How to Sell Merch and Actually Be Profitable (Step-by-Step Guide)

Tuesday September 26
20 min. read
All information of this content was reviewed by our team to ensure it was accurate and up-to-date at the time it was last updated. Learn more about our verification
How should I make and sell merch online?

💡 Quick Answer: Identify the type of merchandise you want to offer and use tools like Canva and Placeit to create your designs. Then, buy your products in bulk or use a print-on-demand platform. Set up an online store and promote your products on multiple marketing channels. Prioritize customer service and focus on continual improvement to scale your business.

Introduction

You’ve probably noticed that merch is everywhere these days.

Just a few years ago, it was only big brands and famous musicians. Today, everyone from your favorite YouTuber to that niche podcast you love is selling merch online.

And there’s a good reason for it.

First, the internet has made it super easy for anyone to set up shop and sell custom merch. There are tons of platforms where you can upload a design, slap it onto products, and boom – you can start selling merchandise.

No need to order in bulk and cover massive upfront costs.

Secondly, people love supporting their favorite creators. They get a cool product, but they also feel more connected to the creator.

You can make a lot of cash selling merch. But it can also help build awareness. Someone wearing your t-shirt acts as a walking billboard for your brand.

In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know to sell merchandise online. From picking a product and creating a unique design to building a merch store and marketing, we’ve got you covered.

Let’s dive in.

Finding your niche and ideation

Before you can start selling merch, you need to know what you’re going to sell. Here’s how to come up with some awesome ideas for your merchandise.

This guide is focused on selling merch. But if you want to branch out and expand beyond your own merch, make sure you read our guide on how to start selling online.

The big deal about your niche

Picking the right niche sets up a strong foundation for your merch business. There are three key things to keep in mind:

Personal interests

Start with something you’re passionate about. If you love what you’re selling, everything from designing to marketing is more enjoyable.

Current trends

While it’s important to focus on your interests, keeping an eye on what’s trending is smart. You can use Google Trends to see the interest in product and niche ideas over time. It’s a great way to spot what’s trending and verify demand.

You’re on the right track if you combine your interests with something trending.

Target audience

This one’s key. You need to know who you’re selling custom merchandise to. If you nail down a niche with a clear audience, you can tailor your designs and marketing specifically to them. When you know your audience, making merch they’ll want to buy is much easier.

Brainstorming ideas

When you’ve sorted your niche, it’s time to develop creative merchandise ideas.

Research

Look at what others in your niche are doing. What types of products are creators and influencers in your niche selling?

You’re not looking to steal their ideas. The goal is to see which types of products resonate with your audience.

It’s also important to remember the types of products people buy online.

Most popular categories for online purchases in the U.S. as of June 2023:

There’s a reason that lots of people are selling branded t-shirts and tote bags. These products fall into the most popular eCommerce categories.

If you need some inspiration, check out our list of the most popular print-on-demand products you can start selling today.

Ask your audience

Do you have an existing online following? Or are you part of an online community?

These people are your potential customers. So instead of guessing what they might like, ask them. You can use online polls and surveys to get a good idea of what they’re into.

Collaborate

Team up with a friend or someone who makes stuff. Sharing ideas can be a great way to come up with something original. You might discover ideas you hadn’t thought of on your own.

Design and product creation

Let’s jump into the fun part. Here’s how you create eye-catching designs for your merch.

Unique and compelling designs

Here’s the thing. There’s a lot of merchandise already out there. So, how do you make products that don’t just blend into the background?

By making your designs both unique and compelling.

Your designs should be distinct to you or your brand. Even if you’re working within a popular niche, there’s always a way to put a fresh twist on things. Think about what your audience finds funny, appealing, or meaningful. Try to embed those elements into your designs.

Tools and platforms to create your designs

You probably don’t have a degree in graphic design. And it’s unlikely you have been drawing masterpieces on napkins in your spare time. But you don’t need to be a pro to create awesome designs if you use the right tools.

Canva

Canva is a popular online design tool that’s easy to use. It comes with a bunch of templates and a drag-and-drop editor. Whether designing a t-shirt or a mug, you can pull things around, add elements, and make adjustments until your design looks great. They also have loads of free icons, images, and fonts to use.

