Hello, and welcome back to another week of Industrious Illustrating! Last week I talked about profit margins on mass-produced art merchandise, but that’s only part of the equation. This week I’m going to give a brief introduction to different types of manufacturers/suppliers who can produce your merchandise for you so that you don’t have to front the cost of expensive equipment yourself. For my merchandise specifically, I’ve ordered directly from manufacturers as well as through middlemen.Read more: Industrious Illustrating #44 – Manufacturing
For absolute beginners, there’s Print on Demand services like Redbubble that do all the manufacturing and deliver merchandise directly to your customers for you, but they take a large chunk of the revenue (even larger than using a paid storefront like Etsy!) and the quality of their merchandise is harder to keep under your control. I don’t personally use these services, but they’re more accessible to artists who are just starting out with selling merch than ordering directly from manufacturers, especially as you don’t also need to purchase shipping supplies and fulfill orders on your own time.
For beginners who want to get a start on making their own merchandise and selling it directly through an online store or at conventions, Vograce is a Chinese manufacturer that specializes in acrylic charms but also does a lot of different merchandise types, all with very low MOQs and a relatively accessible website through Shopify. However, Vograce is a middleman for non-acrylic products (meaning that they charge more than directly ordering from the manufacturers they source from) and also has experienced a decline in quality in recent years because of an increasingly large number of orders. (By the way, the decline in quality that manufacturers sometimes experience when receiving too many new orders is why a lot of artists are reluctant to disclose their manufacturers publicly!) I’d advise ordering through Vograce only if you don’t want to spend time researching other manufacturers and are willing to accept the risk of receiving defective products.
Middlemen are agents or companies that contact manufacturers on your behalf and help you set up and fulfill your merch orders for an additional cost. In fact, the case study I went over last week (my bottle cap pins) was ordered through a middleman who has a direct line of contact with a Chinese factory and did the file-checking and payment on my behalf. Some advantages of going through a middleman include tighter quality control, saving the time needed to vet manufacturers for quality, and being able to try out more types of merchandise that otherwise might require high risk and investment costs. Specifically, I was in a group order with other artists, so we could all order smaller quantities of merch and hit minimum order quantity (MOQ) as a group rather than fundraise for a large order or take a risk by paying out of pocket for hundreds of items that may or may not actually sell.
Directly ordering from manufacturers is generally the cheaper option over using a middleman, as you’re only paying for the time and supplies used by the manufacturer instead of also paying for the time and expertise of a middleman. The site I personally use for finding manufacturers is Alibaba, a website meant for businesses to directly source from manufacturers located around the world (although mostly located in China). Generally, Chinese manufacturing has lower prices and more specialized products than you can order domestically.
There are some American manufacturers you can directly order products like acrylic charms and pins from, but they may not have as many options available and could end up being significantly more expensive. If they aren’t more expensive, there’s a good chance that they’re actually middlemen sourcing from China rather than actually manufacturing domestically (a common bait-and-switch with enamel pin companies specifically). I only order my prints (and, when I still sold them, stickers) through US companies for this reason, as they actually print domestically rather than having an incentive to secretly order specialized products from abroad. In terms of US-based printing companies, I definitely highly recommend CatPrint for their low MOQs, high quality printing, variety of paper types available, and relatively fast turn-around.
However, some manufacturers have high MOQ for their products — possibly 100 units per order or more — that make them prohibitively difficult to order from as an individual. You’ll also have to do all the communication yourself, which means dealing with a language barrier if you’re (most likely) working with a Chinese manufacturer even though they have English-speaking representatives who’ll communicate with you. Alibaba can also be a difficult and overwhelming website to navigate if you don’t already know what you’re looking for, and you’ll likely have to both do your own research and ask around for price quotes on your merch orders to figure out what your best options are.
That’s all for today’s brief-ish introduction to manufacturing! I may go into this topic again in more depth at some point, but I’ll also want to talk about other topics first before I come back to this. I hope to see you guys again for next week’s column!