“This year marks the 100th birthday of the T-shirt. Maybe” – Here is a site that doesn’t take itself too seriously. That’s cool with me; it is T-shirt we are talking about, not rocket science.
However, they do say in the article that 100 years ago, in 1913, the U.S. Navy ordered a light undershirt for sailors to wear under their uniforms. That brought tees into public consciousness.
But we don’t really need the allegedly 100 year’s celebration to check on the short head of T-shirts, do we? I just couldn’t keep that unimportant piece of information to myself.
Let’s talk about online t-shirt stores.
Apparently it should be a Long tail classic: No need to keep stocks on the shelves; the retailer can just print the desired design on the desired t-shirt the minute an online order gets in; the buyers can express themselves and chose niche designs that fit them… classic long tail logic.
But does it really work that way?
My first guess was that it doesn’t but I had to check. After all, the short head theory is no rocket science but I do take it seriously.
So I asked 2 people who know something about Tees.
The first guy I asked was Jake Nickell, the founder and CEO of Threadless, my favorite T-shirt website. Threadless was founded back in 2000 after he won a t-shirt design contest. The site invites anyone in the world to submit their own T-shirt design. Then the Threadless community votes on the design and if it is chosen, it is offered for sale as t-shirts and other products on the site.
Jake told me that over the years Threadless received half a million designs for T-shirts!
Only 500 of them were actually printed.
99% of the designs that are submitted don’t feel the fabric of a T-shirt. They just get covered with dust in a back hard drive somewhere.
In other words, Threadless doesn’t even offer the long tail for sale!
That is not all – within the 5,000 designs they do print the distribution is like this:
1.33% of the Tees generate 20% of the sales.
8% of the Tees generate 50% of the sales.
30% of the Tees generate 80% of the sales.
The last 70% of the Tees generate only 20% of the sales.
Classic short head!
This is what the graph would probably look like if they had printed all 500,000 different designs that were ever submitted.
The situation is quite similar at bustedtees.com, another online t-shirt store I like.
This is what Josh Abramson, the CEO of Bustedtees told me: “For t-shirts I think we’re probably still close to that 20% of the shirt produces 80% of the revenue…. I’ve been doing this stuff for 14 years since starting CollegeHumor in 1999 — both of our businesses are certainly driven by hits… That being said, we still have a nice benefit from having a big catalog to take advantage of the long tail as well… “.
So why doesn’t the long tail work here?
There are several reasons.
First of all, most of us, consumers, love popular stuff (as we can learn from the chart). We are not really that unique and special. We want Hits! This is one of the basic short head basics. We do however appreciate a site that offers us a nice variety and an option to browse.
Even if we are unique and feel like browsing for that something special, there is a limit to our ability to deal with too much information and variety. How much time do we want to spend on a T-shirt catalog searching for a…T-shirt? Or as Josh from Bustedtees suggested: “Hits have become more and more important in a world with so much noise online”.
As for the online store, dealing with thousands of designers requires a lot of resources. True, it doesn’t take much Database space, but it does requires resources and attention. You need to manage the monthly billing and payment to all of them, offer support, customer relations etc. it can be done but why bother if almost nobody wants to buy it?
The long tail is not economical as we once thought – the revenues that we can generate out of it don’t really worth it and it is much more efficient to focus on the hits!