CafePress is a “print on demand” corporation. What that means, practically speaking, is that they have a set of printers in a handful of factories in the United States. The CafePress corporation uses those printers to put images made by graphic designers onto a variety of products, including bumper stickers, buttons and shirts. Because it uses printers rather than bulk silk screening, the CafePress corporation is able to print each item as it is ordered — on demand.
Up until this very morning, when CafePress sold an item with a graphic designer’s image on it, the price system for customers, designers and CafePress itself was simple and straightforward. For each product it sold, CafePress maintained for itself a certain guaranteed amount of money called a base price. When a graphic designer made an image available for sale on a CafePress product, she or he set an additional markup, a commission to be received by the designer for each sale of the image on that product. The price a customer actually paid for the product was the base price plus the commission. For example, until this morning CafePress set a base price of $3.49 for a 3×10 inch vinyl bumper sticker. We at Irregular Times set a commission of $1.16 for a Turn Off Your TV / Think For Yourself design printed on that sticker. As a customer, you’d have paid $4.65 for a bumper sticker with that design on it.
Starting today, that simple system has been replaced by something rather more complicated. From now on, how much a customer pays for a product, how much a designer is paid for the use of a design on a product, and how much CafePress pays itself depends on how the customer comes to chooses that product.
If you buy a CafePress product through a URL featuring a designer’s shop name, the system works the same way as it always did. The “shop” URL for the Turn Off Your TV bumper sticker looks like http://www.cafepress.com/irregulargoods.13734306. You might get to this “shop” URL from a Google search, or you might get to that “shop” URL from the graphic designer’s website, your you might find it on a bulletin board.
If the URL for the product starts with the name of the product type instead, then CafePress sets a different base price to pay itself and sets a different commission to pay the designer. In the case of the Turn Off Your TV bumper sticker, this different url looks like http://bumperstickers.cafepress.com/item/turn-off-your-tv-and-think-bumper-sticker/13734306. You might get to this different URL by using the little blue search box on the home page of CafePress, or you might get to it by a Google search, or you might get to that URL from somebody else’s website or bulletin board.
That’s the new system, starting today. Starting today, the CafePress corporation is putting all of its efforts into promoting this latter sort of URL and not the former. The latter sort of URL raises prices customers pay for the same products while cutting the commission graphic designers earn, down to a mandated 10 percent of the price paid by the customer. It’s confusing, and the reasons for the split are obscure, but the effects are demonstrable.
To return to our example, if you go to http://www.cafepress.com/irregulargoods.13734306 to buy the Turn Off Your TV bumper sticker, you’ll encounter the old price structure, in which you paid $4.65, Irregular Times received $1.16, and CafePress received $3.95. But if you go to http://bumperstickers.cafepress.com/item/turn-off-your-tv-and-think-bumper-sticker/13734306, you’ll pay $5.00, Irregular Times will receive $0.50, and CafePress will get $4.50.
In this shift, the base prices for items — Customer Price minus Designer Markup — are going up. The source for the old base prices is a list here. The base prices under the new system are figured as the price to the customer minus 10 percent.
Old Base Price for Bumper Stickers: $3.65… New Base Price for Bumper Stickers: $4.50
Old Base Price for 2.5 inch Buttons: $2.99… New Base Price for 2.5 inch Buttons: $3.60
Old Base Price for 1 inch Buttons: $1.49… New Base Price for 1 inch Buttons: $2.25
Old Base Price for 11×17 Posters: $4.99… New Base Price for 11×17 Posters: $7.20
Old Base Price for Round Xmas Ornaments: $5.99… New Base Price for Round Xmas Ornaments: $9.00
Old Base Price for 10 Pack Greeting Cards: $14.99… New Base Price for 10 Pack Greeting Cards: $17.20
Old Base Price for Organic Men’s American Apparel Shirt: $19.99… New Base Price for Organic Men’s American Apparel Shirt: $23.40
Old Base Price for Junior Raglan American Apparel Shirt: $17.99… New Base Price for Junior Raglan American Apparel Shirt: $21.60
Old Base Price for American Apparel Thong: $7.99… New Base Price for American Apparel Thong: $10.80
The bottom line: while CafePress may issue a public relations explanation that this change was made in order to “provide our shoppers with consistent pricing that’s competitive with other online retail stores,” it actually produces inconsistent pricing between two different areas of the very same website. What the change actually does consistently is to raise the dollar amount CafePress pockets on the sale of each product, with much higher base prices than “other online retail stores.” Skreened sells that very same Organic Men’s American Apparel shirt with a base price of just $17.99.
CafePress is not putting itself in a competitive price position, and its explanations for the changes do not match with observable reality. It’s typical behavior for a profit-maximizing corporation, not all that surprising.