Monday, July 31, 2017

Merch by Amazon vs Gearbubble - solar eclipse Tshirt case study

I had a recent successful side hustle, where I designed a Tshirt commemorating the upcoming solar eclipse. I then sold the shirt via 2 platforms: Etsy (where I filled orders manually through Gearbubble), and Merch by Amazon. The 2 channels are very different, so this post describes step by step how I did it, along with pros and cons of each channel, and lessons learned.

I was late in getting my shirt created. I uploaded it sometime in June, and the eclipse is August 21. I did ZERO advertising because I did not want any expenses other than the licensing fee I paid for my image (more on that later). Even getting in so late and doing no advertising, to-date I have made more than $1200 profit on roughly 200 shirts sold. I took my shirt off of Etsy today, but it's still available on Amazon.

Etsy sales (some orders were for multiple shirts):

Amazon sales:

Step one is to get an account with Merch by Amazon, because although it is super easy, it can possibly take a while. I submitted my request in early March, and did not get an approval back until April 17, so it was about 5 or 6 weeks. In my approval email, they apologized for the delay while they scaled up operations. So maybe the turnaround time on applications is faster now. To get an account go here: and click on Request Invitation. You don't need to have a business license or a professional Amazon account. I got an approval just using my normal Amazon account and with zero design experience.

The next thing I did was to view the competition on Amazon. I typed in "eclipse shirt" and just looked at what came up. From there I knew what I disliked about the shirts I saw, and what I wanted in my own design to make it different. I also wanted to make a design that I would actually wear myself, because I knew I had to pay for the image and I didn't know if I would get any sales. So I had to justify the expense of the image, a little bit.

I looked at eclipse images on "free" image sites.  I say "free" because these images are not actually free if you intend to profit from them by putting them on a Tshirt. Read the license agreements carefully and pay the appropriate fee for the image you want. Make sure the image is allowed to be resold on a Tshirt...not all of them are. If I remember right, I found the image I wanted on but in the past I have also used

If you have an idea of what you want the shirt to look like, and you have no design experience, at this point you could hire someone on Fiverr. I have done that before, but this time I wanted to spend no money (other than the image license) and this meant I had to actually make the design myself. I am not a designer and I had never used Photoshop. I didn't even own the real version of Photoshop. I have Photoshop Elements. But Elements doesn't count. If you want to use Merch by Amazon you have to have the real Photoshop. Amazon provides a .psd template which allegedly (more on that later) ensures that your design will work on their shirts. In order to edit the .psd template, I had to get "real" Photoshop. I downloaded the free trial version. So I only had a few days to get it right.

Although Photoshop appears overwhelming with literally a million buttons to push and a million YouTube video tutorials, it's actually not that hard, and with just a little poking around I was able to edit my eclipse image how I wanted it, and add text, all within the confines of the required template. This only took me a couple hours. Kind of tense hours, in which I was threatening to give up and hire someone on Fiverr, but my 7 year old daughter convinced me to go on and do it myself.

Then, once you are approved to use Merch, you just upload the completed file in .png format, as they direct. You can pick your shirt colors from there. Up to 5 colors. So here's problem #1 with Merch by Amazon - the preview picture they show the customer is "whatever is selling the most," they say. So if you have zero sales, they apparently just put up a random size and color, or maybe the size and color that sells most in other designs. My image looks best on a black shirt, so I chose to ONLY sell it in black. Otherwise it was going to default to a gray or red shirt or something like that, and most people aren't going to click through while saying to themselves, "I wonder if I can get that in black."

On Merch by Amazon, you have a choice between offering your design on "premium" or "bargain" Tshirts. They don't use the word "bargain", I forget what they call it. But I chose premium. I priced shirts at $19.99 and that put my profit around $5.50 per shirt. Amazon handles all the customer service, and you do nothing at all but collect checks.

Just for fun, I decided to also fill orders myself using a print-on-demand service called Gearbubble. It is similar to CafePress and Teespring. So here's the thing with POD sites. Once you create the shirts, you have to drive traffic there in order to make sales. And since I chose not to advertise, I could not just leave the shirts on Gearbubble.

