Selling T-Shirts On Amazon Merch vs. Seller Central – Pros & Cons (& Headaches)

Last Updated: April 10, 2017

Update! A lot of the issues discussed in this post have since been resolved, please see this blog post for an updated version.

Let’s talk about Amazon!

When it comes to selling T-Shirts on Amazon, you have a couple of options.

1) Merch By Amazon. You upload artwork – and Amazon prints and ships the T-Shirts for you – paying you a percentage of each sale made.

2) Amazon Seller Central. You sell Shirts directly to customers via Amazon, and are responsible for the printing and shipping. You can use a T-Shirt Fulfillment company to handle this for you, and you simply manage the process. You receive the gross value of each sale (minus fees), so your profit is the difference between your sale price (plus shipping) and the cost of printing and shipping that shirt to the customer.

Selling T-Shirts Merch Amazon vs Seller Central

What are the important distinctions?

  • Merch By Amazon is free. There are no monthly or transaction fees – whatever royalty you set is what you’ll receive (I think Merch will start charging at some point, but right no there’s no sign of this). Seller Central costs $40/month for a professional account, AND there are additional percentage-based fees when you make sales.
  • Merch is invite only (currently). If you don’t already have an account then you could be waiting months to get one. Seller Central is open to all, and you can get started right away.
  • With Merch you never deal directly with your customers. The customers are really Amazon’s – and you simply provide Amazon with the rights to print your artwork on T-Shirts and sell them. With Seller Central you are the seller – a customer purchases from you directly (via Amazon) – and you will have to deal with complaints, refunds, returns etc.
  • Merch Shirts are Prime listings by default – meaning Amazon usually prints and ships them within a few days. If you use Seller Central you’ll be relying on a T-Shirt fulfillment company, and they’re unlikely to be able to ship as quick as that – most tend to take between 3-5 days. Merch Shirts are likely to be more attractive to customers than Seller Central-sold Shirts because of this.

Anything else?

Yes, as it happens.

  • Merch is a heavily policed program with strict rules about what designs can and cannot be sold. And we’re not just talking about potential Copyright and Trademark infringements, but also profanity, controversial topics etc. This means your designs can be stopped at the gate, or removed later – and you could lose your account altogether. Seller Central on the other hand seems far less proactive when it comes to this stuff – probably because Amazon is not the ‘seller of record’. So if you want to produce rude, controversial or parody type designs then Seller Central is probably the way to go. (Note: I’m not saying that you are safe from these issues with Seller Central – Amazon can still close a Seller Central Account as quickly as it can a Merch one – if you’re violating Amazon’s policies.)
  • Merch has a set price for each Shirt they produce – so you cannot sell at less that $10.96 or something like that. On the other hand, using Seller Central – you can (in theory) price your Shirts as low as you’d like. And you may still be able to eek out some profit, if you use a cheap blank from a fulfillment partner like CustomCat (blanks from $7).
  • Merch By Amazon is so easy to use that a kid could do it. You just upload a png file and away you go. Seller Central, on the other hand, is so complicated that I’m amazed anyone without a engineering degree can use it. I’m not kidding – I’ve sold on multiple different platforms and websites over the past few years and have never encountered anything as difficult to use as Seller Central. It is the exact opposite of intuitive. It is so full of quirks and bugs that you’ll wonder what you are paying for. Have I made my point yet?
  • Seller Central has a further unique and quite frankly baffling feature – which is that anyone, anywhere, at any time, can come along and ‘hi-jack’ your product listing. So the T-Shirt you designed and listed (the thing that is 100% your own original work and which you own the full copyright to) is able to be hopped on by other sellers who can undercut you and ‘steal’ those sales from under your nose. I know, it’s really something. And it’s the number one reason I’ve stayed away from Seller Central for so long (because I’d rather not do the hard work of listing my designs on Amazon – no small task – simply to have some guy in China hi-jack all my listings and steal my sales). The only protection you have against this right now (as far as I know) is to issue takedown notices to these hijackers. This does seem to work, but it is by no means immediate, and of course it requires that you keep an eye on your listings at all times. Merch has it’s own issue with copycats – but at least they don’t hi-jack your own original listings. It’s crazy town I tells ya!

Assuming that hasn’t put you off entirely and you are still interested in selling T-Shirts via Seller Central – then read on…

Note: I’m not trying to put you off Seller Central really. It does have some advantages over Merch – and it is still a way to access millions of customers in almost real-time with a few clicks. I think it’s especially worthwhile when there are trends or hot topics you want to hop on – with designs that are potentially controversial or otherwise inappropriate for Merch. And perhaps most importantly anyone can get started today, unlike with Merch.


Enter Shopify

Whilst various Print-on-Demand integrations directly with Seller Central have been around for a while, the game has changed of late with the introduction of Shopify’s Amazon integration channel.

The concept is simple enough: you can now ‘push’ your products from your Shopify store straight to your Seller Central account (which is a user-friendly way to get products into Seller Central), and any orders from Amazon will feed back into your Shopify system.

