Nothing beats high-quality schwag to promote your products, whether you're handing it out at conferences, mailing it to customers, or simply wearing it yourself wherever you go. The keyword, however, is high quality--because cheap, poorly made promotional products will only do you more harm than good.
I've always wondered which custom online printing shops--the kind that can put your logo on things like shirts, frisbees, and more--work best. There are at least 10 of them around, including Vistaprint.com, CafePress.com, and CustomInk.com. And, since Web interfaces have improved significantly in design and approach, I wanted to see which ones were the easiest to use, from designing items down to shipping them out. I decided to create my own logo and brand, order a few products, and test out how each service worked.
Of course, you can always get a mass run of T-shirts at a print shop. Be forewarned--you'll have to buy quite a few shirts to get a healthy discount, there is usually a set-up charge, and you can't create your own storefront to sell shirts and branded gear.
Number of products available: 500
Most unusual: Glass tree ornaments, umbrellas, and frisbees
Price for a six shirt order: $19.58 each
I ordered T-shirts, frisbees, and a mug. This was one of my favorite sites to use because the interface is so intuitive. I had no problems choosing my designs and placing an order. The site even has artists on stand-by who can help you create a design using your own logo. The checkout process was a little odd, though. You place an order for each promo product, but you can't add them all to one shopping cart. The site did send me an email to verify the design and quantities ordered, which is pretty unique. (Most sites don't bother with that step.) Pricing is much higher for value T-shirts, but I liked the wide variety of products offered at this site.
Number of products available: 450
Most unusual: Duvet covers, wine charms, shower curtain, mini flask necklace
Price for a six shirt order: $9.99 each
This popular site gets credit for an intuitive designer studio. You can add your own text--the design studio even shows the font characters and lets you play around with placement. The storefront is also very customizable--I added a logo and changed the basic layout very quickly. A few bugs popped up where the site told me I had a bad Internet connection, even though it was perfectly fine. The shirt quality was average, and the shipping time was not quite as fast as Zazzle (below). I do give CafePress credit for the most diverse product line-up and a good T-shirt price.
Number of products available: 150
Most unusual: Men's bottle cap opener shirt, customizable beer mug
Six shirt order: $9.50 each
This branded merch site has more of a focus on T-shirts than most, although they do offer plenty of other items. I wasn't as impressed with the design studio (it's a bit harder to use than some) and the shipping time couldn't beat Zazzle. There's also not nearly as much variety--no frisbees to pick from here. In fact, most items are clothing related. But the site does offer one unique feature: you can set up a "white label" shop with help from Spreadshirt so that your e-commerce store runs entirely on your own site. That's a branding win for sure. One note: You get the $9.50 shirt price if you buy one from your own shop at cost. But, technically speaking, that's the low price leader for ordering custom shirts in low quantities.
Number of products available: 120
Most unusual: Postage stamps, artwork, aprons
Price for a six shirt order: $14.95
Zazzle gets the award for shipping my products the fastest. A few trinkets, including a box of water bottles, showed up in about two days--a full two days faster than other sites. The shirt quality was somewhere around the same as Vistaprints--good but not outstanding. Zazzle does not offer many promo items--at only 150, it is a few hundred less than both CafePress and CustomInk. Other than postage stamps, which is rather unique (they put your logo on the stamp), there are not too many unusual items beyond the typical shirts, phone cases, and water bottles. I did like the interface for making products, and the whole site uses a fresh design that makes ordering much easier. The site does tend to be more focused on consumers ordering shirts, although there are many designers who sell their shirt designs as part of their business.
Number of products available: 100
Most unusual: Beverage koozies
Price for a six shirt order: $11.49
What I liked most about Vistaprint is that it is not just a branded merch company a la CafePress or CustomInk. You can order business cards, journals, stationery, envelopes, and many other items that are for stocking your office supply cabinet and not just handing out to customers. The 100 or so promo items include the usual fare like iPhone cases and T-shirts. I ordered business cards with a logo to hand out at a conference and they cost only $20 including shipping. The value shirt quality was not great and shipping time for six shirts took longer than most--an extra day or so compared to the other sites.
Number of products available: 64
Most unusual: MacBook sleeve
Price for a six shirt order: $16.99
The true oddball of the bunch, and I mean that in a good way. Printfection focuses only on T-shirts and not other branded gear. You can order a custom run of standard shirts for your employees. But, more importantly, the site lets you create a giveaway system that works like an e-commerce store on other sites. I set up a giveaway myself. When you send someone the link, they can choose their size and tap in the shipping info. Promoting your giveaway on social networks also makes sense--say, telling people they have to share a link 10 times to qualify for a contest. I really like the interface for setting up these contests--it works smoothly and I don't have to do anything but pay. Printfection also has a great discount for a 50 shirt order--they are all half price. The lowest priced American Apparel T-shirt has a soft cloth material--it was the best of all the shirts I tested.