The way Cafe Press works is fairly simply. They gathered a large number of products and developed a process for printing graphics on those products. They also market, to a degree, the products they produce. Content is generated by the artists who make use of their services, as well as driving advertising of both the artist's products and the service Cafe Press offers. Cafe Press generates its own lines of merchandise, but the bulk of its focus is on servicing artists who wish to produce a line of merchandise with their art and individuals who wish to create "vanity" items for themselves.
Setting up an account and producing products costs the artist nothing but their time and effort. However, the majority of the cost of each product will go to Cafe Press, who set minimum price on each of their products that is comparable to the price of similar items mass-produced for physical retailers. This means that in order to generate a profit for yourself, your items will be slightly more expensive than what you will typically find at the mall. A local retailer may sell a t-shirt with a graphic design for $20, but that is what Cafe Press charges to produce a t-shirt. Your shirt with graphics may be $25. You don't pay anything to make your t-shirt available on the market; the buyer pays the production costs and your profit when they order a shirt. Since merchandise is produced on a print-per-order basis, you don't have to print an item in bulk, and you don't have to maintain an inventory, but you do have to take a smaller profit.
There are also limitations to the quality of the items being produced. Generally, the print and merchandise quality are similar to that which you will find in traditional markets. However, there are size restrictions which must be taken into account when designing your products. For example, the available field on a t-shirt is 10X10". Full length prints are not yet available, and size is not adjusted to account for larger shirts. This means your 10X10" design will look great on a medium or large shirt, but look huge on a small shirt and will appear to float in the middle of the chest on a 3X shirt. You will need to familiarize yourself with the products offered and the fields printed on those product to best fit your designs to the items.
Designing your art for the Cafepress.com print process is easy. Each item comes with recommended measurements and DPI. DPI ("digital-pixels per inch" or "dots per inch") determines the image resolution, with most images being recommended as falling in the 200-300 dpi range. It is best to try to utilize the entire image area; a sticker that is a 3X5" rectangle should contain an image designed for this space (unless you plan on cutting your stickers yourself). Also, keep in mind that with most Cafepress.com products the background is going to be white, so design accordingly. If you create an image for a t-shirt (up to 10X10") and make the background blue, your white shirt will look like the image is contained in a blue square. This is especially important when designing for black clothing. Unless you create an image with a clear background (possible with programs like Photoshop 7 or later) you will have a color printed as an image background to fill the print field. Even black ink on a black shirt is clearly visible.
You allow nearly unlimited items and images; I have upwards of 30 different t-shirt designs on one shop. Your shop can also designed with the background color of your choice, uses graphics that you have uploaded...it basically has the look of an independent, professional web-store. Most importantly, a shop takes full advantage of the Cafepress.com marketplace and search-engine presence. The majority of my sales come not from direct contact with my shop but from persons who used a search-engine, like Google.com, and went to the Cafepress.com's market place. This means that you can start generating sales without ever doing any marketing of your shop on your own. You will even begin to notice that Cafe Press ads on sites you frequent feature your merchandise, thanks to Google Analytics generating advertising content directed for you.
When uploading images, take full advantage of providing tags and descriptions of each design. These are used to create a presence for your items and images on the Cafepress.com market place and search-engines. These tools are invaluable to your success. Tag and describe every image, every item, and every section in your shop. Think like someone who would be searching for your art or merchandise like yours. In the description, include your website address, if you have one, to drive additional traffic to your other designs.
This covers the basics of setting up and utilizing a Cafepress.com account. Now it is time to deal in the finer details. In order to be successful, you first should understand what to consider "success". Generally, a Cafepress.com shop-owner is successful if their shop consistently makes any money. The minimum payout from Cafepress.com is $25.00, but I set my payout at $100.00 so I can use those funds to buy my own merchandise and the merchandise of others. If your measurement of success is to earn a living income from Cafepress.com, then you will need to expect to work the promotion of your shop 60-80 hours a week, and even then your chance of success is very low. Keep in mind that Cafepress.com is a means to a residual income and is ideally used to increase the exposure of your efforts.
Now, the adage that "if you build it, they will come" does not apply to marketing. In order to generate traffic to your Cafepress.com shop, you will need to tell people about your shop through as many channels and as often as possible. This is the time to think like a customer, and the first thing to think about is why are they coming to your shop. They are coming to hopefully buy your merchandise. So, ask yourself, is your merchandise something they would want to buy? The best way to answer this question is by thinking this way; if you saw your item in a mall, and did not know anything about you as an artist, would this item appeal to you? Odds are that if you would spend money on it, someone else will as well. You need to design with this in mind; not only does it need to fit the parameters set by Cafepress.com, but it also needs to appeal to your customers. So, you have an appealing design, but what about the merchandise?
As we have discussed, Cafepress.com is on the higher end of price as far as similar items are concerned. Let say you sell t-shirts, like I do. Someone really likes your design, but $24.99 is just not in their budget this month. If all you sell is t-shirts, then this potential buyer will leave your shop empty handed. Maybe they will come back, maybe not. So instead, make certain you offer a range of products at a range of prices. Maybe our customer who was thinking about a t-shirt would be happy with a sticker for $3.99, or even a mini-pin for $1.99 with the same design. Numerous small sales are easier to generate and often more profitable than a few large ones.
Appealing designs are taken care of, and you have a number of items with different price points to offer. Now, how to get the traffic to come to your shop. I cannot stress enough the importance of tags and descriptions. You are allowed 20 words as tags per image...use ALL 20! Think of every possible descriptive word that can be used about your art. If you need more words, think of variations of those words. Consider the ways your customers might describe your design themselves. Also, include your name; some of your customers might be looking specifically for you.
You can select products based on what you think will be relevant to those interested in your designs, but in my experience this does not work as well as simply placing your design on as many items as possible. Your feelings on a product may differ from your customer's. Keep in mind that the print-fields on some items are smaller than on others, so when placing your design as many products as possible take the time to review how each of those items looks in order to frame your designs in the best manner possible.
When designing your shop, focus on grouping the merchandise you offer based on your designs. In other words, all the items that feature one design should be gathered in one section. When buyers browse Cafe Press, they may come looking for a particular item, but it is the design that will catch their attention. Title, tag, and describe your sections the same way you do your merchandise. Make certain your shop includes information on how to contact you and view more of your work. Use your website and social media to advertise your Cafe Press shop and interact with your patrons.
Finally, consider offering to design items for your patrons as a way to market your art. Again, Cafe Press focuses on the demand for "vanity" products. Your customers may like your art work, and may be more willing to make a purchase on a product they had a hand in designing. While this route may be more trouble than it is worth for the sale of a single t-shirt, someone seeking to order in bulk may make the effort more appealing.
If you understand the limits and put a little thought into the design and merchandise pairings, Cafe Press and other print-on-demand sites can be an excellent source of residual income, as well as a means to test the marketability of your designs. It takes time and persistence to be successful, but with no out-of-pocket costs it is a great way to both market your work. To check out my shop, click here.