How to start your online t-shirt business the right way
Did you know that the best time to start an eCommerce store is right now? According to a recent study conducted by Statista, eCommerce sales are predicted to surpass $740 billion by 2023 in the United States alone. Wow!
A t-shirt store is one of the simplest businesses to start and can easily be taken advantage of to make a quick buck or even a steady income stream.
But why t-shirts and not beach umbrellas? T-shirts are worn by almost everyone—from crying toddlers to giggling aunts—and barely anyone owns just one.
They’re also super easy to print on and customize with whatever image, logo, or photograph you want—meaning that they can reflect the personality and interests of whatever niche you choose.
Platforms like Redbubble let store owners print their designs onto bath mats, backpacks, and even helmet stickers; but the t-shirt industry, in particular, is growing at an undeniable speed.
With careful planning and an entrepreneurial spirit, you can thrive in the growing world of eCommerce—even if you have little or no experience selling online.
But, it’s never a good idea to dive in headfirst with your eyes closed and no plan. So, you’ll have to think ahead and find where you’ll see the most success.
How to start your online t-shirt business, in seven steps
There’s so much to think about—from sourcing t-shirts to t-shirt marketing to sustainable shipping 👋 and more.
This simple, step-by-step guide will help you navigate the world of t-shirt selling and get you on your way to eCommerce success. Let’s get started.
As an experiment, one of our own team members, Katrina, started her own online t-shirt business. As you read through these steps, we’ll include Kat’s firsthand experience with starting her store, Good Tees.
First things first, discover your niche
What kind of business do you want to be? Are you looking to make a statement?
Do you want your online t-shirt store to reflect your passions and values, or do you just want to capitalize on a trending headline?
If you go too general with your online t-shirt business, you’ll have to compete with more established brands that have larger budgets and reputable positions in the market.
For example, ‘funny t-shirts’ is a very broad niche with lots of competition, whereas ‘funny t-shirts for new teachers’ is more specific and will increase your chances of getting noticed.
In order to make money, you’ll want to focus on an audience that is both narrow and profitable.
Untapped markets will be much easier to take advantage of than saturated niches such as ‘Star Wars’ or ‘VW Campervans’.
One great way to assess the size of your audience and what people are searching for is to use Facebook’s Audience Insights tool or Google Trends. No use starting production on your line of Game of Thrones t-shirts just as it begins to wane in popularity.
Check out your competition
Once you’ve decided on a theme, it can be useful to lookup online t-shirt stores that also target your chosen niche to evaluate what they do well and how you can improve on what they don’t.
Is it spying? Sort of. It is smart? Hell yes!
Things you can look at are their social media accounts, their websites, and how long they’ve been in business. Are their users engaged?
Can you realistically compete with brands that are targeting the same niche as you? What can you do differently to make sure your audience chooses you?
Find the right platform
When it comes to the best platform for selling t-shirts, it all depends on your business model.
Print on demand services use dropshipping and are good for beginners or those who want to test out ideas without spending money on inventory upfront. But, you lose most of the control over the business and how you ship.
Redbubble and TeePublic allow you to upload your designs to varying products—even face masks—which they then print, sell on their site, and ship for you. There are also print on demand providers that integrate with platforms like Shopify.
My setup is 100% print on demand. When someone places an order it is automatically sent to the printing company that prints the shirt and handles the shipping. The good thing is that the entire store runs all by itself and I can do this from anywhere in the world. The bad thing is that I don’t have any control over it and the current timeframe for getting an order delivered is 3-4 weeks due to the insane demand during COVID. If I ordered in bulk and shipped myself, I would have more control.
The other way to go is to order your designed t-shirts in bulk and keep them in your own inventory. Then you control how orders are received and shipped as well as who you ship with.
Shopify, for example, lets you create your own website with little or no coding knowledge and can easily be integrated with dropshipping platforms like Oberlo.
I used Shopify because it was really quick and easy to set up. You could set up and entire store in an hour or two. Plus, there are a ton of free or cheap templates you can use without having to hire a developer. While you have to pay a little (~AUD$40/month), it’s worth it to not have to worry about hosting, server maintenance, and all that.
Source your t-shirt supplier
Finding out as much as you can about the printing, t-shirt material quality, and your shipping options can give you a head start when it comes to choosing a supplier. You don’t want to be stuck with products you don’t believe in.
If you want repeat customers and great reviews, choosing higher-quality t-shirts is your best bet.
The profit margins may not be as high initially, but it will be worth it as customers shower you with love and boost your brand. Retaining a customer costs 5 times less than acquiring a new one.
You can order samples to investigate the shirt’s fit, material, fabric, weight, and quality before you start shipping them out to customers.
Considering the sustainability of your products and the environmental footprint of your business is both expected by customers and a pertinent issue in 2020.
