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T-Shirts are Really Easy

One of the most popular items on our site were the T-shirts, which didn’t surprise us. $20 worth of bacon is gone after one morning. However, a $20 T-shirt with free shipping is something you may have for years to come, and they also make great gifts. Plenty of people bought our shirts as gifts.

One of the best things about shirts, though, is how easy they are to ship. With those, we didn’t have to worry about cold packs, Mylar envelopes, or getting the product to the customer without the package waiting on a post office shelf over the weekend.

Due to their uncomplicated nature, we offered free shipping on our shirts, which we feel played a big role in their high sales volume. The actual shirts went into a Tyvek envelope that is pretty much indestructible. It’s also almost the exact color and feel of butcher paper. So with the simple addition of a packing slip and a nice big stamp of our logo, the shirts were ready for the mailman (our postal worker was actually male, so no, we’re not being sexist).

Selling bacon online was still rather novel, but people selling bacon-related items had a big head start on us. However, most of it was silly novelty items most people wouldn’t buy twice, or bacon-themed T-shirts that were actually pretty lame. We did find some decent stuff out there, and some of it was worth selling ourselves. We assumed that if we could generate enough traffic to our site and then partner like crazy, we could potentially drive sales for products we didn’t even own.

Before we launched, we talked several times with the people at BaconShirts.com. They were a local Portland couple who had been selling bacon-themed shirts online for a couple of years. Amy and her husband, Warren, designed and printed the shirts themselves, allowing for much higher margins.

They had three designs, and they were 100% focused on bacon T-shirts and aprons—no other products, and all original artwork.

We really liked two of their designs, and so we worked out a wholesale deal with them. They provided us shirts and aprons at a discounted rate, and we sold their products on our site, carrying their products with our own inventory. This worked out great for everybody; we got to expand our product offering, and Warren and Amy were able to increase their retail exposure. We also partnered with them from the beginning, allowing us to launch with a broader range of products while we were still figuring out our own designs.

Obviously we wanted to have our own shirts as well. The margins on T-shirts are decent, but they’re best when it’s your own product and you’re not paying licensing or product acquisition costs. Holly had plenty of experience designing T-shirts, so in addition to a black shirt with our logo on it, she designed a simple outline of our pig accompanied with the phrase “Bacon Tastes Good.” Internally, it was nicknamed “Big Pig.” I can’t imagine a lot of women wanting to wear a shirt titled “Big Pig,” so we kept that name to ourselves.

Scott kept his eye out for anything bacon-related that could work as a shirt, or other people selling shirts that we thought would be a good complement to our offerings. Within a couple of months, we had deals for several other bits of artwork.

We were quick to make licensing agreements with different shirt- and bacon-designs, but we were slow to introduce new products to our site. We ended up with the rights to several designs we never used, which was just fine with us. If a design took off on another site and become popular, we had already secured the rights to print and sell that shirt design ourselves. But we also didn’t want to offer too many designs at one time, and didn’t want to have any products that weren’t just awesome.

However, Scott did find a woman who was selling hand-screened, framed prints of a design entitled “Bacon is like a little hug from God.” He immediately reached out to her asking if she had any plans to sell that design in T-shirt form. When she replied that she didn’t, we worked out an exclusive deal for us to sell shirts screened with her artwork.

This turned out to be our best partnership, as we sold almost as many of this shirt as our Bac’n logo shirt.

The toughest part about selling T-shirts is the different variations that are possible. You have women’s shirts, men’s shirts, and different sizes for each. And you have this for every single design you want to carry. Then there are people who ask for different colors of each design. It gets complicated, and the inventory can be tricky to manage. The easiest way we found was having dedicated shelves for each design, with clearly marked areas for each size. So in one simple glance, you could see every style of shirt in every size. If you were running out of anything specific, it was easy to recognize, allowing you to order more in time. You have to have quite a big set of shelves, though.

