Friday, June 27, 2014

Why I No Longer Sell My Artwork through CafePress

As many of my customers know, I’ve been selling my art and design images on CafePress products for years. What most customers do not know however, is that in the last 5-6 years, CP has made numerous changes that have greatly reduced seller commissions. They are also engaging in deceptive and manipulative practices, designed to enhance their bottom line at the expense of artists, photographers and designers who sell on their platform. Thus, I am now referring all of my customers seeking my art and designs on products to my Zazzle stores:

- Kelli Swan Zazzle Store (features products with Pencil Drawings by Kelli Swan)

- Road to Enlightenment Zazzle Store (features products with Kelli’s quote “I googled directions for the Road to Enlightenment and found myself here.”)

- Black and White Notecards Zazzle Store (features Kelli’s Black and White notecards)

- Sunny Sense Zazzle Store (features Sunny Sense dog and cat lover designs by Kelli Swan)

Also - my Open Edition Prints are still available at my Fine Art America Store.


Note to those interested in selling on Cafepress: Beware!

As I was a fan of CP in the past, and even mentioned the site in my Artist Marketing book, I felt it best to outline some of the changes that have taken place at CP in recent years - as a warning for those interested in selling on their platform. Please research carefully and know what you are getting into with this company!

Cafepress Shops vs. the Cafepress Marketplace - There is a BIG Difference!

Cafepress offers two ways to sell products. In the first and original selling option, a seller sets up a “Shop” and fills it with products featuring his/her uploaded images. Seller’s can select their desired commission rate, by dollar amount or percentage, on each product. That Shop can then be “branded” with custom color & layout choices, and then be linked to from a website, blog, facebook profile, etc. to help buyers find it. (The second option is to submit products directly to the Marketplace, without setting up a Shop.)

A Shop seller has the option to opt-in or out of the Cafepress Marketplace on the Shop’s products. (The CP Marketplace is where most buyers actually find Cafepress products - it’s like a search engine within CP itself). As most sales are made through the Marketplace, most sellers logically “opt-in” to the Marketplace if they want to make sales there. However, the Marketplace sales limit seller commissions to 10% (or less in many cases*) while commissions can be set higher in the Shop - for sales made directly from the Shop (i.e. not found in a Marketplace search). For years CP encouraged Shop sellers to drive traffic to their CP Shops by placing links on their business websites, social media profiles, advertising, etc. Though Cafepress itself has been very aggressive in pursuing ways to drive traffic to the Marketplace, and away from individual Shops, thus reducing potential commissions paid to sellers.

If a Shop seller “opts-in” to the Marketplace, Cafepress adds products from that Shop to the Marketplace at its discretion - there are no guarantees on how many, if any, of a seller’s products will make it into the Marketplace. Even if a product created in a Shop makes it into the Marketplace - it is not the same product that appears in the Marketplace. Cafepress creates a “duplicate” product, with a different product number, and essentially “divorces” the product from the Shop. Buyers who find that duplicated product in a Marketplace search can see other Marketplace items by that seller, but there is no direct link to the original Shop from which the product was created. This allows Cafepress to maintain it’s max 10% commission on most products sold, and deter people from finding the original Shop and its products, where sellers often make a higher commission.

While CP sellers have known about the limited Marketplace commissions for the last several years, I don’t think most understand that CP is actually creating duplicate product entrees, and treating these products differently.


CafePress Email Promotions and Coupon Codes - “All Cafepress Shirts” DOESN’T mean ALL Cafepress Shirts?!

Cafepress is very active in sending out email discounts and coupon codes - this is part of its appeal to buyers. Originally, promotional codes sent out by Cafepress applied to all Cafepress products. Now however, there is small print on the emails stating that promos apply to Marketplace items only. This is so that Cafepress can promote the products with the lower commissions paid to sellers. It is incredibly deceptive, as Shop Owners for years have been encouraged to drive traffic to their branded CafePress Shops, telling people to sign up for accounts so that they would receive these promos and be able to use them. It is also deceptive in that:  How is John Q. Public to know the difference between a Cafepress Marketplace item and a Cafepress Shop item? And why would he/she care? I think most people reasonably assume that if it comes from Cafepress, a promo code from Cafepress should work.


