Are you launching your own apparel line or adding merchandise for sale to your existing business? You’ve got an important decision to make: choosing between a print-on-demand (POD) company and a traditional print shop to fulfill your orders, or a combination of the two.
We picked the brain of Kevin Oakley, co-founder and managing partner at Stoked On Printing, a screen-printing shop that fulfills orders both traditionally and with a POD model through a subsidiary company MerchLoop, which integrates with a brand’s ecommerce or Shopify site.   “Traditional printing is good for bulk orders for larger brands or when you need a bigger run,” he says. “Print-on-demand works for startups or for companies that want to try out a newer concept” without the risk.
There are pros and cons to both approaches, depending on your unique business case, so Oakley’s the perfect decorating professional to share his knowledge to steer you in the right direction.
Print-on-Demand vs. Traditional Printing
First, here’s how a POD operation works: Print-on-demand is a streamlined business model for t-shirt brand owners or other businesses where a customer needs to place an order before a t-shirt gets printed. With this approach, entrepreneurs create their t-shirt designs upfront, showcasing them on their online store. A third-party decorator handles the rest: After an order comes in, that decorator prints the t-shirt and ships it to the customer.
Pros include:
  • Cost-Efficiency and Low Risk: Print-on-demand means that as the brand owner, you don’t need to make big upfront investment in printed products, store them or ship them to customers. A trusted third party produces items as customers order them. You can easily experiment with any number of designs in your online store and test the market with minimal risk.
  • Time Savings: With a POD model, you can focus more on design, marketing and branding for your business, since your printing partner handles the production and shipping aspects.
Here’s how it looks when you place an order with a print shop: When a business owner wants custom-branded t-shirts, the conventional route involves collaborating with a print shop. The process starts with you supplying the print shop with your design or logo, crafted either in-house or by a professional designer. The print shop, equipped with various printing techniques such as screen printing, direct-to-garment printing or embroidery, and then produces your  order according to your specified quantity, sizes and customization requirements. When you get the finalized order, you’re responsible for distributing or shipping out the tees.
Pros include:
  • Personalization: Working closely with a local printer allows for more personalized and customized solutions, fostering a stronger connection between your brand and the print shop.
  • Flexibility in Printing Techniques: Local print shops may offer a wider range of printing techniques and locations on the garment, allowing for more creative and unique designs.
5 Questions to Answer Pick Your Fulfillment Method
Oakley delves into five questions you can consider to help you decide which fulfillment method is right for you, right now.
1. How much time are you investing in your apparel brand or business?
Is your t-shirt brand going to be your main thing, or a side hustle? Are you just looking for merch to sell for your business? “While that time commitment can change, you need to think about the time it takes to do fulfillment, no matter your setup” Oakley says. “People often forget that when they’re doing the prework. You get your t-shirts printed, but now as your orders come in, you have to figure out how to pack, label and ship those out.”
If you’re getting an apparel brand off the ground, you probably don’t want to eat up your ideating, marketing or selling time by packing up t-shirts and shipping them out. Or you might be running a business where selling branded t-shirts isn’t your main source of income, like a coffee shop. “Many brands see that customers will wear their brand on their t-shirt, even if they’re a coffee company,” Oakley says. “With POD, they can add tees to their web store and not worry about ordering those t-shirts from a print shop and needing to fulfill those orders. You can focus on making great coffee and selling it.”
If you use a POD app like MerchLoop inside your Shopify store, you could connect right into a print shop like Stoked On Printing, and any orders automatically transmit to the shop to fulfill, print and ship to your customer. “That way, you can focus on your t-shirt designs and brand marketing,” Oakley says. “With POD, you’ll do more upfront work where you’ll create your designs, upload them to your store and sync up to your POD provider. Then,
we take care of the rest.”
2. What’s your budget for your print runs or producing products?
Oakley points out that when you’re considering traditional screen printing for a t-shirt order, the actual cost per piece might be lower, in the $6-to-$8 range vs. a POD cost per piece of $10 to $16. While the screen-printing cost per shirt is lower, you’ll usually need to place a larger order to hit your printer’s minimum requirements.
With POD, you might spend a little more per shirt, but you don’t risk putting out a lot of cash on products that might not sell. “When you’re pre buying too, you don’t know how many of each size you need,” Oakley says, “so you have to factor into your overall profits if you’ll need to discount the products to move them out.”
3. How custom do you want to go?
When you’re thinking about going with screen printing vs. POD, you have a lot more options in-shop when you’re talking about artwork placements and multimedia decoration. “When you order in bulk through your print shop, you have more of those options, like if you want a print that goes right across your collarbone or the top seam,” Oakley says. “Right now, with POD offerings, things are a lot more standardized, so you’re looking at more traditional locations (like left chest or front center) and print methods.”
4. How many shirts with a certain design do you want to buy? 
With screen printing, the more you buy, you’ll drive down the cost, which isn’t the case with POD. “You might still pay that same cost for the 100 pieces via POD, whereas with screen printing, you’d actually reduce that amount of cost over from 10 to 100 pieces,” Oakley says.
5. Is there a way to combine the print shop and POD fulfillment models to get the best of both?
Short answer: Yes! Oakley spells out a couple scenarios where this makes sense.
Scenario 1: You’ve been running a t-shirt brand for a while. You might order bulk t-shirts for styles you know historically have sold really well or for a special event like a pop-up shop from a screen-printing shop. “But if you want to try a new design with POD, that’s a good option to use,” he says.
Scenario 2: You’re in a band that goes on tour. You can use the POD model for your fan site where you’re getting orders here and there and view that profit as residual income. “When musicians are doing live shows, they order in bulk from us because they know they’ll sell lots of t-shirts onsite,” Oakley says.
Focus On Your Zone of Genius First
Ultimately, if you’re starting your own apparel line, the biggest thing is focusing on why you’re founding the brand in the first place. “Your reason is generally to get your message and creative ideas out there,” Oakley says. “So don’t get too bogged down on the back end when there are so many great POD and print shops to help fulfill that part of the dream for you. That way, you can focus on marketing, branding and just getting your ideas out in the world.”