Placeit

If you like templates, you’ll love Placeit. You’ll find a huge range of templates for custom merch designs. There’s a great feature that lets you see what your design will look like on different products. You can check how it looks on a t-shirt, hoodie, or phone case.

Adobe Spark

Adobe Spark is a step up if you’re feeling a bit adventurous. It offers more customization options than Canva or Placeit. But it’s a bit more technical. It’s a great option if you want more control over your designs without purchasing professional software.

Sourcing and production

Turning your cool merch ideas into tangible products is the next big step. But where do you start?

Let’s uncover your product sourcing options.

Sourcing options: What’s out there?

There are two ways you can get your online merch produced.

Print-on-demand (POD) services

These companies are a great option if you’re starting out. You upload your designs, choose from the different product types, and the POD company will print and ship products as orders come in. So, there’s no need for any upfront investment. It’s a great way to test the demand for your products and reduce the risk involved.

For a rundown of the best POD platforms, read our list of the best print-on-demand companies for dropshipping.

Bulk manufacturing

If you’re sure your products will sell, bulk manufacturing is the way to go. This means ordering your merchandise in large quantities from a manufacturer. It can lower your per-item cost, but you’ll have to manage inventory and storage.

There are two ways to go about bulk manufacturing. You can order from a company that produces and prints your custom products or buy white-label products and pay for a printer to add your design.

If you’re looking for reliable white-label suppliers, check out the SaleHoo Directory. You’ll find a huge range of manufacturers, distributors, and wholesalers.

Every supplier in the SaleHoo Directory has been vetted. So, you’re cutting out a lot of guesswork and potential headaches.

If you do buy in bulk, you also have the option of selling wholesale to other retailers. You can learn how to do this and where to sell in our ultimate guide to selling wholesale online.

Finding trustworthy manufacturers

Dealing with manufacturers for the first time can feel a bit intimidating. But you can streamline the process and reduce the risk by following these best practices:

Do your research

The best places to find suppliers are online directories, trade shows, and local business directories. Check what people say about a company before committing to an order. You should be able to find reviews and customer feedback online.

Ask for samples

Make sure you ask for a sample product before you order in bulk. That way, you can judge the quality of the product for yourself and see if it will meet your customer’s expectations.

Clear communication

A good supplier should provide clear answers to your questions. If it takes a long time to get a response or their reply feels vague or confusing, it’s a red flag.

Payment terms

Understand how payments work. Are there upfront costs? What about deposits? Knowing this can help you manage your budget and avoid any nasty surprises.

Turnaround times

Ask the supplier or manufacturer how long it will take for the shipment to arrive at your doorstep from the moment you place an order.

Local vs. overseas

If you go with a local manufacturer, you might get your products quicker. And it can be easier to talk to them. But, on the flip side, choosing an overseas supplier might be cheaper. You’ll need to weigh up what’s right for your business.

Branding and packaging

So, your products are all set. But have you thought about your packaging and branding?

It might sound small compared to everything else, but it’s super important.

Developing a consistent brand image

Your brand is much more than what you sell. It’s how customers perceive you and recognize your products.

Logos

A well-designed logo can boost brand recognition and tell a story. It’s the face of your brand. Keep it simple and easily recognizable.

If you need help designing your logo, use the tools mentioned earlier in the guide. Canva and Placeit are great options to help you design a memorable logo, even if graphic design isn’t your thing.

Color schemes

Colors can evoke emotions. A study of 4,500 participants from around the globe found that people associate the same feelings with the same colors, no matter where they’re from.

Make sure you choose colors that align with your brand’s vibe. For example, blue is associated with calmness, while red signifies passion and can be energizing. Whichever colors you choose, stick to a limited palette - 2 to 3 primary colors. Consistency is key, so use the same shades across your website, products, and marketing.

Typography

The fonts you choose matter. Is your brand serious or more playful and relaxed?

Choose a font that matches your brand image. Like your color scheme, stay consistent, and use the same font across your brand.