Incidentally, the reason I use Gearbubble is because I use Rachel Rofe's products and through her business I was able to get a drop ship account with Gearbubble. That means I get the wholesale price, which allows me to then sell products at retail price on Etsy. The drop ship account is an expense and I suppose I should have counted it, but I already had it so it didn't feel like an expense. It might be $100 or might be $300 per year...I am not sure since like I said I got this as an add-on to another product I have.

I was able to use my same .png file on Gearbubble. One difference on Gearbubble is that each shirt style is a different web page. Unlike Amazon where you upload the .png file once, and then the customer chooses the shirt style (mens, womens, kids), on Gearbubble you have to create one page for men's shirts, another for women's shirts, another for kids shirts, you get the idea. Gearbubble provides really nice mockups that you can then upload to Etsy. Once I made sales on Etsy, then I had to go over to Gearbubble and fill the orders myself.

The profit margin in this method is higher. Depending on the style, I made anywhere from $7 to $9 per shirt sold. But it's not exactly passive income like it is with Merch by Amazon.

I purchased my own shirt in various sizes from both Gearbubble and Amazon. All the GB shirts came out beautifully. However, 2 of the 3 Amazon shirts were printed incorrectly and I returned them. It was the shirts in the smaller sizes (kids and small womens). In those cases, my design had been compressed from left-to-right in order to fit on the shirt. This effectively ruined my design since it's the sun, not an egg! The largest size printed exactly as I had designed it. So that was troubling, since I used Amazon's own template. And by the time I received my shirts and saw the problem, my free trial of Photoshop had expired and I could not alter my own design and create a different shirt. Also, Amazon does not allow you to alter a shirt design once it's uploaded. You just have to cancel that campaign and start a new one.

Another problem with Amazon is that the shirt sizing is way off. They do provide measurements, but a lot of people don't read the fine print and then order their usual size and find it is too small. Way too small. In the long run this can create negative reviews of the product. Until Amazon fixes the product, you can combat this by trying to alert customers to this issue in the product description. But then you're counting on people actually reading the product description.

With Gearbubble/Etsy, the shirts are also on the small size, but (a) they aren't crazy small and (b) it's a lot easier to communicate with the customer and make sure they are ordering the correct size.

Something I loved about using Gearbubble and selling on Etsy was that 3 times I was approached on Etsy with a request for some kind of customization of the shirt. Gearbubble makes it insanely easy and all 3 times I was able to make the customization, and it resulted in sales all 3 times as well. Never in a million years would I have considered myself a graphic designer. never. in. a. million. years. Now all of the sudden I'm able to design stuff on the fly that some stranger asked me to do.

But one of the problems with drop shipping is that when you have stuff listed on Etsy it gives the illusion that you're actually making it at home and shipping it yourself. So a few times people would say they gave me the wrong size, or wrong address, and it's not so simple to fix on the back end at GB. Also, GB is SLOW at printing the shirts. I had to tell people to wait up to 2 weeks, as opposed to 1 week on Amazon. Sometimes people wanted me to include a gift message and I'm not really able to do that.

********************Pros and cons of each method****************

Amazon pros:
Truly passive income - they handle fulfillment and customer service
Customer returns go back to Amazon, not you
Probably easier to deal with at tax time because you just have 1099 income
It's AMAZON where everyone goes to shop
pretty fast production time - it was about 7 days from the time I ordered my shirt til I received it
I made more sales on Amazon with zero advertising

Amazon cons:
lower profit margin
lower quality processing
designer has little to no control over product variations to offer customer

Etsy with Gearbubble drop ship pros:
higher profit margin
you can talk to the customers
easy product variations, can print different images on front and back of shirt
better quality product

Etsy with Gearbubble drop ship cons:
GB processing is pretty slow
At tax time you will have both income and cost of goods sold to account for, so there's more paperwork to keep track of
Etsy customers don't comprehend that you're using an outside printer and shipper
If customer is unhappy with sizing you still have to pay for the shirt

And that's why in the end I took down my Etsy listings even though the eclipse is 3 weeks away.

My final thought about this hustle is that I am proud that my kids got to see this. My 7yo was standing at my side when I was working in Photoshop, and she saw the shirts arrive in the mail. She wears hers proudly and tells everyone that her mama made it. She understands that she can do this too.

Feel free to leave questions in the comments.


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