Behind the Scenes: What Happens After You Place an Order at Zazzle

For Zazzle, Cyber Monday was madness. Like many online retailers, the company spent the day processing many thousands of orders. But unlike most shopping sites, these orders were for customized items, such as T-shirts, skateboards and even pacifiers.

The closely-held company, founded in 1999, has been fairly quiet about its expansion to date compared with the buzz many technology and e-commerce sites generate. With the company growing, it’s starting to open up and gave Bloomberg.com’s Tech Blog an exclusive look at its 150,000-square-foot facility in San Jose on the busiest online shopping day of the year.

First, here’s how Zazzle works: When a customer views an item online, it exists as an image only. The site provides a wide array of designs or lets users create their own from templates. After a design is selected and the product is ordered, Zazzle’s machinery gets going, printing the image on-demand. That design is then sewn, pressed or otherwise attached to the product and then shipped to the customer. Blank items are the only inventory held in house, and Zazzle offers more than 95 million unique product designs.

“We’re working around the clock, processing thousands of one-of-a-kind orders,” said Charles Ohiaeri, vice president of operations technology. Business is 12 to 16 times greater than during the rest of the year, he said. It’s so busy, in fact, that the Redwood City, California-based company is in the midst of hiring more than 600 workers for the holidays.

In the customized goods market, Zazzle competes with CafePress, which went public earlier this year, as well as smaller startups like Cap That. They’re all vying for business amid what ComScore predicts will be a record holiday season with online retailers bringing in $43.4 billion. On Cyber Monday, spending jumped 17 percent compared with last year to $1.46 billion, making it the heaviest day in history, according to the research firm.

Our tour started virtually the day before Thanksgiving, when I ordered a mini messenger bag from Zazzle’s mobile Website on my Android phone (the company has an app for the iPhone, but not yet for Android devices).

On Monday, we visited the facility to observe the creation of my bag.

Amid the hustle, we were directed to a station operated by Daniel Olais, the production lead for light apparel. Olais rendered the design from the ordering system to the in-house computer. The full-size design was printed using Zazzle’s customized machine. It was then pressed onto fabric, cut and packaged, a process that took about an hour. But the bag wasn’t finished by Zazzle.

The company has teamed up with about a dozen smaller retailers that can take advantage of Zazzle’s design technology. This allows Zazzle to expand its product offerings while providing its partners a bigger pool of customers. Rickshaw Bagworks, a San Francisco-based boutique that sells its own messenger bags, iPad sleeves and tote bags, was the maker of my item.

So we drove the fabric 45 miles to watch the bag’s construction at Rickshaw’s facility, which doubles as a retail outlet. Rickshaw founder Mark Dwight said up to 20 percent of their daily orders now come through Zazzle. About 150 bags are constructed daily at the facility.

“This to me represents the new micro manufacturing,” Dwight said. “Our Zazzle business is definitely accelerating as it becomes more widely known.”

Zazzle’s material was combined with Rickshaw’s own fabric and sewn together on an assembly line, a process that took about 20 minutes. And at day’s end, I walked out with a bag, made to order.

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