The best part about selling T-shirts was that they never went bad. They could sit on the shelf for months and it didn’t matter. This is (obviously) why so many people go into the T-shirt-making business. For us, we hoped shirts would be a great addition to a bacon order, but the reality was most people bought either bacon or a T-shirt; they rarely bought both in the same order.

Getting the Shirts Made

There’s no shortage of people who can silk-screen T-shirts for you, locally or online. But finding someone good, quick, and affordable can be a challenge. Jason had a previous relationship from a project a few years ago, and so we decided to do our first shirts with the same company, Phantom Chicken in Portland, Oregon. He remembered them as being really cool, highly recommended, and doing a great job. Again, we stuck to our theme: Find the easiest solution to start with. Adjust as necessary.

Phantom Chicken is owned and operated by Greg and Gale Weiss out of their house/studio in NE Portland. And they are awesome. We may have gotten a slightly better deal if we had had our shirts printed online, but you often lose some of the customer service benefits when working with impersonal corporations. By working with people we already knew, and who specialized in small-batch runs, we got incredible service.

Before we had our shelving system in place, there were a few times when we didn’t realize we were running short on a specific design until it was nearly too late. However, a quick call to Greg would result in his having more shirts ready for pickup in just a few days. Also, Greg and Gale allowed us to order shirts in a variety of sizes and colors without a minimum order for each, which is awesome and rare for companies who produce high-quality shirts such as those Phantom Chicken produces.

Other benefits of working consistently with a local shop were that they kept our screens on hand and we could order new shirts by merely picking up the phone. When you silk-screen a shirt, you’re actually pushing ink through a screen onto the shirt, and the screens have to be custom prepared, which adds cost to the process. If you work with the same person and have a relationship with them, they’ll usually keep your screens around so they can be reused when you need more shirts, keeping costs down as you go.

We would also pick up the shirts in person, and during that time we’d go over new printing ideas, ink styles, suggestions for ways to make the designs stand out, and so on. That sort of actual casual consultation helped make our shirts a great product of which we could be proud.

If you haven’t had shirts printed before, it’s a lot of fun to take an idea and turn it into a tangible item that you can wear. Clothing is often a conversation piece, and it’s a big rush to put on a T-shirt for your own company. It’s also not nearly as difficult as you’d think. Most printers will have very clear and simple instructions on preparing the artwork, and many will do all the hard work themselves.

With Phantom Chicken, Holly sent over the vector files and a guideline of the size we were looking for, and Greg made sure that the sizes were correct and that they’d get put into the right position. We also used a shirt mockup design that gave everyone a sense of how the shirts would look, and allowed us to play with colors and size of artwork before it was printed. (See the “Big Pig” image on page 71.)

Sticking With Shirts

One of the decisions we made early on was what we wouldn’t carry. Obviously, we were selling bacon, and we knew from day one that we would carry bacon shirts, but over the months leading up to our launch, dozens of niche and novelty bacon products started hitting the market.

Absolutely the most popular among all of the bacon-themed items was BaconSalt, with its growth and distribution becoming unbelievably huge. But there were also things like bacon band-aids, bacon mints, and bacon fridge magnets. Because the three of us were already known by our friends for our love of bacon, we had each gotten our fair share of these gifts.

They were fun, and we enjoyed their novelty, but they sort of made bacon a joke, which was what we were trying to avoid. So we made a firm and absolute policy: we would sell only bacon-related products that you would actually want. If the product’s sole purpose was to make someone laugh, then we weren’t going to sell it. Now, some may disagree with some of our judgments, but I really don’t want bacon toothpaste or bacon mints. I want mint toothpaste and candy-flavored mints. I want my bacon bacon-flavored and that’s about it.

In the end, our products became limited to bacon, t-shirts, and aprons (there was a deal with pillows at one point, and we shouldn’t have done it, but it was a learning process and part of a bigger deal). We probably could have sold some of those novelty products, but gag gifts didn’t really create the experience we wanted to exude.

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