Merch fulfillment can be kind of awful.
I think so, at least.
A couple of years ago, Tom and I put out an EP to honor our grandparents, and as part of the project, we decided to print a (very) small run of CDs using Disc Makers.
They came out great…
⬆️ I’ve had these in my desk for the last 2.5 years ha.
It was awesome to have those discs on-hand for the release show we did; I think we ordered 50 and sold around half of them at that event (I forget the exact numbers, so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, Tom).
It felt totally worthwhile.
But we also had like 10 people buy a CD online, and that’s where stuff got rough.
Because, to be honest, I had no experience fulfilling merch orders before doing this. We’d set up a store on our website, but I hadn’t even thought about it how we’d actually send stuff to people. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” I thought.
Rookie mistake; turns out, that was a bridge that I should’ve crossed the moment it was in sight.
Here’s what ended up happening:
1. Nice people bought the CDs.
2. I realized I had no idea how to send the nice people CDs or manage the backend of the store I’d set up. (I literally tried to stuff a CD into a normal envelope and only realized it wouldn’t work when I couldn’t get it to fit.)
3. I googled “how to ship CDs.”
4. I got confused by the search results and stupidly bought the wrong kind of (extra expensive) packaging.
5. We ended up paying like $12 shipping per CD and losing money on each order.
Also, this whole process took me like a month, so after a couple of weeks some of the nice people emailed me to ask where the heck their CDs were.
They were all genuinely nice about it, though.
Moral of the story: Merch fulfillment sucks.
Ha, that’s not really true. I think if you’re a detail-oriented person (so, not me), merch fulfillment might be rewarding. It’s inarguably rewarding to have people support your artistry / buy your CD / rep your merch, and I think with the right processes in place, the whole thing wouldn’t be too bad.
Experience helps; if I tried to fulfill CDs again, I think even I would have an easier time of it.
But, guess what (and this still kind of blows my mind)…
You actually don’t even have to manage fulfillment yourself to sell your own merch.
All you have to do is set up an online store and fill it with dope products.
Today, there are a bunch of services that offer print-on-demand + drop-shipping. If you’re selling physical products online, this is like the greatest combination to happen to the internet since Marcel + the Shell.
It breaks down like this…
Print-on-demand means that you don’t have to have any existing inventory to offer a product. When a customer buys, the service prints a single version of the product for the customer.
This is actually how my book is set up on Amazon. When someone buys it, Amazon’s KDP division prints a single copy. The outcome of this is that I get to have the ego boost of seeing my book in print, but I don’t have to face the pride-stinging likelihood of having stacks of it stored, unread, in my closet.
In other words, you don’t have to pay upfront for inventory you might never sell.
Dropshipping means that you don’t have to take care of the shipping for a product. Instead, a service will package and ship your stuff directly to the people who’ve purchased. Again, this means you don’t need to worry about storing any inventory or even managing any of the logistics.
And last awesome thing – for a lot of these services, you (the artist / creator) don’t have to pay anything.
The cost of the whole system is baked into the price of the products; the printing / shipping services themselves make money when your fans purchase your stuff.
(The caveat to this is that print-on-demand t-shirts are more expensive than what you could buy in bulk from Custom Ink or something.)
I guess in 2022 this is basic internet entrepreneur stuff, but I still think the whole thing is crazy.
And here’s why I’m writing about it: even though this stuff exists, I don’t see that many artists – especially indies – taking advantage of it.
I think you probably should. Here’s what I’d recommend:
1. Create a free store.
There are a bunch of different platforms. My two favorite at the moment are:
Teemill – They’re based in the UK, so shipping to the US is a little slower, and they don’t have the widest range of products. But I like them because a) the products they do have are very high quality, and b) their ethos is sustainability / waste reduction, which I think is very cool.
Printful – I use them for Two Story Melody’s merch because they have a ridiculously large selection of products and they ship pretty fast. Quality is generally pretty good, but occasionally they’ve shipped me items that could’ve used a bit more attention to detail.
Both of those are affiliate links, btw.
Also, if you want a review of what’s out there, we’ve got a post that walks through a bunch of the other options here.
2. Create cool merch.
One general note on this – I’d recommend opting for quality products over cost-efficient ones.
Because, hey, I love a good Gildan t-shirt as much as the next guy, but it’s cooler for your fans to have the super-soft, sustainably made, organic cotton blend or whatever.
Your fans aren’t shopping for bargains at Walmart here; they’re supporting your art. So most folks won’t mind the extra $10 it takes to print, and it’ll make the product feel cooler.
3. Sell your merch via email.
I’ve outlined this before, but I’d recommend setting up a welcome sequence for people who sign up for your email list. (You can do this on virtually any email platform.)
A few emails in, offer people a chance to support your art via your dope merch.
I know a lot of us struggle with selling, but you don’t have to be annoyingly pushy about it. In fact, if people are engaged with your artistry, it’s actually nice for them to have an easy way to support you. And people who sacrifice (i.e., pay for a t-shirt) for something tend to care more about it.
Setting up your merch offers an easy way for your fans to enter into your artistry.
Now, a couple of final notes on this whole idea…
1. I still think it’s worth it to have inventory on-hand.
Print-on-demand + dropshipping services are great, but if you’re playing shows, you should absolutely have merch to offer in the room with you.
That means buying some stuff in bulk.
It’s better to sell in-person this way, because bulk orders make the price bearable, and you (or your friends at the merch table) are literally handing the products to people, so fulfillment is as easy as it gets.
2. You’re almost definitely not going to make that much money with print-on-demand merch.
Oh, you can make some. But the print-on-demand margins are slim, for obvious reasons, and unless you’re driving thousands of people to your email list each month, you probably won’t sell too many items.
But the little bit of cash is nice, and remember, the main thing isn’t the money, anyway – it’s that you’re giving your fans a chance to rep your artistry.
3. I actually don’t know of any services that print CDs or vinyl records on demand.
Well, that’s not completely true. I’ve heard of a couple, but none of them see to be anywhere near as established as the big print-on-demand services, and they seem more complicated to set up. Like, here’s one called Kunaki that seems like it was built in 1998.
(Although, to be fair, I haven’t tried them myself.)
So, if you’re selling physical copies of your music, you might still have to use Disc Makers or something similar.
And, on that note, a final word to the wise..
Make sure you know what kind of packaging a CD is supposed to be shipped in.
…Before you promise to ship CDs to people.
Trust me on that one.
Hope some of this was helpful, and here’s wishing you good luck, as always.