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1. Is a t-shirt business still profitable?

How to start a profitable t-shirt business in 10 steps

If your wardrobe is 90% t-shirts, we have good news for you: you can turn your passion for nifty tees into a bonafide business. A t-shirt business is a lucrative opportunity for creative hobbyists and ecommerce entrepreneurs alike. In fact, the t-shirt market has steadily risen in revenue by nearly 26% over the past decade.

Now is the time to cash in on a t-shirt business, and, fortunately, it’s never been easier to launch your business online. Regardless of your technical skill or design prowess, you can get your t-shirt ideas into the hands of customers in ten simple steps. Here’s how to turn your passion into profit with a successful t-shirt business.

Main takeaways from this article:

  • A t-shirt business is a profitable business model, especially with the help of modern-day print on demand (POD) services.

  • Entrepreneurs must nail down their POD provider and select a t-shirt niche through market research.

  • Several factors shape a profitable t-shirt business, including the product designs, materials used, and selected ecommerce platform.

Is a t-shirt business still profitable?

t-shirt business

When considering whether to launch a t-shirt business, you may wonder if the market is still profitable. While a quick look at your closet will reveal that t-shirts are still very much in fashion, it’s also helpful to know they remain a profitable venture due to the increased variety of customer segments and expansion of production resources, such as print on demand (POD) services.

With higher online shopping rates than ever, the growing US t-shirt market brought in $38.88 billion in revenue in 2022 alone and is expected to reach roughly $50.59 billion by 2027. And with rising demand for creative designs, the US custom t-shirt printing market is also expected to grow at an impressive compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.1% from 2023 to 2030.

Custom t-shirt printing has become a mainstay across today’s ecommerce marketplaces and platforms. Personalized products, like t-shirts with unique phrases and graphics, have become popular across multiple customer segments, with one in five willing to pay 20% more for a custom product. A custom t-shirt business is arguably more profitable now than standard tees!

How to create a successful t-shirt business in 10 simple steps

Want to turn your passion for t-shirts into profit? Rising entrepreneurs looking to begin a small business selling t-shirts online must navigate the proper steps to set up a storefront. Check out these ten steps to launch a t-shirt business and optimize for profit.

1. Research the market

market research

Market research is vital to understanding the best direction for your growing business. First, tap into tools like Google Trends to reveal which t-shirt-related topics are searched most frequently and which are most popular — like ‘vintage band t-shirts’ or ‘funny quote t-shirts.’ Social media platforms, like Instagram and Pinterest, can also help uncover trending t-shirt designs.

From here, take the time to assess other t-shirt brands and their most popular products to understand the overall competition better. Once paired with your market research, you can uncover market gaps to fill with your t-shirt business. For instance, if ‘funny quote t-shirts’ are trending, but your competition does not sell them, this type of t-shirt presents a business opportunity.

2. Nail down a niche and target market

Now that you’ve conducted market research for your upcoming t-shirt brand, this is the time to nail down your niche (or specific market segment) and accompanying target audience. Since this will be your own t-shirt business, consider your personal passions, interests, and hobbies to help select a niche that will enjoy producing t-shirts for the long term.

If you’re unsure if your personal passions make for a profitable niche, run a few social media polls on networks like Facebook and Twitter to gauge the potential consumer demand. This step will also help you identify the target market for your niche. Be sure to capture the demographics of your target market, like their age, style, and buying habits, to better inform your future marketing efforts.

3. Choose a print on demand service

With a t-shirt niche selected, the next step to sell t-shirts online is to secure a print on demand (POD) service provider. POD is a cost-effective (and simpler!) method of t-shirt production in which shop owners can avoid purchasing and holding t-shirt inventory and instead rely on their POD supplier to fulfill, produce, and ship customer orders as needed.

If you plan on offering custom t-shirts, a POD supplier is a must-have to remain productive and profitable. However, to ensure the final product meets your standards, it is critical to research various providers and assess the quality of their products. Your POD t-shirt supplier should offer kid's t-shirts, men’s t-shirts, and women’s t-shirts in various fabrics, styles, and sizes.

