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Blog / Beginner's handbook / How to Start a Merchandise Business: From Idea to Income in 7 Steps

Beginner's handbook

How to Start a Merchandise Business: From Idea to Income in 7 Steps

How to Start a Merchandise Business: From Idea to Income in 7 Steps
Pauls Smiltiņš

By Pauls Smiltiņš

14 min read

So, you’ve been thinking about selling custom merch but don’t know where to start?

As more and more people tend to ditch their daily 9–5 to start their own business, this might be the perfect opportunity for you to begin a side hustle. While starting it all from scratch may seem daunting, print-on-demand services have made the whole process widely accessible.

Before you start selling, there are a few things to consider, but don’t worry, we’re going to be here for it all. Today, we’ll take you through a step-by-step guide on how to start a merchandise business, even if you’re a complete beginner.

Sounds good? Jump aboard!

How to start a merchandising business in 7 easy steps

In preparation for selling custom merch, we need to lay down a foundation. Building it all from ground zero will require some work and patience.

Step 1: Pick your niche and target audience

Choosing a niche is important for any retail business. Why? A niche product possesses a unique appeal tailored to a specific audience, enabling businesses to distinguish themselves in the crowded marketplace.

Ideally, a niche should balance between being narrowly focused and broad enough to yield profitability. However, in merchandising, a broader niche can also thrive as long as the designs stand out and remain cohesive.

a hand writing on a white boardSource: Unsplash

A niche business model can be defined by various factors such as price, demographics, quality, or geography. Targeting a niche market offers several advantages:

  1. Reduced competition: Niche startups face less competition, allowing them to differentiate themselves easily

  2. Dedicated customers: Focusing on a specific audience enables niche businesses to prioritize customer satisfaction and foster long-term relationships

  3. Higher profitability: Niche products often command premium prices, and the demand-supply dynamics of a niche market can be highly lucrative

Identifying a niche will demand thorough market research and careful analysis of customer feedback and competition. This process is essential for understanding consumer preferences and uncovering untapped market potential in which you could thrive.

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man with jacket
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Create and sell custom products online
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Step 2: Pick a reliable product partner

Once you’ve analyzed the market and picked your niche, you’ll need to decide on the product fulfillment process. Here your two main options are print-on-demand and inventory.

Print-on-demand offers an unparalleled opportunity to kickstart a retail business with ease. Here’s why:

  • Easy to start: With print-on-demand, launching a business requires no extensive entrepreneurial or marketing experience. It’s a welcoming model for everyone, offering a low barrier to entry.

  • Low investment: Unlike traditional businesses, print-on-demand requires minimal upfront investment. You only incur costs for the product once a sale is made, significantly reducing the financial risk.

  • Unlimited personalization: Personalization is key in print-on-demand. Sellers can tailor products to resonate with their audience’s preferences, fostering deeper connections and engagement.

  • No fulfillment efforts: The burden of printing, packaging, and shipping products falls squarely on the shoulders of the print-on-demand provider. This eliminates the need for sellers to handle fulfillment logistics, streamlining operations and saving valuable time.

When creating merchandise, Printful is a game-changer, offering solutions that align with company culture, values, and brand identity. Partnering with Printful, you gain access to an in-house team of over 1,000 experts dedicated to upholding your products’ quality standards. Printful consistently delivers premium-quality items to customers globally, maintaining service excellence across various products, designs, and fulfillment locations. We’ll help you achieve all of your merchandising business goals by:

  • Ensuring global accessibility: In an era marked by remote work’s prevalence, facilitating worldwide access to merchandise becomes paramount. Leveraging Printful’s expansive shipping network, companies can bridge geographical divides.

  • Promoting sustainability without excess inventory: Printful’s print-on-demand approach not only slashes expenses but also champions eco-friendliness. By producing items on demand, businesses sidestep surplus stock and contribute to waste reduction, embodying environmental responsibility.