Creating memorable and appealing packaging

The unboxing experience has become a crucial part of the ecommerce experience. When your product lands on their doorstep, you want people to say ‘wow,’ not ‘meh.’

Here’s how you can leave a lasting impression:

Keep it simple

Overcomplicated packaging can be frustrating. Choose a clean, straightforward design that’s easy for customers to open and dispose of or recycle.

You also want to make sure your packaging is sturdy enough to protect your merchandise. Don’t sacrifice protection for aesthetics.

Personal touches

A handwritten thank-you note or a small freebie can elevate the unboxing experience. These simple gestures can go a long way. It shows that you value your customers and appreciate their support.

Consistent branding

Remember the importance of consistency for your logo and color scheme? The same goes for your packaging. Incorporate your branding into the packaging to reinforce brand recognition.

Setting up your online store

Now, you’ve got all the ingredients to start selling merch online. But you need a place to sell it.

Here’s how to set up an online store for your merchandise.

For a more detailed walkthrough, you’ll want to read our in-depth guide on starting an online store.

Comparing eCommerce platforms

First, you need a platform to host your store. Let’s quickly review and compare your main options:

Shopify

Shopify is a user-friendly platform designed specifically for eCommerce. If you’re looking for an all-in-one platform to host your store, Shopify is a great option. It handles everything from storefront design to payment processing.

You pay a monthly fee, and Shopify will charge a percentage of your sales revenue. In return, you get a ton of features and integrations right out of the box.

WooCommerce

WooCommerce is a free eCommerce plugin for WordPress. If you already have a WordPress site, it’s super easy to integrate. The biggest benefit of WooCommerce is flexibility. You can customize everything to make your store look and work exactly how you want it to.

The biggest drawback is that it’s a little more complicated than other platforms. And keep in mind that while WooCommerce is free, you will have to pay for your own hosting.

Etsy

If you’re looking for a platform with an existing audience of shoppers, Etsy is your best bet. It’s a marketplace, so you’re setting up a store on a larger platform. Etsy doesn’t charge a monthly fee, but it charges listing fees and takes a small percentage of your sales.

Etsy isn’t the only marketplace you can use to sell your merch. Check out the resources below to discover the best places to sell online.

Wix

Wix has steadily increased its eCommerce features and carved out a large chunk of the market. The platform is well-known for its simple drag-and-drop editor and is an excellent option for beginners. If you want more design flexibility but feel intimidated by WooCommerce, test out Wix.

How to set up an online store (step-by-step)

When you’ve decided on a platform, it’s time to build your merch store.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Domain registration

Your domain is the web address people will use to find you online. It should be closely related to your brand name and memorable.

Start by brainstorming words, phrases, and concepts that reflect your brand. Think of catchy names that are closely related to what you’re offering.

Once you have a list, check if these names are available. Platforms like GoDaddy, Namecheap, and Bluehost offer free search tools to see if your chosen domain is free.

When you spot the perfect name, register it and set it to auto-renew. This means you won’t accidentally lose your domain if you forget to renew at the end of the registration contract.

2. Sign up

Next, you need to sign up for the platform you want to use. We’ve already covered your options. The best choice will depend on your budget and how comfortable you are with web development.

Most platforms offer free trial periods. You can test out each platform and explore its features before you commit.

3. Design customization

Your design choices make a big impression on potential customers. A recent study found that 94% of first impressions of a website are related to web design. It should be attractive, easy to navigate, and reflective of your brand.

The first design choice is picking a theme. Platforms like Shopify and Wix come with a range of pre-designed themes. Look at your options and choose one that matches your existing branding.

After selecting a theme, it’s time to make it yours. You can integrate your own logo, brand colors, and chosen fonts.

Make sure your design looks great and is user-friendly. A great user experience can lead to more sales.

4. Add products

The next step is to add your products. There are a few things to keep in mind.

First, you need to invest in high-quality images. This is super important. Customers rely heavily on images since they can’t physically touch your products. Take multiple photos from different angles and highlight the key features.

When it comes to product descriptions, they should be detailed, informative, and engaging. Customers want to know how the product will improve their lives, so start with the benefits and then support them with features.

5. Set up payment gateways

Payment gateways provide a secure way for you to accept multiple payment methods. They also help your customers feel safe when making a purchase.

