Is $20 for a shirt expensive?
Very little says Pop Culture like the right t shirt. If you see someone wearing a Star Wars t shirt you can immediately know that that person is (a) hip to current popular culture, (b) probably a nerd, and (c) also probably someone cool with whom you could have a great, albeit nerdy, conversation.
That of course brings about the question of how much is a cool shirt worth these days? Prices seem to hover in the $20 range and a common question according to Google Trends is the title of this blog: Is $20 for a shirt expensive?
For an expert answer I reached out to David Inman, president of NerdKungFu.com a website with over 160,000 nerd shirts from movies, comics, video games, comic books, and TV shows (additionally I was happy to learn that Dave is a huge nerd an pop culture expert. He and I got into a 40 minute argument about TOS vs TNG (I'm TNG. Real captains don't need hair)).
Jason: "So Dave, is $20 for a shirt expensive?"
Dave: "Short answer, generally yes although there is a lot of variety. I have seen printed shirts as low as $5 each over at Five Dollar Tee Shirts and other sites selling the same shirts (from the same printer) we sell for $22 for over $40. $20 seems the fair median price."
Jason: "What's the long answer?"
Dave: "There are a lot of reasons why one printed shirt might cost more than another one. The main reason a shirt can be expensive is the license. This is what most people who complain about shirt prices tend to miss. We get the occasional irate email along the lines of "How dare you charge so much for a shirt my cousin can print for $8???""
Jason: "Wow, really? How do you respond?"
Dave: "Generally with the same info about licensing I am about to share with you. Honestly, if they don't want to pay our prices for officially licensed shirts there are literally hundreds of online dealers selling unlicensed bootlegs for a lot less than we have to charge. Of course, if you do that you are literally taking money from the actors of the shows you love and the studios who make them. It's easy to say the studios have enough money but if the licensing income drops below a certain level that makes doing the next season of your favorite show harder to justify. Just look at the disappointment Disney is facing with their inability to sell new Star Wars merch."
Jason: "Do you see that happening?"
Dave: "Oh yeah. The Star Wars we sell is almost 100% Episodes IV-VI with the occasional prequel Darth Maul shirt. Even popular characters from the newer movies like Kylo Ren never seem to move. Of course the Mandolorian and Baby Yoda are blowing up lately but when Disney originally bought Lucas Film the plan was to make a mint on toys and shirts. That has definitely not happened."
Jason: "Interesting but I'd rather discuss that on a different day. How does licensing affect the cost of the shirts?"
Dave: "Well the licenses are assessed against the wholesale cost of the shirts, which means it effectively doubles by the time we can sell it to the consumers. Even a cheap license like a YouTuber or small indy comic tends to add 20-25% of the final cost of the shirt. Expensive licenses like anything Disney can add more than 30-40% to the cost of the shirt. The most expensive licenses are any music licenses. They can add up to 50% to the cost of the shirt."
Jason: "Why is that?"
Dave: "Partially ego I guess. Most rock stars really think their license is worth a lot. Also it's not their core business. For them, the money is in performances and downloads. The t-shirt royalties are gas money for the superyacht they just bought. Since their business doesn't need merch like movies and TV shows they can stick out for more. There are also a few really powerful licensing groups in music that dictate what their licenses are worth. With a few exceptions like Disney they are way more powerful than any other licensing collective."
Jason: "So bottom line any licensed t-shirt is going to cost more than an unlicensed one."
Dave: "Yep. Definitely. If you see a Star Wars shirt for less that $18 odds are it is a bootleg. By the way that bootleg will get shut down really quick. Disney has lawyers actively scouring the internet looking for bootlegs. There is one rule in the licensing business: you don't mess with the Mouse."
Jason: "I bet. What else affects the costs of shirts?"
Dave: "Well, the quality of the blank (shirt) and the printing processes used are serious factors. A basic tube cut GilDan or Anvil blank is going to cost a lot less than a 30/1 panel cut American Classic. If you like higher quality shirts you are going to pay a premium for the privilege. Fortunately for our business it generally seems that the real t-shirt blank snobs are actually not so much into licensed apparel and so we don't deal with them a lot. They tend to look for hip cool designs and don't really care about licenses. I think a lot of them think of themselves as too cool for pop cultures. Real rebels. It's cool. They can spend $30 on a shirt over at Ames Bros and leave the Star Trek shirts to the cool kids. Don't get me wrong. Very cool looking shirts. Just not for the nerdy customer we cater to."
Jason: "What do you mean by 30/1 and is it really worth more?"