  • Maintaining top-notch quality for brand representation: Quality remains paramount in merchandise. Printful promises product excellence, guaranteeing each item reflects positively on your brand and bolsters its reputation.

  • Simplified inventory management: With Printful, inventory headaches become a thing of the past. Products seamlessly transition from supplier to customer, streamlining operations and curbing overhead costs.

  a hat and bag with a sun on it

Source: Printful

Print-on-demand, coupled with Printful’s innovative solutions, revolutionizes how businesses approach dropshipping and merchandise management, offering convenience, sustainability, and quality assurance in one comprehensive package.

Step 3: Pick merch items

When picking your merch items, you have plenty of options. Browsing Printful’s catalog, you’ll find something for every business model. Here are some of our favorites.

Custom t-shirts

When it comes to merchandise, t-shirts stand out as a top favorite among consumers. However, ensuring that your merchandise reflects the quality of your brand is essential. That’s why we recommend offering premium t-shirts adorned with meaningful designs. The concept of “meaningful’’ varies based on your aesthetic preferences—it could entail creatively elaborate or minimalistic designs. Ultimately, the key is to align the design with your brand’s identity and resonate with your target audience.

a man and woman standing in a hallway

Source: Printful

Custom hoodies

Tees are undoubtedly a staple in merchandise, but custom hoodies offer another avenue for brand expression. Since 2020, athleisure wear has become a mainstream fashion trend, making hoodies a popular guest in the trending products section. Add a unique design, and you’ve got yourself a merchandise business staple.

Just as with t-shirts, the quality of your hoodies should mirror the excellence of your brand. The essence lies in crafting designs that resonate with your audience and authentically represent your brand. By offering custom hoodies of superior quality and design, you can expand your merchandise offer and leave a lasting impression on your customers.

a person pointing at a shirt

Source: Printful

Custom headwear

When exploring merch ideas, consider the preferences of your target audience and the seasonal variations in your selling region. During winter, beanies emerge as a prime canvas for your artistic endeavors. Their cozy appeal makes them ideal for showcasing embroidered designs, offering a unique opportunity for creative expression.

a woman sitting on a stairsSource: Printful

While beanies reign supreme in the winter months, caps enjoy year-round popularity. This versatile headwear presents numerous customization possibilities. From displaying your company name and logo to featuring a memorable quote or icon, caps offer ample space for personalization. Whether adorned on the front, sides, or back, caps serve as stylish statements that resonate with your audience’s tastes and preferences.

a woman wearing a blue hatSource: Printful

If you’re interested in an extensive list of merch ideas, check out this 50 Surprisingly Creative Merch Ideas + Examples blog post.

Step 4: Create your merch designs

In the merchandising business, your design is what sets you apart from the competition. Nowadays, you have several avenues to explore when it comes to creating merch designs.

Create original designs

Contrary to common belief, you don’t need to be a seasoned designer to create catching merch designs. After compiling a selection of promising design concepts, the next phase involves bringing them to fruition. Several tools can help you along the way:

  • Canva: A cloud-based design platform providing free and paid templates, as well as customization features, simplifying the creation process

  • Adobe Photoshop: A robust software for generating original graphics, particularly suitable for individuals with a basic understanding of graphic design

  • Pixlr: An intuitive, cloud-based design and photo editing tool that simplifies design creation directly within your web browser

a screen shot of a computerSource: Canva

You can create designs with one of the tools above and upload the visuals to Printful. Or, you can just do it all in one place with Printful’s Design Maker. Creating designs with Printful is a breeze—using the Design Maker, you’ll find hundreds of free templates to use, such as:

  • 300+ clipart collections

  • 700+ fonts for text designs

  • 650+ Background graphics and colors

a screenshot of a screenSource: Printful’s Design Maker

With these powerful tools at your disposal, you can create eye-catching designs from the comfort of your home.