So if you have a Shopify store hooked up to CustomCat for example, then any orders that come through your Amazon sales channel will generate an order in Shopify – which will in turn generate an order with CustomCat.

When CustomCat ships that order it will mark it as ‘fulfilled’ in Shopify – and this info will pass back through to Amazon, along with the tracking number.

And viola – a completely ‘hands free’ print-on-demand system for selling via Seller Central.

For a very detailed run through of how to hook this all up – check out this article from Neil of MerchInformer. Neil recommends TeeLaunch whereas I would go with CustomCat, but apart from that he covers almost everything you need, so there’s no use me replicating all that info here.

However!

There are some things that seem to be causing headaches, so I will try to address those below…


The UPC Issue

When pushing products from Shopify to Seller Central, you are required to supply a UPC code for each variation.

These are simply 12-digit codes designed to identify physical products – but you can’t just generate them yourself. You can purchase them on eBay, but apparently these are unlikely to be legit (even if they work) and the real ones are much more expensive.

But there is a workaround.

Rather than listing on Shopify first and pushing those products to Amazon – you instead list your product on Seller Central first, and then go into Shopify and hook them up.

This removes the need for a UPC code…

But ONLY if you have UPC exemption! (or GTIN exemption as it’s technically called).


UPC Exemption

You can get this exemption by applying here. (You’ll have to be logged into your Seller Central account to view).

All you actually need to do is tell Amazon why your products don’t have UPC codes (it’s because they’re printed on demand) – and upload a file that includes a list of your example products.

This is literally a spreadsheet with 50 products titles, SKUs and a link to an image. Sure it’s a bit of a pain, but it took me less than an hour to put together, and if you have your designs well organised this shouldn’t be difficult to do.

Note 1: Apparently another method exists – which is to provide Amazon with a letter from your Fulfillment partner (eg. CustomCat) stating that there are no UPC codes. I don’t know if this works, because I used the spreadsheet method, but you can see some more info on that here.

Note 2: GTIN/UPC Exemption is time-limited. I think it lasts for 3 months by default. When it expires you’ll have to apply again.


The Production Time Problem

Remember what I said before about Seller Central being full of bugs?

Well, here is just one example.

Seller Central has a field for ‘Production Time’ – a great way for you to indicate to customers (and Amazon) that the time it takes to produce a product may take longer than the default 1/2 days. (Which is perfect for us – as we’re using Print-on-demand companies to print our Shirts, and they take anything from 3-5 days to actually produce the gear).

Amazon Seller Central Production Time Field

Well this would be great…

IF IT WORKED!

Amazon production time

Yes friends, it seems Amazon has a problem saving changes to a database.

You can change that little ‘Production Time’ field ’til your pink in the face – heck, you can put it up to 300 if you like – you’ll simply be wasting your energy.

It doesn’t save – it doesn’t register – and your products are still expected to ship out within 2 days whether you like it or not. (Oh, and Amazon will of course penalise you if you miss your shipping targets frequently enough).

But my friends – there is a solution.

But it ain’t pretty.

Are you ready?

Basically you must add your products via a spreadsheet upload.

I know, I know, it feels like it’s 1998 or something.

But I’m serious.

If you want your ‘Production Time’ settings to stick, then you need to add products to Seller Central through the ‘Add Products Via Upload’ function – not ‘Add A Product’.

Essentially you download an Excel file, edit it (fill in all your details) and upload it back to Amazon.

This is a painful process for sure – but once you’ve done it once – successfully – it should be relatively straightforward to add all new products after that.


So – to recap…

Shopify’s new Amazon integration is a great way to hook up your Seller Central account with Print-on-Demand T-Shirt fulfillment companies, allowing you to sell Shirts on autopilot.

But

It’s not without it’s issues.

But if you get UPC exemption, upload your products using a spreadsheet, and then retroactively hook these products up to your equivalent Shopify products – you should be good to go.

(Meaning your products will register whatever ‘production time’ settings you added, AND you won’t have to use UPC codes).


FINALLY HOWEVER

I feel duty bound to inform you that I’m currently unable to successfully upload inventory via a spreadsheet – without including UPC codes.

I don’t know why this is – as previously (ie. until this month) this was all working fine.

My UPC exemption expired last month (I have since successfully re-applied) and since then my old trusty spreadsheet just ain’t cutting the mustard anymore.

So for the past few weeks I have been racking up ‘naughty stars’ with Amazon, because my orders are shipping out a little later than they should be (from Amazon’s perspective at least).

Anyways I’m currently waiting for Amazon to get back to me about this – and I will update below.

All I can say is – I did warn you. Seller Central is a jungle.


I hope that has given you some idea as to what to expect when selling on Seller Central.

It certainly isn’t straightforward, but with the new Shopify integration I still think it is a handy tool to have around.

I guess that things can only get better as Shopify and Amazon work out the kinks – and if you have a Shopify store already then it makes sense to at least give it a try.

(If you’re unsure whether a Shopify store is right for you – check out last week’s article where I talk about how I was eventually won over).


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Published by Michael Essek