibility.