Choosing the Right Apparel Printing Business Model for Your Print Shop

Choosing the Right Apparel Printing Business Model for Your Shop

Starting a business always requires much thought and planning to get it off the ground. With apparel printing, not only do you have to think about your niche, but you also have to consider who you’re marketing to. It would be straightforward to say you’ll target consumers and their desire for custom-made goods, but you could also opt to provide your services to companies needing uniforms or event-related items.

The question is, which direction should you go? Should you be servicing customers with their varied requests? Or would it be better to get regular work for a local company or maybe a bigger corporation on a contractual basis?

Direct-to-Consumer Model

As the name suggests, the direct-to-consumer (D2C or B2C) model involves selling your goods and services directly to customers. You can reach out to customers in a few ways, either in person or through online sales channels. Each method has its fair share of pros and cons to consider, accounting especially for your business budget and what you intend to achieve.

Physical Storefront

A woman and her son walk past a fashion boutique
  • Typical order count: 20 to 30 or more
  • Pros: Meet new customers, have space to work on orders
  • Cons: Rent and equipment procurement can be costly, overheads to pay for

The most common method of selling to customers is to have a shop of your own, where you can have walk-in customers look at what you have to offer. You’ll be able to communicate directly with your customers, which can be a boon to your overall customer service. Some customers prefer having this kind of direct contact, so giving them great customer service can do a lot to make them feel appreciated – it’s a surefire way to get repeat customers.

For most shop owners, the storefront is where you’ll interact with customers and take their orders. You’ll also have space to let them see samples of your print shop’s work, giving them an idea of your quality. In the back, you’ll have all the space needed for all your equipment, materials, and supplies, and all the work is done from there. It’s a lot more convenient and less restrictive than working from the garage of your own home.

There are many crucial considerations to picking a suitable location for your shop. Of course, chief of all is the size of the shop, especially the space necessary for all your printing equipment. The size may also depend on the scale of your business: small-scale direct-to-garment (DTG) or direct-to-film (DTF) printing with fast turnaround times might mean you won’t need substantial space. Conversely, screen printing will need a larger footprint to fit multiple automatic screen printing presses in one area.

Because you’ll be running the show with your other business partners (if any), you can decide how your shop runs: the services you provide, the pricing matrix for orders, fulfillment time, shipping options, etc. You can dictate every aspect of the business to keep things profitable or adjust when sales aren’t doing so well. Flexibility and research are key ingredients to a successful business, after all.

The main issue mainly stems from obtaining a suitable location in the first place. You’ll need to ensure that your finances are in order if you want to afford a storefront and all the equipment and materials needed to start printing custom apparel. The adage “Location, location, location” can play a big part in that decision: some areas may have a higher rental rate than others, especially if it’s a prime location.

You’ll also need to consider other expenses, such as utility bills, labor costs for receptionists and printing staff, etc. And then there are also maintenance costs to consider; sometimes, your equipment will inevitably break down at some point. Emergencies and unexpected happenings can put a dent in your business if you don’t prepare for them, and any time you waste not being productive will lead to fewer profits. Time is money, after all.


A person using their laptop
  • Typical order count: 20 to 30
  • Pros: No need to have a physical presence, versatile platforms available
  • Cons: Highly competitive, requires good networking and marketing skills, you still need the equipment

Instead of opening a physical store, some print shops have an online presence instead. They’ll set up a website to promote their goods and services or, in some cases, join an online marketplace (think Amazon or eBay) to do so. This way, you’ll be able to market your goods and services to a much wider audience that’s not bound by geographical constraints. With how fast the creative market is growing, web-to-print can present plenty of opportunities to promote your services.

The Internet is a powerful tool that any business should leverage to promote itself and increase profitability. Traditional advertising is no longer the only way to attract the attention of new customers. Social media advertising and search engine optimization have become quintessential components of modern business advertising, especially considering how people can quickly share your company profile with others in the blink of an eye.

If you’re setting up a website, you must pay for web hosting and a domain name, among other things; you might also pay someone to help you build your business’ website. There’s also software for streamlining the customers’ shopping experience, which can be expensive to integrate into your website. On the other hand, online marketplaces may have fees to set up a seller’s account. Amazon, for example, charges $0.99 per item sold for those subscribed to its Individual plan.

