How to Make Money Selling Merch: Screen Printing vs. Direct to Garment Shirts

It’s Friday night, an all-ages show, and I’m slinging merch for two local pop punk bands. Each band has a single shirt set at the same price: $10. At the end of the night, both bands sell out of merch -- 25 shirts a piece. A seemingly profitable night for both, but one band ends up taking a loss. What gives? Well, in order to answer that, we need to break down what each band had printed, because what you get printed is just as important as how you get it printed.

In the merch world there are two main types of printing: screen printing and direct-to-garment (DTG). Both have their pros and cons and it would behoove any band looking to print shirts to find the type of printing that fits their individual needs.

The Economics of Screen Printing Merch

When it comes to simple designs, low color counts and large orders, screen printing reigns supreme. The basic premise of screen printing is taking ink and pushing it through a screen onto a shirt with a squeegee, one color at a time. Screen printing is great for minimalist designs. Want just a name and logo in one color? Great! Screen printing is probably what you should be aiming for.

Of course, there are downsides to screen printing. For example, a printer has to press each individual color through its own screen, layer by layer. So the more colors you add, the higher the price due to setup costs.

Mikel Galati, owner of the Chicago-based Modest Merch, sets his prices at $6.00 a piece for white shirts with a single color print, $6.50 if you want a black shirt or shirt of another color. For each additional ink color, you add $0.50/shirt, and $1.50 for each new printing location. Galati’s prices are set at a minimum of 25 shirts, which also include a $15 screen fee per color layer, which is a one-time fee. Another perk to screen printing is that places like Modest Merch offer price breaks at larger order quantities. It’s a bigger investment up front, but if you’re savvy with your design and sales you can turn a profit pretty quickly.

In the initial example, let’s say both bands printed from Modest Merch, a common occurrence in the Chicago music scene. Both bands printed 25 shirts and neither spent any money on shipping. Band A has a single-color shirt with one printing location. Band B has a 4-color shirt, also with one printing location.

Using Modest Merch’s price breakdown, Band A ends up spending $187.50 for their 25 shirts, while Band B ends up spending $260. Selling each of their shirts at $10, Band A nets a profit of $62.50 and Band B takes a loss of $10. While it’s not substantial, it’s not good business to be taking a loss on your product.

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The Economics of Direct-to-Garment Printing (DTG)

Simply put, DTG printing is the merch equivalent of inkjet printing. A company that specializes in DTG printing is able to do quick printing jobs with more detailed designs. Much like your standard office printer, DTG printers use a combination of inks to produce a near-infinite amount of colors.

As with screen printing, DTG printing has its pros and cons. The biggest advantage DTG has over screen printing is that DTG is not limited to the number of colors you can pick. Going along with that, it’s not uncommon for a band to pick DTG for its ability to go into greater detail. If you have a photo you want on your shirt, it’s better to use this type of printing.

A huge disadvantage to DTG printing is that it simply isn’t cost effective for bulk orders, as most printers don’t offer any significant quantity discount. Unlike screen printing, DTG is also limited in terms of the location of the design on the shirt and how big that design can be.

A quick Google search can find tons of companies that specialize in DTG printing. One such company, OneHourTees.com, offers exactly what their name implies: t-shirts in one hour! Naturally, this quick turnaround comes at a premium ($19.99/shirt) and is subject to availability, but if you’re patient you can get your shirts as low as $5.99/shirt in seven-or-more business days. The caveat here is that those prices only apply to light colored shirts.

“The only way to achieve true ink colors is to print on a white shirt or lay down white under your image,” they explain on their website. If you want to get a black or darker colored shirt, as most bands tend to do, then you’re looking at $19.99 per shirt to start. Good news is, they offer a slight discount when you order more.

Let’s assume our fictitious bands used One Hour Tees DTG printing and picked them up in person.

  • Band A got a white tee with a black and white photo and got their merch a month before the show.
  • Band B went with a basic photo design on heather gray, but they dragged their heels and didn’t put their order in until a week before the show.

Band A paid $5.99/shirt, for a total of $149.75 and came away with $100.25 in profit. Band B’s lack of forward thinking caused them to pay $9.99/shirt for a total of $249.75 and came away with $0.25 in profit. Note that these prices don’t include local sales tax.

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A Word to the Wise

It’s important to remember when printing your merch to find what works for you within your budget. Knowing what your audience likes and the image you want to portray is key. Does a pop band need to pay the extra $1.00/shirt for a dozen XXL tees? Does the design really need that speck of blue if it adds $0.50 per shirt? And at the end of the day, at least try to price the shirt at a point where you’ll turn a profit.

Photo by Incase


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