The Complete Guide to Starting an Online T-Shirt Business
Online T-shirt business is one of the fastest growing eCommerce niches today. According to research, apparel market in the U.S in general has been continuously growing over the last few decades, while online apparel business has been the most popular e-commerce category in the United States. Apparel, footwear and accessories retail e-commerce revenue in 2023 is predicted to reach over 145bn USD in 2023, which is a 30% increase as compared to the current level. The T-shirt product category, particularly, is one of the most attractive among other categories for retailers by many criteria including potential revenue, high margins, low order return rates and low costs of fulfillment. What makes this category even more attractive for beginning online entrepreneurs is that they can use on demand T-shirt printing and fulfillment services that allow to minimize overhead and operating cost. This business model is called T-shirt dropshipping, where you submit the orders made in your online store to a dropshipping company that prints ordered T-shirts on demand and sends them directly to your customers. You neither need a retail space nor a warehouse and can run your business from your laptop anywhere in the world.
Whether you want to start an online T-shirt store as a side hustle or want to develop it into a fully-functional online business over time, we hope our tips will help you start it off on the right foot and ensure its long-term success.
Where to Start?
The technical side of starting an online T-shirt business is probably one of the easiest steps. All you need to start an online T-shirt store is a standard set of steps required to start any eCommerce business, including registering a business, obtaining a taxpayer ID, choosing an eCommerce website builder and setting up bank accounts and payment methods.
What is more important at the beginning than all these technicalities for the future success of your online T-shirt company, is developing a viable and competitive concept of your online T-shirt store brand. As you can imagine you are not the only reader of this article, and the niche is getting more and more saturated in a matter of days, not weeks. The downside of its attractiveness is that this business has low entrance barriers allowing anyone without special technical skills to start and run it. If your brand doesn’t offer a unique selling proposition and doesn’t stand out from the competition, it will not become profitable and will not last long.
Developing a Unique Concept and Prototyping T-Shirt Designs
This step is the most important of all and determines the destiny of your future online business. One important warning to make before we dive deep into this step is that, if you already have an idea or a concept for your online T-shirt store, don’t create a “halo effect” around it. The more critical you stay to your own ideas and the more open you are to verify or disprove them with research, the more chances are that your project will succeed. The main distinction here is that trends and social interests determine the concept of your online brand and what T-shirt designs you will be selling, and not vice versa. Of course, “Willie’s T's” or “Sophie’s T’s” sound cool but you won’t be able to deliver a meaningful message to your potential customers if you put your persona as a starting point for developing a business. So, remember, when starting an online T-shirt business, the framework for developing a unique and profitable concept is as follows – “from the AUDIENCE to T-shirt DESIGNS to CONCEPT / IDEA / BRAND”, and not “from IDEA to DESIGNS to an AUDIENCE. Even if you already have a bright idea you think will work 100%, please verify it by going through the following steps:
- Researching trends and find groups of interests to target
- Coming up with innovative and engaging designs and prints
- Wrapping up your design ideas into a brand concept
On the first step you study what already exists, on the second, you come up with something new, and, on the third, you build a brand to connect the dots between the market and the products you are going to offer.
Researching Existing Trends & Audiences
In order to succeed in any business you have to be clear about your customers’ needs. The good news is that you don’t need to research your customers directly and involve into an extensive market research. Since you are already entering an existing market, you can learn about the customers by learning about the products the buy. More specifically, what you need to do in this step is to thoroughly study currently popular designs and styles of T-shirts that are already on the market in order to determine existing trends and interests. T-shirts that feature prints and designs are not just a piece of clothing, they are a means of individual self-expression dictated by social trends, interests and stereotypes. By looking at popular prints and trying to imagine what social ideas they convey or who would willingly put them on you will be able to identify customer groups sharing common mindsets expressed in similar ways.
So how do you do this? Get a sheet of paper or an app where you like to make notes and go to Amazon, Aliexpress or a similar website and start typing in basic searches like “t shirts”, “popular t shirts men”, “funny t shirts” and etc. Scan through the first few pages of search results and start jotting down what stereotypes or types of buyers resonate with the products you see. For example, this can be “midwest”, “geeky”, “rugged”, “2nd amdt”, “dog lover” or whatever comes to your mind.
The way products are displayed on the search result pages of these marketplaces is not random, they are profoundly putting the most demanded products first to cater to the audiences who are most likely to buy, so you will be able to jot down some audience insights in less than an hour and get a clear idea what customer groups you could potentially aim at. Don’t be afraid to put more time into this. The more time it takes the more understanding you’ll gain and that, in its turn, is crucial for your success.
Always remember the reason why you are doing this. Again, it’s not time for creative ideas just yet. Although you can make some notes for the future, the ultimate goal of this step is not to copy someone’s ideas or brainstorm new but to determine groups of consumers sharing similar ways of self-expression and to find out what groups are most dominant on the market and are worth targeting with your future products.
