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Monday, March 2, 2009

CafePress Premium Shop Owner Wees and Woes

I’ve been selling or have been trying to sell shirts and other novelty items on CafePress since 2006. In the beginning I had a couple of ideas for some shirts based on the Mongo image I use on my blog. They were a parody of the “got milk?” ads and asked people to embrace their inner “Mongo.” You know, the one who gets angry when the copier jams or knocks over three bottles reaching for one on the table. That guy, the bull in the china shop.... have you read my blog? Ever seen the graphic at the top of the page? Go ahead, I'll wait. OK.

I opened up a basic shop, uploaded my images, and sat back and waited for the money to roll in to my account. Yeah, it didn’t happen. Still, I was hopeful. I thought I tagged my images correctly but when I did a search my items were buried three or four pages deep into the results. So, I did some tweaking and some research on how to effectively tag images. Then other ideas started flooding my brain. I expanded and opened up another basic shop that dealt with Pop Culture parody items. Because the basic shop allows you to have one type of item per design, it became necessary to open up multiple shops to have a basic t-shirt with different graphics on them. It became a little tedious, but I wasn’t selling anything yet, so I couldn’t justify opening up a premium shop which would allow me different sections and multiple designs for the same style of shirt at a price. In all, I opened up three stores and in all, I sold zero product.

I kind of left the shops up and running and used my account to make calendars for my family at the base price. Everything else just sat and waited for someone to stop by and pay for a shirt $3.00 over base price. The markup is where shop keepers make their money. CafePress charges a flat rate to the customer, not the shopkeeper, and then you decide how much of a markup your design is worth. You keep the markup, CafePress keeps the base price. That, coupled with a huge amount of premium customers adds up to money in their pocket.

Lately, I decided to see if it would be worth taking the risk and paying $5.00 a month to aggregate all of my ideas into one shop. CafePress is offering a 15 day trial and if you don't like it, you can cancel it. However, be warned, if you've operated a few basic shops up until now, you may not want to upgrade. Once you go Premium, you can't revert back to basic. You would have to start all over again, so it might be more beneficial to keep your basic shops separate and open a brand new Premium shop and import your items over from your basic ones.

I kept the theme of my own personal logo, “Mongo Angry! Mongo Smash!” and added sections to cover various themes. Some of the features make owning a premium shop more beneficial. I have the ability to add various designs to the same style of shirt, which is nice. I also have the ability to modify and personalize my site with my HTML knowledge. This is going to require some time but I’ll eventually get it done.

So, after four days, how is it going? I’ve made three dollars off of a pin I created.

It was an oddball thing I thought of when I heard that people actually recognize Pi Day as March 14th, which is three days before St. Patrick’s day, and people own pins that say "Kiss me, I'm Irish." Well, you get the idea.

With that sale and a few other sales I didn’t know I had, I have managed to make about $15.00 total. This will keep the light on in my shop for three months after my initial trial ends. Now, I will have to sell about nine more items to pay for the rest of the year, and anything on top of that is profit. But is it worth it? If I can afford to spend $5.00 a month, then yeah, it’s worth it. But you have to think in certain terms.

First, while CafePress is a very nice and affordable site for a shopkeeper, it’s not exactly the same for a consumer. You are paying a lot of money for a shirt designed by an amateur. Granted, there are some talented artists out there among the sea of mediocre shirts. I do not claim to be an artist or designer, I just have a broad and insane sense of humor. My ideas are based on absurd situations or parodies of pop culture ideas. I also have to be vigilant enough to stay ahead of the current trends or someone will have beaten me to the punch. I made a little parody design for a Helicopter Tour outfit based on a popular television show. If you search “LOST” on the main site, you’ll get 11,200 results for designs on a quarter of a million products. Everything from the numbers to symbols from the stations to even character specific tees. Just for the sake of argument, my design is on page...well, I gave up after the first 500 results. Now, if I search the word “Lapidus”, you get one result and it’s my design. That’s not that great. I may have to go back and retag my image. That’s the trick. You have to think like a consumer. What kind of shirt are they looking for? Will they get it? Are your designs or store properly tagged to rank high enough in the search results? Will people be willing to go to page two or three to find your little idea on a tee?