Hire a designer

If creating designs is not your forte, or you simply don’t have the time, then consider hiring a designer. Nowadays, the vast freelance market provides access to a wide range of niche experts within minutes. If you’re looking to hire a merch designer, a simple Google search will most likely lead you to two of the more popular platforms:

  • Fiverr

  • Upwork

Both are great options when seeking help for merch designs, as you’ll find sample work from the designer and an easy way to contact the artist. You can also post job listings on websites such as LinkedIn to attract potential candidates, and you can leverage social media platforms like Instagram, where many freelancers showcase their work.

Whichever road you decide to take, be sure to specify the project details, deliverables, and budget to ensure clarity between you and the designer.

Perhaps you’ve decided that you want to use other artists’ work for your merch designs. Incorporating copyrighted material into business products for commercial purposes necessitates obtaining a merchandise license to avoid legal repercussions. The process typically involves several key steps:

  • Identify the copyright owner: Begin by locating the copyright owner of the intellectual property. Use resources such as the U.S. Copyright Office and examine copyright notices within the material itself.

  • Reach out to the owner: Contact them, detailing how your business intends to use its intellectual property and the products you plan to create and sell.

  • Negotiate a licensing agreement: Discuss terms with the copyright owner, including guaranteed payments, advances, royalties on sales, agreement duration, renewal options, and termination conditions.

Understanding the copyright laws can be a handful. In short—if you’re borrowing other artists’ work, make sure you’re not breaking any rules. Merchandising companies should diligently retain all licensing agreements and monitor their expiration dates, ceasing sales of licensed products once the agreement ends. If you want to learn more, here’s a quick insight into copyright and trademark.

It’s important to note that this article is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. For inquiries regarding your products and intellectual property law, we recommend consulting a copyright or trademark attorney.

Step 5: Develop your brand

So, you have your product and your designs. The next step on our agenda is to develop your brand. Branding is pivotal for any successful business.

Pick your brand name

A brand name encapsulates your business’s essence, resonating with your target audience and making it memorable. It serves the dual purpose of distinguishing your business from competitors and conveying its values and purpose.

Think of brand names such as Nike or Adidas—simple to pronounce, easy to remember, and highly impactful. Choose a style of brand name that aligns with your product and target audience.

a stack of folded clothesSource: Unsplash

Design a logo

A logo visually represents your brand identity, conveying its personality and setting customer expectations. Whether you opt to design it yourself or hire a professional, crafting the right logo involves a thoughtful creative process. Consider the type of logo that best reflects your brand, such as a word mark, brand mark, combination, abstract design, letter mark, or mascot. Each type offers unique opportunities to express your brand’s character and values visually.

a white shirt with colorful logos on itSource: Printful

Investing time and effort into developing a strong brand name and logo pays dividends in establishing brand recognition and fostering customer loyalty. These elements are fundamental pillars of your brand identity, leaving a lasting impression on your audience and distinguishing your business in the marketplace.

Printful logo
man with jacket
Printful logo
Create and sell custom products online
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Step 6: Create an online store

Creating an online store is a pivotal step for any ecommerce venture. Whether you opt for an ecommerce platform or a marketplace, both avenues offer accessible ways to establish a storefront and reach online shoppers worldwide.

Ecommerce platforms

An ecommerce platform serves as software that allows businesses to operate online stores. It provides a convenient avenue for online sales with pre-built templates that are easily customizable. Essentially, it’s like having your own website for your store but with professional design tools and ready-made templates for easy setup.

While each platform offers essential tools, they vary in features, capabilities, and limitations. Ensure your chosen platform includes features like diverse payment options, robust marketing tools, and analytics to monitor store performance.


  • Effortless customization

  • Enhanced customer re-targeting capabilities

  • Greater control over customer data


  • Time-consuming setup process

  • Elevated marketing expenses

  • Some platforms demand technical proficiency

In addition to the mentioned disadvantages, it’s important to consider the cost factor. Ecommerce platforms often come with higher initial costs, especially for those starting from scratch. For example, a basic Shopify subscription starts at $34 per month, irrespective of your sales volume. In contrast, selling on a marketplace might incur fees of just a few bucks or less than a dollar per sale.