The Admin Shop - Cafepress does what it pleases with YOUR images

Several years ago Cafepress began adding an “Admin” shop to Shop owners accounts.  Cafepress adds products to this Admin shop with the account holder’s images. Their claim is that “the sole purpose of admin shops are to promote the sale of your designs.”  Read on and you’ll see why this is their “sole purpose.”

The products added by CP to this shop are often products on which a seller may not wish to sell with his/her images, and/or have images poorly applied (cropped off, etc.) According to CP, a seller cannot “turn off” this feature. The only option if he/she don’t want these products made available for sale is to periodically delete all products added to this Admin shop. Of course that means one would have to keep checking for these additions.

It is not possible to stop the addition of unwanted products to the Admin Shop, nor is it possible to permanently delete the Admin shop. If one deletes the Admin shop, it simply returns the next time CP adds products at its own discretion.

When I wrote to Cafepress requesting a permanent deletion of the Admin shop, I was told my only option was to “opt-out” of the Marketplace so that those items would not be found.**   “Fine.” I thought.

Here’s where it gets really interesting (I opted-out of the Marketplace on my Admin Shop only, per the Cafepress advice, which is how I discovered this): If one does “opt-out” of the Marketplace on the Admin shop, Cafepress will remove ALL of the seller’s products from the Marketplace, including those in any other Shop(s) on the seller’s account - even those Shops that had NOT been opted out. No where in the Cafepress emails or TOS does it state that the Admin shop actually dominates/controls what happens to the other shops.

It took 10+ days of zero sales for me to realize this is what had happened to all of my products after I opted-out of the Marketplace on my Admin Shop. I then re-opted-in on the Admin shop as I had no other choice if I wanted any sales from the Marketplace (i.e. I was being manipulated into allowing CP to add products against my wishes if I wanted any Marketplace sales at all).

The Admin Shop fee is another deceptive practice. The Admin shops are added to seller accounts on the “no upfront fee” plan. This means that CP charges the seller a 10% fee on each sale up to a total of $10 in fees per month. So, the max 10% commission I would earn on a sale from this Admin Shop, as these shops are intended to send products to the Marketplace, is further reduced by the shop fee. Since I already had 2 pre-paid shops through which I made sales, and didn’t wish to have pay for a third shop, I found this practice beneficial only to Cafepress and it’s bottom line. [Read: small amount of extra shop fees on all those Admin shops taken from thousands or tens-of-thousands of sellers adds up to lots of extra income for CP.]

Another interesting note about the Admin shop product additions is how quickly they sell. That’s how I often discovered their creation. I'd added hundreds, if not thousands of products to my shops over the years, and none of them sold immediately upon entering the Marketplace. Yet many of the added “Admin” products sold within 1-2 days of being added to the Admin Shop. The odds against this scenario unfolding organically must be astronomical, which suggests that CP is giving preferential search treatment to these “Admin” shop products in their Marketplace.

If you’ve managed to read all of this and it sounds confusing - join the club! I believe CP has made their selling platform “consciously convoluted” so that most sellers will give up trying to figure out what is going on and just take the money they can get. After all, it can require 100’s of hours to set up a Shop and all it’s products. It can thus be a very difficult decision to shut that Shop down, even when such abusive practices are in place. (After being with Cafepress since 2002, I contemplated my decision for many months before finally deciding that the income received from them wasn’t worth being part of their deceptive business model.)

Perhaps one day there will be a class action suit against CP for all of their deceptive practices. A quick internet search reveals that several lawsuits are pending against the company now - for copyright infringement and IPO disclosure discrepancies. Cafepress is far from being on the up-and-up, and I can only hope that their karma comes around.


* Cafepress Marketplace commissions were set to a max of 10% in 2009. Third party affiliate sales earn even less for a seller. In late 2013, Cafepress further changed its Policies to “Performance Based Commissions” and reduced Markpetplace commissions to 5% unless sellers participated in more “active engagement” of the CP site - by getting followers and following in the CP social sharing, adding new designs, etc. (Many sellers saw this as a form of blackmail. i.e. “Help us build our platform, or you’ll be punished with reduced commissions.”)


** It is interesting to note that while a Shop seller often can’t get many of his/her products into the Marketplace, Cafepress creates the special Admin Shop on the account that puts images/products immediately into the Marketplace - all products/images chosen by CP, without any input of the Shop owner and/or design creator.