Does your t-shirt business come at the cost of human rights? Does sustainability matter to you as a business owner? Your carbon footprint can be reduced by thinking about where your products come from, how far they travel, and whether the materials are sustainably sourced.
If the printing is shoddy and cracks after a few washes, your customers will go elsewhere. And why wouldn’t they?
You have to ask yourself some questions as you ponder your sample. Would you wear this t-shirt? If not, why not? Be your worst critic and you’ll come out with a better product.
The type of printing you choose will depend on your budget and requirements. You’ve got a few options to choose from:
Direct-to-garment printing (DTG) is the most common as it’s low cost for one-time orders, but can sometimes be unreliable when it comes to design placement and durability.
It works just like an inkjet printer and is great for achieving high levels of design detail and color accuracy.
Screen printing is super popular as it’s inexpensive but also poses the threat of alignment and color accuracy issues.
This method produces higher-quality prints because of the thick inks used, with some screen-printed designs lasting for years. In contrast to DTG, screen printing often requires a minimum quantity.
Embroidery is often used for a higher quality look and feel. A sewing machine sews your design onto fabric and it will basically last forever (or as long as the t-shirt).
The limitations of using embroidery are that it’ll cost you more and small, intricate designs can’t be achieved as easily as with screen printing and DTG.
It was harder to source organic cotton tees in different colors and styles. A lot of suppliers just have a small organic range at the moment or they want you to buy them in bulk. Minimum quantity is often only 25, but that’s still 25 shirts that people might not buy. The supplier I went with only does organic cotton in black and white. I also looked at the printing methods and how environmentally-friendly they were. There are different inks you can use which are better for the environment.
Another weird thing: I’m using a very popular base t-shirt, but have noticed quite a bit of a variance in the cut and fit between products. When I looked into it, they say something like they have a 2.5cm tolerance with QA, which is also basically the difference between product sizes. I don’t know how big of an issue this is, but it did make me wonder about the quality and if I’d have problems with customers not getting a good fit.
Design your t-shirts
Will the t-shirt you design make someone feel part of a community or help them to express specific beliefs? Does the shirt let the world know that the wearer has the best sense of humor or is really into a particular show?
Graphic design marketplaces such as Zazzle can be used to find out what the most popular and best-selling t-shirts are within your niche.
Are the top sellers all black and white and subtle? Or are they typically multi-colored and gaudy?
Although it’s fun to create apparel that’s unique to your fashion style, you want to make sure that you’ve considered what customers would want to actually spend money on. You don’t want to create something for a customer base of just you.
If you’re not such a whiz at designing, networks like Dribbble connect designers with clients who are on the hunt for custom t-shirt designs.
Image source: Dribbble
Letting your customers design t-shirts on your store from a set of options you provide is a great way to offer a totally customizable eCommerce experience.
The Print Bar offers ready-made Christmas designs (as well as hundreds of other themes) that their customers can apply to any t-shirt they like.
Image source: The Print Bar
Setup your store and launch it
Once you’ve chosen your t-shirt selling platform, designed a handful of unique t-shirts, and feel ready to sell, it’s time to launch your store. What an exciting moment!
As with the t-shirt designs themselves, you can design an eye-catching logo yourself, or enlist the help of a designer.
Melbourne apparel brand Threadheads is a great example of how to showcase your t-shirts with descriptions that highlight the best features of your product.
Their ethically sourced, quirky graphic tees come in a wide range of sizes and can be purchased online with Afterpay and Zip, with worldwide shipping available.
Threadheads also make use of an integrated currency converter so that customers can view the apparel in whatever currency they’re most familiar with.
Image source: Threadheads
Ensuring your online shop is visually appealing and easy to navigate can make the difference between a sale or a run in the opposite direction.
Tell the world
Once you’ve launched your online t-shirt business, it’ll take a little more effort before you can sit back and watch the money roll in.
Have you considered how to market your t-shirts effectively and create a buzz around your brand? Social media can be a cost-effective way of spreading the word.
Instagram marketing, for example, is a hugely popular way for brands to drive customers to their online store because it creates social proof.
Every month, a whopping 130 million users of the platform click on shopping posts.
Another incredibly visual platform, Pinterest, has proven itself adept at driving traffic straight to your store with intent to purchase.
There are a lot of people selling t-shirts. To be successful I think you need to have an audience. You can’t just expect to launch a store and sell products overnight if you don’t already have an audience. In my experience, building a store = fun whereas marketing a store = much less fun and a lot of hard work.
Ready to start your journey?
The beauty of having an online t-shirt store is that you can change direction at any time without being stuck with a warehouse full of dead stock.
Have your t-shirt designs proven to be a flop? Get creative, listen to your customers, and don’t be afraid to change direction if what you’ve tried isn’t quite working.