Innovating & Prototyping
Once you have decided on the audiences you want to turn into your future customers, ask yourself:
- Does existing variety of prints seem exhaustive?
- Can I find a different approach to help this audience’s self-expression?
- What can be improved in the imagery or in general?
- What would make my designs stand out?
Answers to these questions will help you outline creative ideas and draft initial prototypes you will later use when creating your products.
Play with stereotypes and use creative approach in Google search to find relevant ideas. You may type in:
- “What are common misconceptions about _________?”
- “What are funny stereotypes about _________?”
- “__________ humor”
- “Funny __________ slang”
Fill in the blanks with some phrases characterizing your audience. Say, if your audience is gamers, your search phrases may look like:
- “What are common misconceptions about gamers?”
- “What are funny stereotypes about gamers?”
- “Gaming humor”
- “Funny gaming slang”
This alone will bring you an abundance of ideas. But don’t spend too much time on this step, your goal is to verify that there’s enough space for a new business in your chosen niche. Note that this is not a product development phase and there are a few more steps that are yet to be accomplished before you can approach creating T-shirt design mock-ups to begin populating your store with product data.
Developing a Conveying Concept
Once you become certain about your future customers and know exactly what you are going to offer them, it’s time to wrap this information up into a viable concept or an idea of your online T-shirt business. “I want to start an online T-shirt business” is a wish, not an idea. What you had before you began researching the market and have chosen a niche was merely a wish. A viable idea of a new business is not an abstract thought, it is a statement that defines how your products and your audience will connect to each other. Your voice, your storytelling about the brand, the name you choose for it, the logo, graphic design of the store and other brand identity elements are the means of building this connection. You are not required to create all of these at once on this step but primarily to set a clear definition of your brand. What it is that you are going to sell? Consider using this template to practice answering this question:
T-shirts with [Simple / fun / loud and etc.] messaging about [What’s important for your audience?] designed for [Who is your audience? What adjectives describe it?].
As an exercise, try filling out the blanks to describing your brand:
T-shirts with __________ messaging about ____________ designed for __________.
T-shirts with simple messaging about living an adventurous and fulfilling life designed for the skater / surfer tribe.
The bottom line is that for your online T-shirt brand to be visible and recognizable by your target customers, it needs to have a distinct and relatable concept that encompasses interests and mindsets of your target audience and bridges them with your products.
Now, that you have a viable T-shirt store concept in place, know your customers, and have a few T-shirt design ideas and sketches it will be easier for you to find the suppliers who will help you bring your idea into reality.
Choosing the Right Print-On-Demand T-Shirt Dropshipping Supplier
This task is one of the least complicated, gone are the days when you had to be creative to find the best T-shirt suppliers for your store. In fact, T-shirt dropshipping companies are actively competing for new customers. However, when you start your research you’ll see that there’s a variety of on-demand apparel printing companies online and screen printing shops in your area. The pitfall is that most of them are not suitable for the dropshipping model that allows to sell T-shirts online without inventory due to minimum order quantities and lack of streamlined direct-to-consumer fulfillment. What you must be looking for is companies who not only offer printing services but the full-cycle of fulfillment and dropshipping. The most prominent print-on-demand dropshippers include Printify, Printful and Gooten. If you haven’t done your research yet, this Top 10 List of On-Demand T-Shirt Printing And Fulfillment Companies will save your time and give you a good head start in the process.
The good news about the modern day T-shirt dropshipping business is that major online store builders, offer out-of-the-box integrations that connect an online store with a T-shirt dropshipper. These integrations are apps that bridge software running your store with a supplier’s order processing system. In simple words, when you receive a new order in your store, you don’t need to call or email your supplier asking to fulfill it or enter your order manually on their website, the order automatically gets in their system and from that moment they take care of printing the T-shirt and sending it to your customer when it’s ready. Your only task is to check to track the progress periodically and update your customers.
Bringing Your Online T-Shirt Store Dream into Reality
After you have completed the legal formalities, set up an online store, developed the concept of your business and found suppliers, the last steps necessary to turn your idea into a working business is filling up your store with product assortment and marketing them to the audience.
Developing Your Product Offering
Now you can pick up where you left off with prototyping and move forward with creating T-shirt designs to fill up your store with assortment. This is the most fun part of the entire process and you can either do it yourself with popular software like Adobe Photoshop, Gimp, InDesign, or many others. Downloadable T-shirt mockup templates are widely available online in a variety of styles.
If you are not that creative type of a person and need help, there are several options:
- To outsource the creation of templates and mockups, you can simply hire a freelancer. Freelance marketplaces like WeWork have an abundance of talents who are willing to help you for pennies on the dollar.