You can use a built-in payment processor if you use Shopify or Wix. All you need to do is provide a few details about your business and connect your bank account.

These platforms also give you the option of integrating third-party gateways. Pay close attention to the security features if you use a third-party gateway. Make sure the provider uses an SSL certificate. This ensures that the data transferred between the user’s web browser and your website is secure.

6. Test everything

You want to catch and fix any issues before your customers do. Step into your customers’ shoes and browse your website like you’re visiting for the first time. Is everything intuitive? Can you easily find your way around and locate different products?

Go through the entire process of landing on your website to making a purchase. Everything from adding products to your cart to the checkout process should work smoothly.

Marketing and promotion

With your online store up and running, you’re ready to start selling custom merch. That’s awesome!

But you need more than a cool merch store to succeed. You won’t make sales if no one knows where to find you.

That’s where marketing and promotion come into play.

Social media

Social media has become one of the most important channels for finding new products. In a 2021 study, 77% of people said social media inspired them to learn more about a product. And 71% ended up shopping, even when that wasn’t their intention.

Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok are great places to show off your products. You can use stories, reels, or short videos to educate and entertain your followers while promoting your offerings.

Consistency matters. Tools like Buffer or Hootsuite can help you schedule posts across different platforms. This allows you to keep up your posting schedule.

And don’t just sell - interact!

Engage with user comments and encourage customers to share photos and reviews of your products. User-generated content is a powerful way to build trust and boost conversions.

Influencer collaborations

Influencer marketing is one of the best ways to reach younger demographics. In fact, 33% of Gen Z-ers have bought a product based on an influencer’s recommendation in the past three months.

Reach out to influencers in your niche. It doesn’t have to be someone with a million followers. Even an influencer with a few thousand can have a highly engaged audience.

While you should give them your brand guidelines, let influencers choose how to present your product. They know the best way to engage their audience.

Make sure you discuss the terms early on. You’ll need to offer free products or payment - sometimes both. Offering influencers a cut for every sale made through their referral can be a good way to motivate influencers to genuinely promote your product. You can provide a unique affiliate link that tracks every sale the influencer generates.

Content marketing

Instead of pushing products, you can attract customers with valuable, free content. You can start a blog related to your niche and cover topics your audience cares about.

If you sell hiking boots, write about hiking trails. Sell kitchenware? Share recipes.

This way, you attract people interested in your niche and introduce them to your products.

You can use search engine optimization (SEO) strategies to boost your ranking on Google and attract more people to your store. Tools like Yoast and SurferSEO can help you optimize your headings, metadata, and on-page content.

It’s also worth exploring other content formats. Videos can be a great way to expand your reach and build awareness. They don’t always need to be high-budget productions. Sometimes, an authentic, DIY-style video can resonate more.

You can also use interactive content like quizzes, polls, or infographics. These formats engage audiences more than static content.

Email marketing

It might sound old-school, but email is far from dead. While a social media story flashes up on the screen for a few seconds before disappearing into the feed, emails stay in inboxes. They’re personal and don’t depend on a third-party algorithm for visibility.

In a recent survey of marketers, email was ranked as the marketing channel that offers the best ROI:

Of course, you’ll need an email list before you can start promoting your products and content. You can do this by offering a small discount or resource in exchange. Create something your audience will find valuable and put it behind an opt-in form.

Once you have a list, send out regular newsletters. Share updates, offers, and your blog content.

Personalization is key. So, segment your list based on purchase history, location, and interests. There are lots of free and paid email marketing tools that can help you.

Paid advertising

Paid advertising could be the best option if you want to make a big impact and quickly generate sales. Platforms like Facebook, Google, and TikTok offer advertising options to help you sell online.

Generally, social media ads are better for merch as they’re more visual. It’s a great way to advertise apparel, jewelry, and collectibles.

These platforms allow you to target users based on interests, behaviors, location, etc. For example, if you are selling custom gym gear, you could target users who follow fitness influencers, regularly engage with workout posts, or are members of fitness groups.

