How to Sell More Shirts and Turn Your Merch Booth Into a Fan Experience
In this week’s blog, I wanted to write about not only how to sell more shirts during your shows, how to find additional products you can sell profitably, but also how to turn your merch booth into an experience your fans will look forward to every time you come to town.
At the bottom of this post is the video that accompanies this – a nearly-30 minute long explanation of all these topics, with additional ideas and details.
Can I make money selling t-shirts?
As a modern independent musician, there will probably be no greater money maker for you in your career than when you sell shirts and other product. Developing a great merch booth, great branding, and great strategies for selling while on the road will be almost as important as writing great riffs. At least, as far as your accountant is concerned.
Check out our previous post on things you need to consider before going on tour with your band.
Variety is Key
Whenever you have a customer who can’t find something they want, you have lost money. That’s a sale that SHOULD have happened, but didn’t. That’s money you earned, based on your performance, but lost, based on your shirts. And you have to sell shirts to survive on the road.
Obviously, having a variety of designs is key. You don’t want to overwhelm your fans with choice, at least not until you have developed a fanbase anxious to own everything. Especially early in your career, having choices in design that are radically different from one to the other is valuable. You won’t know yet whether your fanbase prefers single-color or four-color prints, for example. Although taking a look at what your fans are wearing from other artists will be one great way to make a fairly good guess.
Variety should also extend to colors of shirts. While the black t-shirt is crucial for harder music genres, this isn’t true for all fans. And this could change over time. Having at least one or two shirt designs in other colors, even if at smaller quantities, will sell shirts to those fans looking for color over a white or black shirt.
T-Shirt Business Opportunities
One of my favorite business concepts is the A/B test. I use it in testing YouTube thumbnails, ads on Facebook and Instagram, and in the subject lines of my emails. A/B testing is when you compare how well one thing does versus another. This is especially helpful when seeing what your audience wants. When it comes to how to sell t-shirts, several things could affect how well one shirt sells versus another. It could be about how or where the shirts are displayed in your merch booth, or the markets you had the shirts for sale. But by and large, by keeping track of how well one design sells versus another, when consistently offering them both to your fans, you’ll find out fairly quickly which design is more popular.
Whenever a design is less popular than another, discontinue making it. Replace the less-popular design with a new design and start the A/B testing over again, preferably against the “winning” design in markets you haven’t yet sold either shirt in yet. Otherwise, test the new design against another new design, and eventually put the “winning” designs against each other. By doing this process over and over, you will find the shirt designs your fans most like and are most willing to buy.
T-Shirt Business Plan
Always have your merch stocked with one or more “winning” designs and one or more “test” designs. Keep 3 or 4 designs in stock at all times, unless you have achieved a more advanced level of merch success. In that case, steadily increasing from 5 upwards is more than acceptable. Remember, selling your fans something they want is doing them a favor!
Always keep shirts, and merch in general, at the front of your priority list. Knowing how to sell shirts and other merch is one of the only ways you will be able to financially support your music career. For some bands, they consider themselves a merch company that makes music, rather than a band that makes merch. I don’t agree or disagree with the description, but the sentiment is correct.
It’s hard to make money with your music. Make money with your merch.
Can I make money selling other stuff?
The Difference Between Sales and Profit
When you make a sale at your merch table, the money you make can go right into the gas tank. Or your stomach. If a fan hands you $15 for a shirt, that’s $15 you can eat. That’s good news.
But when you come home from tour, if you put everything you got at the merch booth into the things you needed to survive on the road, you won’t have any money to replace the merch with. That’s not good news.
So, imagine you always put the cost for the merch you sold aside and only used what was left to put in the tank. What’s left is the “profit”. If this profit is small, you won’t have much money to survive on. If the profit is large, then you’ll have more. For example, if your shirt cost you $5 to make, and you sold it for $15, you have $10 to put into the tank. That might get you to the next gig. But if the shirt cost you $12 to make, and you sold it for $15, you have $3 to put into the tank. That won’t get you far.
What Else Should Be Sold
Merch booths have all sorts of pre-made products beyond t-shirts – CDs, vinyl records, figurines, patches, stickers, posters… you name it. But all these things have costs, so how much you get to keep, the profit, will be less than what you sold it for.
But imagine selling something that had no cost whatsoever? Imagine the sale being “pure profit”. If you sell something at $15, you get to keep the entire $15. This is ideal.
So, what can you sell that won’t cost you anything? There are lots of things you don’t perceive as having value but your fans will. Broken drum heads. Broken strings. Hell, a flat tire. Ever seen fans dive for a broken drum stick? It’s not as much fun to say you bought it at the merch booth, but fans still will, especially when you autograph it and take a picture with them with it.
Also, look for Goodwill and thrift stores with inexpensive products you can stitch a patch onto or, if you have a heat press machine of your own, print a design or logo on it. This is a highly profitable way to provide really cool and unique merch for your fans.