Since you’re serving customers online, you can save on real estate costs by purchasing a shop with a lower mortgage or rental amount. Location isn’t as important as operating a physical store since you will only be printing your items there.


A man using a squeegee at a screen printing press
  • Typical order count: 1 to 10 or more
  • Pros: Allows people to sell custom apparel, good profitability
  • Cons: Very technical, requires a lot of systematic management, can be very costly

Print-on-demand (PoD) is similar to web-to-print, except in this case, you’re providing printing services to sellers who want to sell their own customized apparel without investing in printing equipment. Think of it as a partnership: these sellers take orders from their customers for their custom goods while you print them and ship them out to the sellers’ customers.

PoD’s popularity stems from how anyone can sell their own custom apparel (and other products) to a wide online audience. Given how everyone wants to make their own custom apparel these days, becoming a PoD provider can be a lucrative opportunity for your printing business.

It’s a step up from web-to-print because you’re offering plenty of customization options for sellers: for example, they can add custom branding to their items, save multiple designs, have integrations with other platforms or applications, and more. At the same time, it requires a lot of forethought and technical expertise to get your PoD business to run smoothly.

Many PoD providers succeed because they have relatively fast fulfillment times (excluding shipping), solid payment systems, and a streamlined printing setup emphasizing speed and efficiency. It’s why providers like Printful have seen significant success over the years. The competition will be tricky since you’ll need to be able to match, or outdo, their performance, be it in lower priced items, faster printing, or some other variable. You may need to invest in costly industrial-grade equipment if you want to keep your turnaround times low.

Moreover, there aren’t many off-the-shelf software tools to support a PoD operation. If you want to start with PoD, a lot of do-it-yourself work will be needed, such as setting up the entire system from scratch. Technical expertise is also needed to run a successful PoD, requiring you to have staff who know how to  implement customization options, keep track of orders, maintain the system as and when needed, and more.

Business-to-Business Model

The business-to-business (B2B) model is much like the direct-to-consumer model, except that you’re servicing businesses instead of regular customers. You could consider these businesses your regular customers.

One-time/Regular B2B Jobs

Two men shaking hands
  • Typical order count: More than 250
  • Pros: Steady income source, a good way to build networks
  • Cons: Orders can be on an infrequent basis; can’t rely on the same partners

The simplest of all is when you have a work contract with businesses within your geographical area (say, within the county or from other nearby towns and cities). They might have approached you to help make event-related goods or uniforms for a school sports team, leading to repeat orders later. These repeat orders will sustain your business in the long term, but you’ll still want to look for new customers in between.

The B2B approach also takes two important cues from the direct-to-consumer playbook:

  • You can operate from either a physical store or online
  • Similar advantages and limitations to having a physical or online presence apply

If you’re only servicing small companies or schools, you won’t need a lot of space for your equipment and supplies. However, if you plan to take on more orders, you must ensure you have enough space to expand or consider moving to a larger location. Given the current state of the economy, we’d hesitate to recommend the latter, so it’s best if you futureproof your expansion plans.

If you do an exceptional job, you can expect to have your services recommended to others, which is obviously beneficial for your business. You might also find regular consumers who might want to pay for your skills for a custom order; this can lead to great opportunities if you choose a mixed model (elaborated later in the article).

However, work isn’t going to find itself. You’ll need to do a lot of cold calls and marketing to secure a contract job with a company or promote your services at trade shows and other marketing events. Finding and securing one will take time, so patience is a virtue.

Dropshipping/Fulfillment Service

A DHL delivery van and its driver waiting along a road
  • Typical order count: Over 100 or more
  • Pros: You only focus on printing and shipping
  • Cons: Very competitive, not ideal if there’s low demand

Sharing many similarities with PoD, dropshipping/fulfillment also has you placed as a printing provider for smaller sellers or companies who act as a middleman: they’ll sell your custom apparel on your behalf and at a profit. In return, when customers order, the middleman pays you at wholesale or an agreed-upon price.