- Another option that offers a more streamlined process is using specialized online services that will not only help you with T-shirt designs but with the creation of the entire brand identity for your store.
- Suppliers also offer ready-made designs and templates you can use, given they are exactly what you were looking for and are matching your brand idea. You’ll also find online mockup software on their websites, like https://mockup.printaura.com/:
- If suppliers’ mockups are not enough, you can use a third part mockup generator software. PlaceIt offers a great service where you will not only be able to create a mockup but also the lifestyle images you can later upload to your website:
For best results, you may use any of our suggestions as alternatives or as a combination of two or more. For example, you may outsource the creative process 99designs.com and then upload your designs to PlaceIt to choose from hundreds of mockups using a variation of backgrounds and lifestyle setups.
One huge misconception among aspiring online entrepreneurs is that making your online store live and filling it up with product data is sufficient for turning it into a passive income source. making sales. This case is not true. Filling up the store with product images and descriptions does not guarantee it will become visible to your target audience and make any sales at all. To get your first orders and to secure future revenue growth, you need to start developing a marketing strategy and pick out the right marketing channels for your T-shirt brand.
Marketing Your Online T-Shirt Store
As you already realize, T-shirt business and the apparel industry in general is becoming an increasingly competitive industry. For new companies in this field, success largely depends on how effectively they select and use marketing channels to make their unique T-shirts accessible to the widest possible audience of target customers. Bear with us and you’ll learn about the channels to put the emphasis on and will gain some insights on using them in your strategy.
The demand on T-shirts and other apparel items is highly influenced by existing trends and social media has become the main trendsetter that makes products popular and helps to reach the end consumer. Those who understand this bet on creating and growing brand following. An obvious advantage in starting to build following for your business would be if you already identify yourself or your interests with the social group you chose as your target customer.
First, If you belong to this audience yourself and actively interact with it on social media, you likely have a good understanding of what grabs its attention and what engages it the most, which will make it so much easier for you to not only start spreading the word about your store but also engage the audience and grow your following in a meaningful way.
Second, if you already have a less or more significant number of subscribers and followers of your Facebook and Instagram accounts, you’ll be able to get your first orders very soon after launching your product placement campaign. That’s exactly what you’ll notice about popular social influencers who are consistently launching their own apparel, cosmetics and other consumer goods brands. They are not doing it out of mere vanity or because it’s a trend. While not everyone uses it right, it is another easy way for them to monetize their popularity that otherwise becomes a lost opportunity.
If you have none of the above then you still have to start building the social media presence of your brand from scratch and learn how to interact with your audience. Just because social media is so powerful nowadays you can’t neglect it or not give it enough attention if you want to succeed.
You can start small by producing engaging and viral content, including attention-grabbing lifestyle imagery, stories, videos, and conversation-provoking posts and comments.
Another way to use social media if you don’t have your own following is to partner with influencers in your niche market. In fact, for many startup brands influencer marketing is what they bet on most. If you can't find influencers whose product placement fees fit your budget then alternatively you can leverage personal relationship with an influencer you know individually or search for promising accounts who are yet to gain their influence and find ways to partner with them at lower cost.
Not to be confused with the previous, the second most effective channel in the T-shirt niche is advertising on social networks. While building social media following is more of a long-term strategy, social media advertisement aims at making sales as its primary goal. Social media ads are very powerful. Instagram and Facebook ad campaigns allow you to target demographics, locations and even areas of interests. If you have done a good homework coming up with a T-shirt brand concept that aligns with a specific audience, then determining its interests and cross-layering them in your campaign will guarantee that your products will show up in front of the people who are most likely to make a purchase.
Perhaps, the only pitfall for using this channel is that the current demand on social media advertising is so high that bidding costs are increasing day-after-day. A slowdown in the advertising fees growth is not expected in the near future, and the only advice we can give is to tap into this opportunity as early as you can.
Google and Bing Product Ads
The next in importance marketing channel you would want to utilize to earn your first sales and grow your baseline is product ads on Google and Bing search engines:
Product ads, or what they are also called shopping feeds, on Google and Bing are very similar; in addition to product images, they display prices, titles, store names, review ratings and promotional incentives:
Because visual appeal is very important for apparel customers, this channel is one of the top channels in online T-shirt marketing. This type of advertisement allows to showcase your products to potential buyers without taking them to your website. You only pay for clicks from visitors who liked what they saw on the product ad images and who are very likely to make a purchase.
The success of your product feed ads depends on two things:
- how precisely are T-shirt designs described in product titles and descriptions
- how those titles and descriptions correspond with search phrases typed by search engine users
Google and Bing don’t use images to pull up search results. They rely on the text information provided by sellers. They look into the search phrase and match it with headings and description from merchants’ data feeds to find and show the most relevant results. And then it’s users’ take to decide on whether what they see matches their intents and fits their budgets.