Having a Variety of Price Points
One of the biggest missed opportunities at every merch booth is not having a variety of products at varying price points. For example, if you have CDs, shirts, and vinyl, and it’s all priced around $15, you’re missing out on sales. You need to have products that are expensive, some moderate, some low, and some things you give away for free (more on this later).
There will be some fans who want to spend a lot of money with you, and can afford to do so. And there will be some fans who want to support you, but can only afford a little. Have something for each of them. And use bundles to entice some of the bigger spenders whenever you can.
A well-designed merch booth could have, for example, stickers for a dollar each, patches for five dollars, a poster and CDs for ten, t-shirts for twenty, a hoodie for thirty-five, a jacket for fifty, and a bundle for seventy.
What should I give away for free? And why?
Why It Is Vital You Collect Emails At the Merch Booth
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know I am a huge proponent of email. And if you need an email program I love, please check out ActiveCampaign by following this link. Outerloop IS an affiliate for ActiveCampaign, but only because we use it ourselves and love it so much.
Take fan emails at your merch booth, and give them something of value in return for the email. There are a number of reasons to do this.
First, this will allow you to email them directly when you return to their market. And at a time when social networks are making it more difficult (and more expensive) to communicate to those who “like” you, email is and will remain predominately free.
Secondly, you can use fan emails within Facebook / Instagram’s Advertising tool to introduce yourself to more fans – just like your current ones.
Third, this allows no one the opportunity to walk away from your merch booth empty-handed because they don’t have any money. An email address has likely future value to you. So get it.
Lastly, a fan who has given you an email address is much, much more likely to buy from you in the future. I don’t have any statistics on this, but it’s true anyway. The fan have given you something of value to them in exchange for something you have. This is a proxy for selling them merch for cash. Done correctly, that’s what will happen in the future. The joke has long been you can’t pay your rent with Facebook likes. You can’t with email addresses either. But email addresses are much more likely to be possessed by someone who you can sell shirts or other product to than your social media followers.
What You Can Give Away For Free
Be as creative with this as you can be. Stickers are the most likely giveaway item. They’re cheap to mass produce and easy to store and distribute. And when they stick to something, they create awareness. Be sure to include a URL on your sticker so potential fans can find you!
Other possibilities could be things you will email them – “secret” video URLs or free downloadable tracks can be enticing. You can offer coupons to online product too.
Present Your Product Well
Never Duct Tape a Shirt to a Wall Again
I highly recommend PVC piping, with joiners, to build a grid-like wall from which you can attach your products. The PVC pipe is inexpensive to purchase, lightweight for packing, and when organized well, easy to assemble. Your merch booth will be consistently clean-looking and attractive to fans and will keep you from fighting with sweaty walls duct tape won’t stick to, poor lighting, and other misadventures of venue merch areas.
Get cheap lights to hang from the PVC grid, and be sure to carry an extension cord and power strip so you are nearly always able to light up your stuff just fine.
Put Your Prices Where They Can Be Seen
When a fan sees a product they like they can immediately make a decision as to whether they will buy it or not. When the price isn’t visible, they have all the time between when they originally decided to buy the product and when they finally learned what the price of the product is, to talk themselves out of purchasing the product.
Again, a Sharpie and the back of last night’s set list is OKAY for writing out the prices, but why not go for something better? If your prices won’t change during the tour, print your prices and laminate them and post them in several places so fans can see, even from the back of the line to your merch. Or, better yet, use a laptop or Chromebook or similar to display your prices. You’ll have the flexibility to change prices when you want or need to and people are naturally attracted to looking at screens (hello!). Just make sure they’re not looking at the screen INSTEAD of looking at your merch.
How to Announce From the Stage – The R.E.D. System
One of the most attractive things about the crowdfunding era was how the WHAT of the stuff in a crowdfunding campaign was replaced with the WHY. It turns out, if people believe in WHY, the product itself almost doesn’t matter. Apply this to your stage banter when letting people know about your merchandise. Give them a reason WHY they should come to the merch booth and support you – EVEN IF THEY DIDN’T LOVE YOU.
The reason could be simply needing to sell enough shirts to get to the next gig, the need to have a shower anywhere other than a Planet Fitness, impending mechanical issues with the van… Or it could be something longer term. Like raising money for recording the next album (“and this song will be on it…”) or replacing equipment.
Be honest and candid with the audience, and give them a reason to support you. This can be the differentiator between “maybe” and “yes”. And only yeses feed the tank.
It’s easy to forget how challenging it is to understand what someone is saying into a microphone through the front-of-house system. Between the natural reverb in the room and any additional reverb added by the sound engineer, stage banter often sounds like mumbling. So be sure to enunciate when speaking, especially when telling fans about your merch.
Make sure everyone in the building knows where your merch is by point it out to them directly. If someone is managing the merch while you perform, and the merch booth is visible to the room, have the person selling your stuff wave to everyone so there’s no doubt as to where your stuff is.
Make the Merch Booth the Place Memories Are Made
Please watch the video for techniques for turning your merch booth from a necessary into the place where fans will always look forward to getting back to.