This model is particularly popular among bands and online e-commerce companies since they only need to focus on marketing their goods while you fulfill them for their customers. They won’t need any printing equipment or supplies, nor will they need to carry the items with them at all times. Your shop will print custom apparel that customers order through the seller and then ship them to said customers.

Apparel is usually printed in bulk upfront; any time you receive an order, you’ll have the items prepped and ready to be shipped to the customers. Sometimes, you might have an arrangement to pre-print a specific number of pieces, have them packaged in the warehouse, and then shipped when an order is placed. You might even be able to offer fulfillment services with whatever warehouse space you have available.

You can consider dropshipping as an add-on service to your business, which can yield good profit margins if there’s high enough demand. However, competition can be stiff, given the many dropshipping services available today. It’s also ideal where there’s high demand for such items.

Contract Work

Two people going through some documents
  • Typical order count: Over 500 or more
  • Pros: Steady income source, high volume orders, fast turnaround time
  • Cons: Requires significant work efficiency to do well, strong marketing needed, contract work might not be on a consistent schedule

Contractual relationships would be a more sustainable arrangement for your apparel printing business. Much like regular B2B work, you’ll also need to market your services to find a willing business partner in need of your services. Contract printing usually requires large orders; the more you receive, the more you’ll earn. You’ll also need to work efficiently to fulfill these orders in a timely manner; the faster you can fulfill orders, the faster you’ll be paid.

An example of contract work is being subcontracted to a larger print company to help them cater to their growing demand. You’ll be provided the designs needed for print, or they may allow you to use your own designs if it’s agreed upon. Depending on the overall sales volumes, you might also need to meet specific quotas. Alternatively, you might be asked to create promotional goods for an event management company for one of its clients; the event management company then pays you for all the items you’ve made.

In other cases, you might be contracted to provide a specific kind of service for a specific niche which a larger print company doesn’t normally do. For example, if you provide embroidery services, you might be contracted by a larger screen printing company to add embroidery to their screen-printed products. This offers a win-win solution for both parties: you’ll be paid for your time and effort, while the screen printer gets to fulfill its customer’s needs.

Contract work does require that you and your staff work fast yet effectively: you’ll need to ensure your workflow goes smoothly and has few mistakes. It’s normal for any print order to have defective items, but the fewer there are, the better your reliability in the eyes of the contracting party.

Mixed Models are Doable

A rack of clothes in a store

You don’t necessarily have to choose one model over the other. Many successful print shops tend to work with a mixed model, as they’re in a position where they can get the best of both worlds (but at a price). If anything, it helps improve your bottom line and gives you a minimum order amount for your production line to stay productive.

The main challenge of the mixed model is reliably meeting demand. As your customer base grows, there’s the need to keep up with growing demand: that means spending more on newer equipment, hiring staff, monitoring productivity, and upgrading equipment and services – it’s a neverending cycle that requires a great deal of commitment and financial investment. The more you grow, the more you’ll need to spend to stay ahead of the competition.

Let’s take a simple example where you run a physical store, a web-to-print service, and a fulfillment service. The biggest advantage is that you’re opening your print shop to many more customers, even those in other countries, via your online presence. At the same time, you’re also accepting orders from walk-in customers or local schools/companies needing someone to help make custom items for them, helping you differentiate your services from others.

Part of the challenge comes from adequately maintaining your available sales platforms. Many shop owners neglect their online component, which can be bad news if you’ve relied on it for a long time. Your sales will require your attention on changing market trends to keep up with shifting demand. At the same time, regular maintenance and upgrading works ensure your customers have a pleasant experience from purchasing your items or contracting your services.

There’s also the fact that you might need a significant amount of equipment and staff available to meet customer demand. Most notably, you may have to invest in expensive commercial printing equipment to get excellent results with every order you complete. But there’s plenty you’ll need to consider carefully if you do intend to adopt a mixed model for your printing services.

  • How do you ensure your services are still delivered on time?
  • How do you balance your commitments to the business models you employ?
  • How do you reconcile payments from regular customers who use different models?
  • How do you preserve a positive cash flow with so much to focus on?

With so many variables to think about, you should carefully lay out your business plans before you dive deep into the right model for your business.