Secondly, and more importantly, can you accept a couple of dollars off of a sale? I tried to be really fair on my prices. I have a flat rate which just makes it easier to manage. However, the base price of a blank shirt is comparable to one in the store, if not more expensive and it has an actual graphic on it. Blogs and forums will tell you to not sell yourself short, but you have to be cognizant of a struggling economy and your competition. Even the most die hard t-shirt, clothes horse is hard up for cash these days. People may not be willing to pay $20.00 for a goofy shirt that looks like a knock off of a real one. If you are trying to capture the mood of the customer for any given topic in entertainment or news, you will compete with tons of other shopkeepers for customers. Now, If you can really design well and have good marketing sense, you may be able to create a niche for yourself in unique shirts and other products. If you’re a pop culture schmo like me, you’re fighting an uphill battle with two strikes against you. You’re only going to make serious money in volume sales. Forget about trying to make it all on one shirt. Create a product that you can move repeatedly, and you’ll see the benefits.

Now, onto my biggest pet peeve. Every so often, you can get nailed by the Content Usage police. Imagine you are in the shower or some other place where you do your best mental work and an idea hits you that is so clever and funny…to you…that you spend an entire weekend tweaking a design to make it look just right. You upload you design, choose your shirt styles and then sit back and wait for the sales to roll on into your pocket. You go to bed after a long day of squinting at your pain program of choice, only to wake up to an email stating that your wonderful and fantastic image has been put into pending status. It pisses you right off it does.

I mentioned in a previous post how I had a design which was violation of content usage policy… That’s lawyer speak for, “You are not allowed that design.” I ended up redoing it, which made it look less professional but it’s still live on the site. It sucks, but I guess I really didn’t make my first design unique enough to pass the censors. However, the second design that came into question deserved a reprieve. I spent a hell of a lot of time trying to design this little parody shirt. I found a font called Nightmare Hero which gave me that Heavy Metal Feel. I felt really proud of my Keytar Hero shirt and they nailed me for it!

Further review of Cafepress’ site revealed a few shirts called Cowbell Hero which was a clever take on the whole idea. If I hadn’t seen it on Chuck, recently, I would have hoped my brain would have been able to come up with it. Alas, I did not and I won’t touch it since there is another shirt with the same logo. I just don’t have another weekend in which I can blow on a design. The ones on CafePress are a bit sloppy but similar font style, which prompted me to cry “Shenanigans” to the Content Usage Police. I informed them that I did download a free font and that there were other shirts with similar designs. They backed off and reinstated my image. Now, whether the Cowbell Hero shirts were spawned after the episode of Chuck, where the shirt was visible in a closet, or solely inspired by the hilarious Christopher Walken sketch seen on Saturday Night Live, years ago, is one of the chicken and egg people. My only concern was that if I was going down, so was everyone else. I might still do a redesign and offer it as an alternative on the chance that they may come back and say that I am infringing somewhere. This one is going to be a more 80’s style design with bright neon colors and rounded font style instead of the black and white Heavy Metal font. Who knows, it might be a bigger seller.

These are the things you deal with when you opt for a premium shop. It takes a lot of time to do the work. I spent a good hour rearranging my store so that I could group my shirts by style and then design. You can choose one or multiple items and then move them up or down by clicking on arrows on the side of the page. I added products in bulk and then had to go back and change them by grouping. You have to check each item and then choose from a drop down like “Add/Change Image”, “Change Name”, “Change Description”, "Change Markup", etc. You can only change one attribute at a time and then you have to go back and recheck each product and choose another attribute to change. Shoot me now. However, I did find a shortcut. If I created one product, say a white t-shirt, with a design I want and then realized that I could probably use a bunch of other shirts like a baseball jersey or golf shirt for the same design, I can cheat a bit when it comes to changing attributes. When you go through and check off each product to change, also check off the original item you created. This automatically populates the attribute from the original in the text field leaving you to just click “Apply Changes.” Nine out of ten times this worked successfully. If you have a lot of products in a store or section of store, it can be a tedious task to rearrange. I think they should do some work to update this feature letting you choose your items and then click and drag rather than click an up or down arrow repeatedly. Or they should change the interface all together to allow you a more dynamic feature utilizing AJAX widgets like iGoogle. I’m sure if those features become available I could get my work done more quickly. Still, I managed to get the store rearranged the way I want. Each row was a style of shirt and each column was a different graphic.

So, there you have it. I’m going to try and sprinkle in some more tips and stories from the world of a CafePress newbie from time to time. Hopefully, this will either give you inspiration to either venture out on your own or at least caution you against even starting. In any case, it will maybe drive some traffic to my store. I need to keep selling or it’s going to cut into my own t-shirt fund. Unfortunately, I may be my best customer.

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