T-shirt Sales

Making Money on T-shirt Sales

Dan Holzer is the founder and CFO of Forward Printing, Inc, located in Oakland, California. Forward Printing began screen printing in 2004 with very little industry experience, and has quickly excelled to be one of the leading screen printing shops in ability, quality and customer service. Forward Printing services contract and custom clients around the United States with a focus on water based inks and specialty decorations. Holzer oversees business development, marketing, sales, customer relations, industry relations and the books. He has been published, along with co-owner, Dan Corcoran, in many industry publications and online journals. Forward Printing won first place awards for their promotional prints annually since 2006. Reach him at danh@forwardprinting.com and visit www.forwardprinting.com for more information.

I have always loved T-shirts. When I was a kid, it was the preferred top, the first thing I grabbed out of the dresser drawer in the morning. Choosing which to put on was highly calculated—did it match? Would it catch people’s attention? Was it cool? How soon could I wear it again without being uncool? We never had enough money for me to have the coolest T-shirts, so mine were hand-me-downs, thrift shop scores, or maybe a Christmas gift, and they were very special to me. Anything with a print was even more special. If I had a T&C Surf, Powell Peralta or a T-shirt of a band I liked, it was extremely special. I even used to wear plain T-shirts under the T-shirts with prints on them so I didn’t have to wash them every day and could wear them more often. In my later years, I was involved in punk rock and T-shirts were still as fascinating, but they were also still about $10 at shows and record stores in my little do-it-yourself community. As an adult I was willing to spend more but not much more.

Fast forward to 2004 when my business partner and I chose to start selling T-shirts—they had a huge emotional value for me as a kid but not a huge monetary value. When we decided to start selling shirts as Forward Printing and did the math to calculate what they would cost to purchase, what they would cost to print, how much money we needed to make, and what the end cost to our customers would be, I was still in this mindset of who would pay more than $10 for a wholesale T-shirt, printed or not? When we did the math on a lower volume custom screen print order, I wondered how anybody could make money at the price point.

It turns out, on one side of the coin, there are wholesale customers with the volume to support it—those buying printed promotional T-shirts for less than $2 each. On the other side of the coin, there are smaller custom and couture customers who are willing to pay anywhere from $7-35 wholesale for printed T-shirts.

The world around me was not in the same frugal mindset as I was. Although it was hard to fathom at first, retail consumers are willing to spend $20, $50 and upwards of $100 on a T-shirt if there is enough value in it for them. So how do we find these customers who are willing to pay $7 and more for wholesale printed shirts?


To begin with, pricing for printed shirts must be profitable for the print shop. Price matching seems to be a big issue in our industry; it is also a killer for small- and mid-sized shops… and unhealthy for the industry. In order to be profitable, it is important to set price points according to geographical location, size of the shop, overhead and the services offered. A shop needs to be prepared to defend and stick to their prices and price structure. One of the best ways to do this is to offer top shelf service, astounding quality, a vast garment selection, special effects printing and other services that can be sold at a premium price, which may include something as simple as rush services.

Consumers want higher-end products more often these days. Sure, there are numerous customers out there who want the least expensive shirt you can get with a simple print on it, but in our experience, our customers are demanding higher-end garments such as soft ring spun cotton, fitted, burnout, distressed, destroyed and other more expensive garments, and they are willing to pay more. By offering these higher-priced garments that are now in higher demand, your shop has the opportunity to take a higher price point and higher margins on the end product.

Typically, the same customer who wants these more expensive garments also wants higher-end print processes such as water base, foil, glitter, high density, oversize prints, off placements or numerous colors printed in multiple locations. Each one of these specialty services presents an opportunity for a bigger markup on the final product, earning more money for the shop. Between these processes and the finer garments, you have helped the customer create not only a higher-end garment but a one that holds more value to the buyer both financially and emotionally. 

When offering these services, the print shop must have previously established its processes and quality through research and development, practice and, the best testimonial of all, satisfied customers. It’s important to focus on quality, because higher price tags mean higher expectations. As the shop and its clientele progress, if the shop can position itself in the industry as a leader in their field, the opportunities for selling higher-end products will increase exponentially.

Target marketing

Selling these services begins with marketing to the right audience. Marketing to the 40,000-piece customer who expects the $2 price point is a completely different ballgame and is not a great opportunity to add the extra margins. Nor is it wise or easy for a mid-sized shop like us to be competitive. Business owners need to figure out how to expose their services and their quality to the customers who are looking for them. If that can be accomplished, selling these higher-end products will occur naturally.

Once the customer is in the door and they have found you because you offer what they want, the up-sell is easier, and even easier after one or more jobs for a particular customer are completed to their satisfaction. They gain the same confidence in the quality of product as you have and they will come back, especially if their other printers can’t offer the same techniques.

At this point, selling T-shirts has become a logistics game. You have the higher end, higher-priced garments and processes under your belt, now you just have to process them efficiently enough to retain the additional margins you worked so hard to acquire. Administrative and production standards of operation are crucial to maximize every minute on the press. The combination of maximum efficiency, margin and quality produces a winning game plan sure to be profitable.

I still hold the same personal value on T-shirts. They have more emotional value to me, and I really enjoy a cool shirt regardless of the cost (thank goodness I am in an industry where my cool shirts are now more financially accessible to me). We need to find customers who value the shirt as much as we do because those are the customers who are willing to pay for it. But mostly, it’s important to find customers whose customers hold the T-shirt at that same value.