Q&A: Selling merchandise on the web

Cynthia CloskeyGeneral

I’m a fan of Harto, aka Hannah Hart, whose My Drunk Kitchen videos are a hilarious counterpoint to traditional cooking shows and videos. Recently she asked me for advice about selling MDK merchandise, and since I’m often asked about online sales I got Hannah’s OK to share her question and my answer on the blog.

Q: I was wondering how one goes about selling/shipping their own promotional goods (t-shirts, mugs, etc.). Any thoughts?

A: How you go about selling online depends on what you’re selling and why you’re selling it.

I’m going to assume you will be selling shirts with the goal of making a small amount of money (it’s hard to make shirts a big revenue stream) and of raising awareness of the shows.

You have more options with shirts than you do with other products. You can:

  1. Have a batch made and then sell them. Choosing this means you have to front the money and guess at how many to order and in what sizes, so it’s a little risky. You also have to handle the shipping. And you need to store the shirts somewhere, which can be problematic if you have a small apartment/limited room.
  2. Let people pre-order and then have the shirts made and ship them. In this case, you get the money first, so you don’t need to come up with cash to start, plus you know exactly how many to order and in what sizes. And you don’t have to keep the inventory in your home – at least, not for long. Or you can order a few extra and sell or give them away as special limited editions. But people have to wait a little longer to get their shirts, since they’re not in stock. You still have to handle shipping.
  3. Use a service like http://www.spreadshirt.com/. You design the shirts and make them available on the store, people order and receive the shirts straight from the store. No up front investment on your part and you don’t have to handle shipping or worry about ordering too many, and customers don’t have to wait. But the service takes a cut of the price.

Mugs and other non-clothing are much the same except you don’t have to worry about sizes and colors. They tend to be bulky and may require a box to be able to ship, which adds to the cost. There are fewer services that do mugs on demand; CafePress is one, but I’ve heard complaints about their quality.

If you are selling just a few items, you can use the Buy Now buttons that PayPal makes and just put them on a regular page in your blog or website. If you’re selling 10 or more items, it would be worthwhile to look into a simple shopping cart.

If I were going to sell t-shirts, here’s what I’d do:

I’d have one design to start, and I’d offer it for 30 days. I’d let people pre-order, then when the 30 days were up I’d stop taking orders and have the shirts printed; I’d throw a shipping party and ask friends to help with shipping in exchange for beer/pizza/undying affection. Then two months later, I’d create a new design and go through the same process. Each design would be a limited edition, and I’d set aside a few to bundle together as a special premium prize for a future use or big fundraiser. I’d just sell them on my own site using a basic PayPal button, maybe with an automatic countdown thing to make it all a little flashier, and with a gallery of past shirts visible to make people wish they’d been around earlier. Maybe I’d bring back a really popular older design now and again in a re-issue.

The guys at United Pixel Workers do something along the lines of what I described: http://www.unitedpixelworkers.com/ They’re using a fancier checkout method, because they’re web programmers and have time & skills to set stuff like that up. But a PayPal button and a really big photo of the proposed shirt could work just as well.

What thoughts do you have on selling merchandise online, for a web video series or online comic or other work? Which services and vendors would you recommend?