Is it Time to Divorce Cafepress?

Let’s play the game “Spot the Differences”  Can you spot the differences between these two shirts?>Got Hole 
Well if you said nothing except the seller and the price, you would be correct.  No this isn’t a case of someone stealing another’s design, but rather an issue that my partners and I will have to decide whether or not to continue hosting our designs from on Cafepress.

First, an aside for those wondering what this shirt is all about.  It is designed to promote the game cornhole.  Cornhole is a popular game in Southwest Ohio that is essentially horseshoes with bean bags and a box with a hole in it.   Considering the proximity to Kentucky, you would think horseshoes would not be in short supply.   Anyway to get all the info you ever wanted on the game go here. 

Back to my story.  Cafepress is one of the largest Print on Demand companies for t-shirts on the web.  It is a great service that for $6.95 a month, we can post as many different designs on as many products as we want.  Typical screen printing companies make you order a minimum quantity but Print on Demand doesn’t fufill an order until someone actually buys something.  Now the downside is that instead of my costs being a couple dollars and being able to mark up the price considerably, I must take a much smaller commission.

For example, the base price that Cafepress charges me on the above pictured ladies long sleeve is $19.99.  I can then set the retail price based off that and earn the commission on the difference.  My typical up-charge on t-shirts is $4, thus the $23.99 retail price that you can get on However, you can also find the same shirt on Cafepress’ Marketplace simply by doing a search on  They had the same product at the same retail price we set and we got a $4 commission whether it was sold on our site or in the marketplace.

Everything was great and we made a small profit in 2008 and started out well in 2009.  That was up until June when Cafepress decided to change how they ran and upcharged the marketplace.

  • Beginning June 1st:  We’ll start setting prices in the Marketplace, and Shopkeepers will receive a 10% commission off the final retail prices from all Marketplace sales.  This change provides our shoppers with consistent pricing that’s competitive with other online retail stores.  It also allows us to better invest in a quality retail experience and continued growth…
  • With the Marketplace, we spend a great deal of resources to drive quality traffic through marketing and search engine marketing.

So now they set the retail price of our designs in their marketplace and we only get 10% of the commission.  So as you can see from the above example, they are charging $28 for the same shirt I charge $23.99.  Now instead of a $4 commission I am only getting $2.80 and they are getting a $5.20 profit on top of their base $19.99.  What’s more, they can undercut our retail price as well encouraging people to buy from the marketplace versus from us, thus causing a loss in commissions as well.   In the beginning we figured it would be ok because we would make up the difference in volume as they were updating the search algorithm thus driving more sales.  In fact the opposite happened.  Sales since June have dropped off considerably in the marketplace.

We spend money on Google Ad Words to drive traffic directly to but being on a limited budget it’s not much and we certainly can’t compete with what a company the size of Cafepress can do.  Besides their shear size means they will take up most if not all of the first page of search results.  Even when I do a specific search on Google of “cornhole ‘got hole’ tshirt”, you have to go through four pages of mostly Cafepress links to get to one that has WackSack in it.   The best analogy of the situation would be renting kiosk space from Walmart but they put you in the back of the store while promoting and selling your products in the front.  It’s too hard to compete.

So now we have to make a decision.  The first obvious response is to remove the ability of CP to sell our designs in their marketplace.   This may move us up in the search rankings.  The few sales the marketplace has been making won’t be missed, but we keep holding out hope that the algorithm will finally kick in.

The bigger and more drastic decision is whether or not to drop using Cafepress all together and go with a competitor like Spreadshirt or Zazzle.  This is like a divorce because the decision will invariably mean a lot of time, effort and angst.  Between work and trying to post a few times a week, my time is limited as it is.  The thought of redoing all those countless hours to remake our site somewhere else is not something we are looking forward to.

I know there are webcomic writers that host their own stores.  Do you use a Print on Demand service?  Which one?  Good and Bad?

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  1. John K says:

    I have been doing some thinking about this, and honestly, I have to say that the print on demand services totally take all the profits. while there is a storage issue to printing your own t-shirts, I think that that if you can afford the print run and storage this is the way to go.

    Cut out all middle men!!

  2. yorksnbeans says:

    There’s always more than one way to skin a cat! Go for it!

  3. George says:

    Wow! Now you’ve got me reconsidering my relationship with CafePress. I’ve heard that Zazzle is the place to be. Now I’ll seriously look into them. Thanks, B.

  4. sekanblogger says:


  5. Sheila Deeth says:

    I hadn’t thought about how print on demand and T-shirts interacted, but I’ve certainly been to cafepress to look at things before. It sounds like moving elsewhere would make a lot of sense.

  6. G says:

    Same here. It would make a lot of sense to move elsewhere. As you know, I use POD for my books, and for the most part, I kind of do it in reverse. I keep my price low so as to try to attract buyers who might be interested in purchasing my book elsewhere and have to pay through the nose for it.

    My profit isn’t much, but at least I can control how much I sell it for, either through me or elsewhere.

  7. why don’t you just buy all the equipment yourself. then in like 10 years, that will be paid off and it’ll be PURE profit.

    of course, then you’ll have to replace everything.

    • You were going to make some tshirt B…where were you going to do it. Or do you have the equipment loaded in a trailer as another one of your failed ventures that I can borrow.

  8. frigginloon says:

    Ah Bearman, wouldn’t life be great if you didn’t have to skin cats for starters. I have always been weary of using CP and others like it. If anyone has a a solution let me know too or it is back to stenciling in the backyard again!

  9. David says:

    I have only test printed one shirt and it was $17.99 through Ka-Blam. If I was to order several through them it would be cheaper. I don’t know much about Cafe Press since I haven’t used them, but I’ve also heard people using Zazzle and haven’t heard complaints. Bearman, I would think $28 is a lot. Does that include shipping?

  10. Danica says:

    Dump the cafe, I say!

  11. spilledinkguy says:

    BLAH! As if being a cartoonist isn’t a big enough challenge already. Depressing. Maybe I’ll just draw some similes to make me feel better. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  12. bschooled says:

    Why are you making me do so much math?

  13. Wow that was a lot of reading. I have been thinking about doing something with t-shirts and who to go with recently so I’m new to all this. Once you figure out which one is the best let me know.

  14. Lynn says:

    I’ve been with cafepress for over 10 years. I too am pissed off. After 2 months of allowing the marketplace sales, I shut it off. I too didn’t see an increase in volume (even factoring summer slowdowns). Last month I made $24 from the marketplace that should have been $180. Since they accepted venture capital funding the are not the same cafepress. I keep hoping that they come to their senses. I’ve decided to keep my regular stores because it’s just not worth moving and doing the setup. (I have over 700 designs.)

    I would strongly suggest not to go the independent printing and selling route. A lot of time and money for not a big enough payoff. T-shirt licensing isn’t what it once was but the direct to catalog market can be lucrative.

    Don’t forget to complain to cafepress. Maybe if enough of their bigger vendors complain, they will come to their senses.

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