December 2, 2016 Cindy Bendel

The Current Landscape of POD

I share often about selling independently and encourage other Zazzle designers to do the same. Along the way I encounter a number of reactions. It’s usually a combination of feeling overwhelmed and not knowing what to do, or how to take that first step. I totally get that. As Zazzle designers we get to have fun making designs and uploading them to products. Zazzle handles the rest – marketing, payment processing and order fulfillment, customer service issues.

It’s what I refer to as “set and forget“, a source of passive income where you post products for sale with the hope that somehow, someway it’ll sell. We get excited when we look at our earnings history report. Somehow among the billions of products the customer managed to find ours. And they liked it enough to order!

Seeing the Zazzle Royalty History validates us as the artist and designer. So we make more designs and hope to make more sales. We might even share products on Pinterest or other social media, hoping it’ll lead to more sales. The process becomes a comfort zone that is hard to break away from, especially when the formula works. It’s like earning money while you sleep.

passive-income

But what happens when the formula stops working?

You go to the Zazzle forum and discuss the matter with other designers. Then you go back with a new approach. If that doesn’t work you start looking into other PODs. You might have written off Cafepress when they angered designers and there was a mass exodus. But now that Zazzle isn’t doing as well, you are starting to reconsider. You may have opened accounts with Red Bubble, Society 6, Fine Art America and Amazon Merch. After all, you are only licensing your work to Zazzle and are free to license elsewhere. Why not spread our work around and try to gain more exposure to customers?

The truth is, POD is struggling. If you don’t believe me look up Cafepress’ earning releases. They’ve been on the decline quarter after quarter. Cafepress is a good indicator of what is happening with POD.

What is causing the decline?  Others see an opportunity within the eCommerce space and want a piece of the pie. And apparently there are a lot of people who like pie. Teespring rose up to compete against Zazzle with t-shirts. With their laser-targeted marketing they reached customers on Facebook in a way that Zazzle didn’t.

Then came other fulfillment services like the Amazon’s Merch program. I think the original intent was for bands to sell their merch, hence the name. But others saw an opportunity. After all, where else can you sell a shirt for $20 and make $6? It has since become a platform for selling shirts covering every conceivable niche you can think of.

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Now we’re seeing the popularity of shopping cart platforms such as Shopify, Big Commerce and Volusion. With a few clicks you can open your own store, no software knowledge required. No need to spend thousands of dollars on a web designer.  It’s instant, affordable and there are apps to help you reach customers. There are even apps to connect your store to companies who will print your products. Heck, they’ll even ship the order to the customer for you.

shopifybigcommerce

And here is the kicker – many store owners don’t know a thing about design. They have never used Illustrator or Photoshop.  And they don’t need to. They do their market research by going to Zazzle or Cafepress. They’ll look at what the best selling designs are. Then they hire an overseas designer on Fiverr to create an inspired version of the design.  And the cost is very affordable, somewhere between $15-50 for a good design.  To see a real life example of this scenario, read this story on CNBC.

Once the store owner has the design they can upload it to products for sale in their store.  Then it’s time to run Facebook ads, a proven marketplace for reaching customers. After some targeting and retargeting, store owners figure out a formula for reaching customers. The sales start pouring into the store.

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What does this all mean for us as POD designers? We get less of the pie, a lot less. Thousands of online stores have sprung up. Shopify boasts of having over 300k stores. And that’s just Shopify, we haven’t even tallied the other platforms. Everyone and their mom is starting a t-shirt or dropshipping business. It’s like an online gold rush.

The best-selling shirt you had on Zazzle no longer sells. Maybe it’s now out of style. But maybe if you are in a popular niche, someone has taken a liking to your design made an “inspired” design from it. And now they are selling it in their Shopify store and watching the sales come through. More for them, less for you.

Your decline in sales could also mean that someone is ripping your design. When I refer to ripping I’m talking about taking an image from the internet, pixel for pixel. Then using that image to make a counterfeit product for sale. In the past couple years the problem has spiraled wildly out of control. Thieves have discovered an easy money-making scheme with these knock-offs, especially when they sell on #1 site Amazon.com.  A recent CBNC article highlights this problem.

What can you do?

I don’t mean to scare you, but I do want you to face up to the reality of the situation. I’m here to tell you what Zazzle will not tell you. The POD space has become wildly competitive. You have to bring your A-game if you want to succeed in this space.

There are many things you can do. You may not want to open a Shopify store, and that’s ok. Not everyone has the time or inclination to deal with customers. Or problems that come up with the order fulfillment process. Or the administrative aspects of running a business.

You can still have your Zazzle store.  But staying there will mean that you need to help customers find you, especially if Zazzle is not promoting your storeThis includes

  • Having your own independent affiliate website
  • Understanding who your customers are and how to reach them
  • Understanding and applying SEO (Search Engine Optimization) to your product listings

The last one is crucial. According to Wikipedia, SEO is the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a web search engine’s unpaid results—often referred to as “natural” or “organic “results.

SEO deserves its own post, or better yet an entire website. Search Engineland would be a great example, they have a lot of good information.

Here are some other things you can do to bolster your store. Believe it or not, Shopify and Etsy have a lot of good free resources. Let’s start with Etsy, their Sellers Handbook has valuable information. And it’s very comprehensive with categories such as

  • Photography. How-to’s and best practices for representing your brand and products
  • Getting found. The Ins and Outs of SEO and connecting with buyers
  • Shipping. Tips and tricks to save you money and time when fulfilling your orders

Shopify is even more comprehensive, when you go to their website click on Resources:

shopify-resources-01

So while you may not be ready to open an Etsy or Shopify store, you can read and learn all you can about selling online. And it’s free!

I know as Zazzle designers we love our forums. Guess what? Etsy and Shopify has them too. Forums are a great way to connect with other shop owners and ask questions.

If you decide to take the plunge, use my affiliate link to open an Etsy store.  You will receive forty free listings to get your started.

Or you can forge ahead with a Shopify store. My affiliate link provides a 14 day trial store. You can also extend the trial by two more weeks by sending a request to Shopify’s customer service.

So what do you think about what I’ve said above? Comment below and let me know your thoughts!

 

 

 

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Comments (2)

  1. Shopify, Etsy, Amazon, and a number of other platforms are providing entrepreneurs and designers a platform to reach their customers directly, which POD platforms used to exploit to grab a disproportionate share of revenue. Utilizing plug ins like Gooten (https://apps.shopify.com/gooten) allows entrepreneurs and artists to retain control of their work and set retail prices that allows them to profit off their efforts. It makes too much sense for the bulk of the revenues to go to the creators that its just a matter of time before everyone makes the switch.

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