Keep an eye out for POD customer service capabilities, shipping rates and locations, and sustainability initiatives to keep your t-shirt business faster and greener. Here at Gelato, we offer localized on-demand production and distribution in over 30 countries. This enables us to offer t-shirt businesses competitive shipping rates and timelines that reduce carbon emissions.

4. Choose your t-shirt

choosing t-shirt

No two t-shirts are made the same. After you’ve selected a POD provider, it’s time to select the t-shirt type you want to print on. While the wide selection of t-shirts can be a bit overwhelming, choosing the right tee boils down to the following key elements: fabric, weight, fit, and cut.

Shirt fabric

Consider how you want customers to wear your shirts when selecting your fabric type. Each standard shirt fabric has its benefits and drawbacks that make it more suitable for certain activities, like lounging or exercising:

  • Cotton offers high comfort and visual appeal but is more prone to wrinkling and shrinking over time than other fabrics.

  • Organic cotton is similar in comfort to regular cotton; it is ideal for the eco-conscious customer as it uses organic non-GMO cotton grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers but is at a more premium price point.

  • Polyester offers maximum durability with moisture-wicking properties that are less prone to wrinkling and shrinking but may have a clingy synthetic feeling on the skin.

  • Cotton/polyester blend is more lightweight and less prone to shrinkage than cotton alone, with some moisture-wicking properties of polyester in a more comfortable format.

Shirt weight

Each fabric has a different weight. Lighter-weight shirts, like polyester, are more suitable for warm weather and active situations. Heavier-weight shirts, like cotton, are ideal for cold weather and more casual situations. When determining the weight of a t-shirt online, look for terms like “Classic” and “Performance” for lightweight t-shirts and keywords like “Heavyweight” and “Premium” for heavyweight t-shirts.

Shirt fit

Shirt fit refers to how a shirt lays on the body. Different body types may prefer different t-shirt fits, and different activities may call for a tighter or looser fit. There are three primary shirt fits to choose from:

  • Relaxed fit offers a broader cut across the chest with larger arm holes and sleeves for a baggier and more comfortable look.

  • Regular fit is straight-cut throughout the chest and waist but broadens at the shoulders for a more fitted but still comfortable look.

  • Slim fit has a narrow cut across the chest and is tapered from the chest to the waist to create a tighter, more tailored look.

Shirt cut

The cut of the t-shirt typically refers to the collar type. Most t-shirts are available in either a crewneck cut for a classic t-shirt look or a v-neck cut for a more relaxed look. Small business owners who want some design variety may want to consider a ringer cut, which allows t-shirts to be available with contrast color binding at the neck and sleeves for a two-toned look.

5. Design your t-shirts

t-shirt design

Now that you’ve locked in your t-shirt types, begin drafting your t-shirt designs. With your target audience and discovered trends in mind, sketch out or create digital mock-ups of your designs. This is the perfect step to leverage your POD provider. (Gelato even offers our creators a Design Editor tool with hundreds of digital mock-ups and varying model types!)

When drafting your various t-shirt designs, playing around with different elements like fonts, colors, and design placements can be especially helpful in producing a few samples. Remember to have only a few design elements on a single product, as they can quickly cause the t-shirt to appear cluttered and overwhelmed.

Once you have a design or two that you’re happy with, consider ordering a few samples to ensure you’re happy with the final product. Sample t-shirts help you view your products in person to determine if they require edits before they’re sold online. If you’re happy with your samples, snap high-resolution photos for your online store.

6. Validate your t-shirt designs

If you ordered design samples but are unsure if they fit your t-shirt business, further validate your designs with feedback. Share your samples with family and friends to gain their opinion, or watermark your design files and share them on social media, preferably where your target market can see them.

Be sure to request feedback in the comments and even post an accompanying poll for users to approve or disapprove of your designs discreetly. This step will help gauge general demand and help you decide to ultimately sell the product. If the response is positive, offer pre-orders on t-shirts to drum up consumer interest.