Dave: "That's the thread count. The higher the number the finer the thread count. Most basic t shirts are 18/1 or 20/1. This is what people usually think of when they talk about a Hanes Beefy Tee fit. Finer thread counts feel nicer and breathe more. However that really isn't a reason for the blank to be more expensive. It was when the trend really hit a few years ago but these days 30/1 fabrid costs almost the same as 18/1 by the yard. However in general mills that work on 30/1 tend to put in more effort in other ways and that can drive up the costs. Of course your country of origin is probably the biggest factor in blank shirt costs?"
Jason: "How do you mean?"
Dave: "Well anything milled in America will cost a fortune. Very expensive. Most of the blanks we work with are from Mexico, El Salvador, or Nicaragua. Generally very high quality and good price. The cheaper stuff comes from India or Bangledesh. Not necessarily any worse although they can be. The real issue is if you try to ship them out of the USA after printing the tariffs and VAT (Value Added Tax) fees shoot up and you get a lot of unhappy Europeans."
Jason: "Nothing from China?"
Dave: "In t shirts not really. We see a lot of Chinese hoodies and fleeces but hardly any shirts. I think the cost to ship overseas adds too much to t shirts to make it cost-effective. Most of our blanks are from South or Central America."
Jason: "What about printing methods? How does that affect cost?"
Dave: "That's an interesting question and it has shifted considerably in the last five years. The cheapest way to print t-shirts is a traditional silk screen press. However you have to pay considerable set up fees for each color. Most places won't even fire up their press for less than 300 shirts and even then the cost per shirt can be very high. If you find a smaller shop that will do 50 pieces you are almost paying full retail for each shirt.
The problem with this is more and more t-shirt retailers are trying to get away from actually holding on to excess shirt inventory so unless you have a truly huge warehouse it doesn't really work. To get a good price on shirts you need to order 1200 or so of a single design and that takes up enough space to park a small car.
Thus more and more shirt companies are going with either soft transfer or direct to garment. Soft transfer is like those old transfers you saw back in the 70's but they are way better. They use actual plastisol ink rather than vinyl and once it is done you really can't tell the difference. It will last as long as a silk screen and look as good and sometimes better. Then nice thing is they are very cheap to get and don't take up a lot of room. The down side is you have to actually have the transfers on hand and then manage the inventory. We've done it in the past and it can be a nightmare.
The current most popular method is a direct to garment printer. It works pretty much like an ink jet printer on your t-shirt and if you do it right will look as good and last as long as any silk screen. In some ways it is better especially in images with a lot of color blending like photographs.
The down side again is the machines cost a fortune and it is a lot more work to get the shirts ready. Even the lowest end good DTG can cost $15K and you have to pretreat all your shirts ahead of time. It ends up being somewhere in between the cost of a soft transfer and the cost of silk screening. However the realy advantage is this allows you to feature on your site literally thousands of different designs as they are printed on demand.
Jason: "Is this what you would recommend?" Dave: "Hell no. The cost for the machine, the constant maintenance it requires, and just the space make it really hard to manage. Our printer is freaking huge. However if you are serious about it this is the way you have to go. There are a lot of sites I see now that pop up using one of the big commercial POD (print on demand) shops. You are lucky to get out with a shirt that costs less than $25 from one of those. On some level you need to maintain control of your inventory"
Jason: "Anything else that can affect the cost of a shirt?"
Dave: "Tons. Just the intricacies of running an online store add up. Everyone thinks that running an online shop is somehow cheaper than a brick and mortar shop but that is completely untrue. Keeping up the site, paying customer service, paying our art department, paying for the warehouse, paying our coders to keep the site from crashing, and about 30 apps we pay for monthly add up to a huge bill. It literally costs us money to accept your money. Then there's the marketing expenses. PPC (Pay Per Click), SEO (Search Engine Optimization), social media, and everything can add 12-20% to the cost of shirts. If everyone would click on organic search results we could probably drop our price but even SEO work requires a lot of money."
Jason: "I'm sure we can dig into that on another day. Any last words on t-shirt prices?"
Dave: "Yeah. A t-shirt is worth what you are willing to pay for it in the end. If you really want that Star Wars shirt and it costs $20 then that is what it is worth. If you are a complete hipster who only wants ironic shirts printed on American Apparel then it is worth $30 to you. A Star Trek shirt that costs $20 might be worth $200 if you get William Shatner to sign it. We do our best to keep our costs down at a reasonable level but there are those who think even that is too much. For them,
a licensed shirt is not worth $20. The beauty of the internet is if you look hard enough you can find a shirt for $5 and honestly a lot of them are quite good. Just be aware and be prepared."
Jason: "Thanks Dave this was great. Hopefully we can get you back to talk about some of the things you touched on like licensing and operating costs in the future. You are definitely operating in our wheelhouse."
Dave: "Anytime. This was fun. Talk to you soon."