The more abstract and novell your designs and ideas are, the more difficult it will be to map them to specific search phrases. On the contrary, if your T-shirts use popular text phrases or memes they will be easier to sell via product ads. The bottom lines is that accuracy and descriptiveness of the text elements you submit with your product ads is the key to successful use of this marketing channel.
Search Engine Optimization
Search Engine Optimization is what makes product and category pages of your store appear on the search results pages of Google and other search engines. Now, why do you need SEO in online T-shirt business, specifically:
- SEO is responsible for your website appearing in search when your customers search for your brand
- SEO will help specific T-shirt designs to be pulled up in search when they match search queries made by search users who are looking for specific designs
- SEO is important to make your website’s category pages compete for broad searches, like “cool halloween t shirts”, “hip hop t shirts”, “meme t shirts” and etc.
While this channel is nominally free, it requires work and effort to get your website’s pages show in search. Although not featured at the top of our list, search engine optimization is no less important channel for both making sales and creating brand awareness. However, focusing on this channel when you are making your first steps may not bring immediate results and may eventually create a sense of discouragement after a few months of hard work, if you are not putting your effort in other channels. Bear in mind that, if you want to compete for broad category-related search phrases, due to high competitiveness of the industry, your online store compete with both large retailers who spend use professional SEO services and thousands of similar stores like yours. Again, this doesn’t mean you don’t need to pay attention to your SEO, it is as crucial as other marketing tools but it’s aiming at long term results rather than short-term profits and requires work. Sooner or later you’ll start receiving free traffic, if you are doing everything right. Our recipe for success in SEO for your online T-shirt store includes the following tips:
- Ensure you sign up for an out-of-the-box online store builder software that is SEO friendly and doesn’t contain any major roadblocks for search engines to crawl and index your website. eCommerce SEO is very different from SEO for blogs and other types of websites and requires your online store platform to have built-in features that comply with best eCommerce practices.
- Combine SEO work with product data population work you are doing on a day-to-day basis by creating unique and comprehensive descriptions and titles when you are adding new products to your store.
- Categorize products based on different interests of your audience and build standalone category pages and navigation filters. This will not only improve the user experience on your website leading to more conversions but will also give an additional quality signal to search engines that you have entire areas of your website that are relevant to the T-shirt industry and it’s specific niches.
Avoiding Legal Problems in the T-shirt Business
The worst thing you can do in the online T-shirt business is start copying the designs of others and use graphic and text materials that are protected by copyright. Do not tempt yourself with short-term profits and do not break the law in its pursuit. Otherwise, it may result not only in your failing the business but also in lawsuits, thousands of dollars of fines and other legal repercussions. Always check if the design you want to borrow is protected by law.
Also, do not forget that as soon as you start any online business, it becomes a subject of taxes on business and sales. Always keep a record of sales subject to state sales and use taxes based on the Nexus of your legal entity registration and file taxes on time.
How to Manage and Grow Your Online T-Shirt Business
What should you do when the wheels of your online T-shirt business are set in motion? When your business is up and running, it may become your side hustle that brings extra pocket money or even a way to escape your nine-to-five job depending on how much time and energy you are willing to spend building and growing it. The last thing you want to happen is to overwork yourself running it or for your business to become another chore that doesn’t make you passionate. In order for you to stay sane when there are too many things going on, here are our suggestions on what to focus on to support your online T-shirt business while maintaining a healthy work-life balance:
Always Know Your Numbers and Optimize The Use of Marketing Channels
You need to know how your sales channels performs and how much you need to spend on each. Tracking the performance of each channel will allow you to see if your efforts bring results or if you are spending too much time where it is not needed. For example, if you see that engagement on social channels is not as good as it was when you started, it may be a sign that your audience is getting tired of self-repeating content and you need to reapproach your strategy. In the fashion industry, what worked yesterday may not be the best fit for tomorrow.
Knowing your numbers will also help you identify best selling T-shirt designs and help them become more visible across all channels to maximize your ROI.
Continuously Add New Designs and Grow Assortment
As your marketing channels need to be reviewed over time so does the assortment of your T-shirt store. If you nailed the interests of your primary target audience right, adding new prints to your selection that stay along the lines of the same tastes will only increase your sales and customer commitment. At the same time, while staying committed to your old clientele, you may try to start experimenting with different audiences whether it will require starting new social campaigns and opening new online store brands or not. Focus on what’s selling best but always think about tomorrow and experiment with new imagery, colors and memes. Look into your past successes and scale them up. The sky's the limit.
We hope this guide has sparked your entrepreneurial interest in starting and running your own T-shirt online store using the dropshipping model and will help you strategically see your future in this business for the months and years ahead. If you have any questions or want to share your success story, please start a conversation by leaving a comment below and don’t forget to click social media icons below to share this article with your circle.