7. Choose your selling platform

As you embark on your t-shirt business, you may get stuck between ecommerce marketplaces versus ecommerce platforms. Either option will offer a selection of ecommerce options with their own pros and cons you should know before signing up. As you choose your desired selling platform, you will likely choose between the following:

  • Custom websites provide sellers with their own website domain and offer complete control over design elements and functionality, but will require extensive technical skills or professional assistance compared to ecommerce platforms.

  • Ecommerce platforms, such as Shopify or WooCommerce, provide a custom business domain as well as access to pre-developed website design templates and tech support. However, users are a bit limited by customization options and are required to pay monthly platform fees.

  • Ecommerce marketplaces, such as Etsy and Amazon, provide sellers with their own storefront within the marketplace to access current platform users. Marketplace sellers are subject to monthly fees, including listing and transaction fees.

  • Social media platforms, such as Instagram, Pinterest, and TikTok, are great for targeting a specific audience and building a brand following, but they have the most limitations for storefront customization and general selling capabilities.

8. Set up your online t-shirt store

setting online store

Whether you’ve chosen to operate your business from a marketplace or a platform, you will be required to set up a storefront for your t-shirt business. Typical setup needs will include creating an account, setting your preferences, and integrating any necessary ecommerce plugins with your chosen sales channels.

From here, customize your storefront with a catchy and memorable name that is relevant to the t-shirts you plan to sell. With the help of a design professional or online tools like Canva, be sure to also develop a stand-out logo that can be cohesively used across all your sales channels to help boost discoverability.

With your own t-shirt designs on hand, you can also begin uploading your product listings and setting individual prices. Compare your desired price points with competitors to ensure you don’t overprice your t-shirts but still fall in line with a fair profit margin that covers POD supplier and design expenses.

Remember to include high-resolution images accompanied by keyword-driven product titles and descriptions to enhance discoverability on search engines and marketplaces further. Likewise, don’t forget to include relevant product details (like shirt fabric, fit, and cut) that support the customer experience and purchase decision.

9. Market your t-shirt business

Marketing your t-shirt business online is 100% necessary to boost discoverability and long-term growth. Clothing brands like t-shirt businesses often succeed with social media marketing to gain the attention of a target market. Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook also offer paid ad services to boost followers and brand awareness quickly.

Another marketing tactic often used by clothing brands is influencer marketing. Reach out to social media users with a strong following that aligns with your target audience. If they agree, you can send these users samples of your products for them to share your designs with their network and boost your brand exposure.

As you increase your following, don’t neglect the power of a strong email list. Direct your social media followers and future shoppers to your brand website or a separate information form where they can provide their email addresses in exchange for ongoing information on promotions, giveaways, and new product releases.

10. Monitor and optimize your store

Once you launch your online storefront and begin taking orders, your last step toward long-term profitability is ongoing monitoring and optimization. Tools like Google Analytics can help you monitor business metrics like website traffic, bounce rate, and conversion rates to make more calculated decisions on optimizing your site and adjusting your marketing strategies.

Customer feedback will also be crucial for continuous company growth, as customer reviews allow you to identify operational flaws or products that could impact the customer experience. Be sure to follow up with customers via email after they make a purchase or encourage them to leave a review on their overall shopping experience and purchased products.

Build an online t-shirt business easily with Gelato

It's never been easier to turn blank shirts into a thriving t-shirt business. From conducting market research and selecting a niche to choosing your print on demand provider and creating a storefront, the above ten steps can have you running a full-fledged t-shirt empire in no time. With the right effort, online t-shirt stores powered by print on demand services are a highly profitable business.

As you navigate your POD service options, check out Gelato’s expansive catalog of t-shirt products. From men's polycotton crewnecks to children’s organic tees, we have the style and fit for every customer. And with production and delivery in more than 30 countries, our sustainable business model allows for speedier delivery with a smaller carbon footprint — yes, really!

Launch your t-shirt business today when you start selling with Gelato.


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