Popular examples of ecommerce platforms include Shopify, Squarespace, Wix Stores, and WooCommerce.

a man sitting on a bench with a laptopSource: Printful

Ecommerce marketplaces

Marketplaces resemble vast online shopping centers where various stores coexist, selling products to an existing customer base. While they offer swift setup processes and an established audience, entrepreneurs have limited control over store appearance, content, and data collection.


  • Quick and easy setup

  • Access to pre-existing customer traffic

  • Beginner-friendly interface

  • Simple maintenance requirements


  • Limited customization options

  • Intense marketplace competition

  • Stringent rules and policies

  • Associated fees

For those just starting out, marketplaces often offer a cost-effective solution. However, as businesses expand, the cumulative impact of marketplace fees per sale might surpass the fixed monthly fees associated with platforms. It’s essential to weigh these factors carefully based on the specific needs and growth trajectory of your business.

Amazon, eBay, Walmart, and Etsy are some of the stand-out examples of ecommerce marketplaces.

a person sitting in a chair using a laptopSource: Printful

Whichever you decide on, Printful seamlessly integrates with a spectrum of platforms and marketplaces. Simply follow our integration guidelines to kickstart your online selling journey today.

Step 7: Market your merchandise business

Marketing is the final and arguably most critical step for any merchandise business. It’s the engine that drives sales, necessitating a tailored marketing strategy aligned with your business size and objectives. To introduce your products to the target audience effectively, consider the following approaches:

  1. Engage with your customers on their terms: Craft marketing campaigns tailored to the channels and platforms frequented by your target audience. Employ a blend of digital, word-of-mouth, and store-front messaging strategies.

  2. Leverage social media marketing: Harness the power of platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and TikTok to boost brand visibility and connect with potential customers. Engage in activities that foster brand exposure and encourage interaction.

  3. Develop partnerships: Forge alliances with local businesses or charitable organizations to expand brand reach and visibility. Collaborate with online retailers, neighborhood stores, or businesses catering to a similar clientele.

  4. Combine multiple tools: Deploy various marketing tools to maximize impact.

a hand holding a cell phone with a delivery application on the screenSource: Unsplash

Speaking of marketing tools, here are some of the more popular ones:

  1. Social media marketing: Cultivate a robust presence across various platforms, utilizing engaging content and interactive features to drive customer engagement and conversion.

  2. Email marketing: Leverage cost-effective tools like Sendinblue, Mailchimp, or Omnisend to automate and streamline customer communication and engagement.

  3. Content marketing: Invest in creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract and retain a loyal audience base.

  4. Ad platforms: Reach your target audience swiftly and efficiently with ad platforms like Google, Facebook, and Instagram

  5. Search engine marketing: Enhance your ecommerce store’s visibility through search engine optimization (SEO) techniques.

a screenshot of a phoneSource: Mailchimp

For further insights, consider exploring our SEO guide, which delves into keyword research, identifying relevant keywords, and other useful tips.

Marketing is an important asset of any business structure—by leveraging diverse tools and platforms, you can effectively promote your merchandise business and drive sustainable growth.

Wrapping up in style

Starting your own merchandise business often means that you’ll have to fill in lots of different shoes. That being said, if you bring along the right partner, it becomes an accessible venture for anyone. With Printful by your side and now equipped with all the necessary tools, the sky is the limit for you.

Start with a solid business plan and go through each step with patience and care. In the merch business, you can let your creativity run on the wild side, making even the craziest design ideas a reality.

And that’s a wrap on how to start a merchandise business.

What are you waiting for? Time to sell online!


By Pauls Smiltiņš on Mar 21, 2024

Pauls Smiltiņš

Guest author

Pauls is a content writer with a background in the radio. He has a degree in communication sciences, and in his free time, Pauls loves to entertain crowds by playing live music on stage.

Pauls is a content writer with a background in the radio. He has a degree in communication sciences, and in his free time, Pauls loves to entertain crowds by playing live music on stage.