• Advice

How to sell physical products online

One of the best ways to grow your income and sustain yourself through hard times is to diversify your revenue streams.

If you’re a designer, illustrator, photographer, or writer, you may want to consider putting existing graphics, photos, or illustrations onto physical products like t-shirts, mugs, posters, etc. and selling them on your website.

(If you’re a maker or product designer who wants to do a major launch of a physical product as a larger portion of your income, I recommend checking out these case studies about Peel or Diamond Candles. This post is for those who want side income.)

Why sell physical products?

  • They require little upfront investment
  • They strengthen your brand by providing your followers with a tangible, affordable piece of your work
  • Your store will bring your website traffic from Pinterest, which gets the word out about you and perhaps your other (principal, more lucrative) services

What you need:

1. Art or design

For illustrators or artists: If you already make illustrations or art in your spare time, start there. Later you may start making illustrations specifically for a t-shirt or print, but for now, keep your startup time low and use what you already have.

Why do I suggest using what you already have? Because if you’re like me, you’ll be crafting, perfecting, and dithering about it for months before you actually start. Just go through the process and see what happens, then perfect and expand your line over time.

For writers: If you’re particularly quotable or have a great idea for a quote from your work that would look good on a t-shirt or mug, consider hiring a freelance graphic designer to help you turn that quote into a graphic. There are people who do make mugs out of quotes just typed out on Times New Roman, but you may find that hiring a graphic designer is worth the investment.

If you have a graphic designer friend, offer to team up and share the profits instead of having to pay them upfront.

2. A screenprinter or manufacturer

Next you’re going to need to find the thing to put your design on. Obviously the choices here are pretty unlimited, but these are some common ones:

  • Mugs
  • T-shirts
  • Art prints
  • Coasters
  • Calendars
  • Sweatshirts
  • Magnets
  • Keychains
  • Buttons

Most of these can be handled by screenprinters. Try finding a local screen printer in your neighborhood (Yelp is helpful) in order to support local production. Remember that quality varies widely between screenprinters, and after your first few products, you may want to shop around. A good screen printer will often help you with custom product types and sizes.

It’s customary for screen printers to have a lower limit of around 25 products per print run. If you’re not ready to invest this amount of money in your first product run, you can try one of the cheaper printers (like Vistaprint) for smaller print quantities. Unfortunately, you can’t expect the same level of quality.

3. An online store

You need an online store to host your products. This can either live on your existing website or be hosted by another service.

The benefit of your store being part of your website is that visitors can easily navigate back and forth between your main website and your store, making it easier for shoppers to find your principal business.

Here are three “on my own website” options (among many):

Paypal: Put a Paypal purchase button on any page of your website a few simple lines of code. Paypal leads you through the process here. Fee is 2.9% + $.30 per transaction. Good for beginners.

Wordpress: If you already have a Wordpress site, there are a lot of eCommerce toolkits available. Woocommerce and Jigoshop seem like popular and well-loved options.

Custom: Hiring a web developer to build a custom eCommerce platform. This can cost anywhere from $1500-$6000 dollars, depending on your needs.

However, developing a store on your website requires that you hire a web developer, and this may not be a worthwhile investment upfront if you don’t know how well your products are going to sell. Using a service like the ones listed below allows you to put something up quickly that looks nice (though it may be consistent with the design of your website).

Here are 3 “not on my website” options:

Shopify: A popular option with many customizable solutions. Very classy look and feel -- see some examples here. You can also hire a Shopify developer to build a custom solution that integrates with your website. Basic is $29, Professional is $79 (see all pricing) for unlimited products. Fee per transaction is the same as Paypal.

Storenvy: Storenvy has similar options as Shopify, but it is free and also automatically lists your products on the Storenvy marketplace. This is a good benefit for people who are just starting out. They will soon be charging a referral fee for people who found your product through the marketplace, but you’ll still get 100% of sales you referred yourself. Fee per transaction is the same as Paypal.

Bigcartel: This option caters specifically to artists. Plans range from $10-$30. Fee per transaction the same as Paypal. Seems like reviewers often complain of limited customization options.

This blog did a fantastic review of each of these options and got very detailed about which were the best. I recommend checking it out if you are seriously considering one of these options.

How many types of products do I need to launch with (mug and t-shirt and pens all at once)?

You can start with just one product. This won’t look as dumb as you might think. Launch with one and see how it goes. This way, if it fails, you won’t have sunk a lot of cost, and if it succeeds, you can expand.

You may choose to start off with a “one size fits all” item like a print or mug rather than a product you have to purchase multiple sizes for upfront, to keep startup costs low.

That said, ultimately you’ll want to have more items in your store, preferably with variable price points so that all of your visitors can get something they can afford.

Any product sellers amongst us? We’d love to hear your tips.