If you take away poker, dating, and naked ladies, custom merchandising is the big success story of the Internet. The ultimate combination of e-commerce and affiliate marketing, millions of websites around the world turn to online merchandising companies - both to market their URL and to extract some cash from loyal visitors.
The key to the success of the industry is on-demand printing, meaning website owners don't usually incur setup costs and do not have to carry inventory.
The business model usually works like this. The webmaster signs up for free ? or for a small monthly fee ? at the merchandising company site. Having uploaded his/her own designs ? often logos, catchphrases or drawings, the webmaster can then place these designs on the range of products offered by the merchandiser. Usually, the merchandise company places a base price on each product, to which the webmaster adds his/her own commission or markup. In some cases, the webmaster can then create a shop which can be integrated into their own site.
The merchandising company normally handles credit-card processing, printing, shipping, and customer service while the webmaster incurs the slightly less arduous task of collecting and banking the commissions.
Beginning to see why its so popular? Let's have a look at some of the industry's big players:
The daddy of the bunch. Founded in 1999 in California, Cafepress was one of the first companies to exploit the massive custom merchandise market. It now sells products on behalf of over 2 million website owners, mainly in the USA.
For all its longevity and wide reach, Cafepress has yet to solve many of the original problems that still bother its users. Despite the clamour from customers, the company has yet to find a way to offer black, or even dark, garments ? still relying on the old white and grey staples and a rather odd collection of pastels. Nor has the company embraced internationalisation, and website owners outside of the USA still baulk at hefty shipping charges and US Dollar pricing.
The free Cafepress service offers limited functionality to users, with only one version of each product allowed. For a monthly fee, Cafepress allows unlimited selling. However, excessive branding makes it rather difficult to integrate the Cafeshop into the look and feel of an existing site.
Another California-based company that launched a similar service to Cafepress in 2003 and has a substantial share of the US market. Again pricing is only available in US Dollars. And while Zazzle's range of garment colours is stronger than Cafepress, printing on black or dark shirts is still not supported.
Zazzle does not charge a monthly fee but webmasters will find it rather more difficult to integrate their shop into the look and feel of their own site.
This one looks interesting. Spreadshirt was founded in Germany in 2002 and boasts over 60,000 partners across Europe, winning the Hewlett Packard Business Innovation Award in 2004. Unlike its American competitors, Spreadshirt caters for both European and US customers, using regional shipping companies and allowing webmasters to price products in Euros, Sterling, or US Dollars. Shops can also be automatically translated into eight languages.
Spreadshirt has also solved the thorny "black shirt" issue, offering over 50 products in a full range of colours. However, it's probably the different printing options that sets the service apart. In particular, Spreadshirt's "flock" printing ? creating a raised felt finish ? produces a result much more impressive than regular digital print.
Finally, hats off to Spreadshirt for managing to keep its branding on the product but still allow webmasters full control over the look and feel of their shops. Already a dominant force in the European market, Spreadshirt could be set to give Cafepress a run for their money in the US.
EShirt is another European company ? this time Italian-based - providing an almost-identical product range to Cafepress ie no dark shirts. Euro, US Dollar and Sterling pricing is available. However, the only print option available is digital hot press printing ? not the longest lasting technique.
The most inconvenient aspect of EShirt's service is shop integration. You must register as a Tradedoubler affiliate before you can even apply for an EShirt shop. And even then, it is not possible to recreate the look and feel of your own site.
Suzanne Power is the editor of GrandWebDesigns.com