If people might search for your branded merchandise online (e.g., “your brand t-shirt”), Google Ads can be super effective. You can bid on keywords closely related to your products and niche. Nearly half of shoppers use Google to discover new products.

One of the most cost-effective ways to use ads is retargeting. You can target people who’ve previously interacted with your ads or visited your website.

Start with a small budget, test and see what works, and then scale.

Customer service and fulfillment

Your job doesn’t end when a customer hits the ‘Buy Now’ button. What happens next can make or break their entire experience.

Exceptional customer service

Every interaction a customer has with your brand forms an impression. If they have a great experience, they’re more likely to come back and tell their friends about you.

Here’s how to make every interaction count.

Be available

Customers need to know how they can reach you. When you buy something, you want to know there’s someone on the other end if anything goes wrong or if you have a question.

Setting up a dedicated customer support email and making sure it’s visible on your site is the minimum. You can also add a chatbot to answer common customer questions. This way, your customers can get quick answers while browsing.

Fast response times

No one likes waiting for a response. In a recent survey, fast response times were ranked as the most important attribute of the customer experience:

Make it your goal to answer queries as soon as they come in. If you’re swamped, acknowledge the message and tell the customer you’re on it. You can use automated responses, but always follow up with a personalized message.

Go the extra mile

Everyone remembers that one time a business surprised us in a good way. Look for opportunities to go beyond the sale and strengthen your connection with customers.

After a purchase, send an email to check if the customer is happy with the product. It shows you care about your customers and what they think.

If someone has a minor issue with their order, you could offer a small discount on their next purchase once the issue is resolved. This gesture can turn a negative experience into a positive one.

Smooth order fulfillment

Order fulfillment is much more than just tossing items in a box and hoping for the best. It’s a vital part of your brand experience. Here’s how to keep your customers smiling even after they’ve paid.

Clear communication

So, someone has bought your product. What happens next?

First, send them an order confirmation email. A quick “Hey, we got your order!” message lets your customer know you received the order.

Once you’ve dispatched the order, drop them another email with tracking details so they know when to expect it. A recent study found that a whopping 91% of people actively track their packages.

Reliable shipping partners

Who you team up with to get your products from A to B is super important. You don’t want your inbox full of “Where’s my package?” emails, right?

If you use a print-on-demand partner, they will handle the shipping. You’ll have to use a third-party provider if you’re bulk buying and selling merch directly to customers.

Research your options and choose a shipping partner with a solid reputation. You can use online reviews to check if the provider has a good rep with consumers and businesses.

Updates

Sometimes, things outside of your control happen. There could be a storm, a strike, or a hiccup in the system. If there’s a problem, let your customer know. It’s always better to be upfront rather than leave customers in the dark.

Handling returns and refunds

Even if you have an amazing, high-quality product, you’ll eventually receive some refund requests. That’s just the nature of business. How you handle these requests can impact whether a customer sticks with you or shops elsewhere.

Clear policies

Have transparent and fair return and refund policies in place so your customers know the deal before they commit to a purchase. And make sure they’re easily accessible on your website.

Quick resolutions

When you get a refund request, process it as soon as possible. The faster an issue is resolved, the better the overall experience for the customer.

Feedback loop

Learn from each situation. If a particular problem keeps popping up, dig deeper to fix the root cause. There may be a common issue that you can correct by speaking with your manufacturer.

Selling merch online in 2023

Setting up an online merch store isn’t just a business. It’s an adventure. You’ll learn a ton of new skills, and every challenge you face and overcome strengthens your problem-solving abilities.

With the right strategies, selling merch can be a significant revenue stream. As you scale up, you can introduce new products, tap into international markets, or even start a second project.

If you’re interested in selling stuff without handling the stock yourself, you’ll want to check out SaleHoo Dropship. You can access the most lucrative handpicked AliExpress products and add them to your store in a couple of clicks.

Want to find reliable suppliers? The SaleHoo Directory is the best place to look. Each supplier in the directory has been reviewed and verified. So you’re not taking a gamble.

If you want more info about selling merch or SaleHoo products, our super-friendly customer support team is here to help. Reach out today.

 

About the author
SaleHoo Group

View profile
Already a member? Login to comment