The Perfect Event Merchandise (and Other Myths)

Posted on April 20, 2017

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By Cheryl Stern

Selling event merchandise is a fantastic way to get your brand in front of new audiences and increase revenue at the same time. It’s a no-brainer, right? But for your merchandise endeavors to be a success, it takes some careful thought and planning ― because the last thing anyone wants is to end up with 400 extra-small chartreuse tank tops at the end of event season. (Or ever.)

So, what’s the magic answer for designing the perfect merchandise that will sell out at lightning speed? If you figure it out, please share. I’m dying to know!

While there may not be a proven formula for hitting the mark 100% of the time with your merchandise, there are some basic guidelines that can help you find success with sales. Here’s a peek at what we’ve learned over the years:

Always remember: You’re not designing for yourself.
I personally am a huge fan of irreverent graphic T’s. Give me a wacky cartoon, absurd phrase, or awkward translation on a colorful T-shirt and I’m a happy woman. But when designing for a large audience, some of our personal preferences need to be kept in check. While it’s not possible to please everyone (the world would be a pretty boring place if we all shared the same sense of style) it’s important to step outside yourself and look at what might appeal to the largest audience. My current favorite T-shirt, which features lyrics from “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Though for the life of me, I can’t understand why.

Be sure to get input from a variety of people of different genders, body types, ages, and interests. Check out what’s being offered at other events ― whether they be races, concerts, or political rallies. While it’s unlikely you’ll reach total consensus, different ideas and perspectives can get your designs to the best possible place.

Watermelon Makes a Great Snack…
But not necessarily a great shirt color. When it comes to shirt colors, people can have very strong opinions. Some may have an aversion to bright yellow or bold red. But you rarely hear people say, “I could NEVER wear gray/navy/black.” These basics tend to appeal to both genders and are anything but boring when the right graphic is added. (For some of our events that involve mud we tend to avoid white shirts for obvious reasons, but if your event is on the cleaner side, that’s another nice neutral option.)

Hoodies and Dry-Fit and Tank Tops, Oh My.
Just as important as the color is the style and quality of the item. No matter how great the graphic on your shirt is, if it’s uncomfortable or ill-fitting, no one will want to wear it. Depending on your budget and audience, look at providing some options: a soft unisex cotton t-shirt, a women’s-cut t-shirt or tank, a dry-fit shirt. Options for both cold and warm weather are important (more on that below). And don’t forget small impulse items, like baseball hats ― which are one of our consistently best-selling pieces.

Inclement Weather Is Sometimes Your Friend.
Many purchasers will want the instant gratification of throwing on their snazzy new apparel right then and there. And for some, it may even be a necessity; perhaps they didn’t plan ahead for chilly weather or forgot their post-race change of clothes. So be sure to offer more than just short-sleeved T’s and tank tops. Heavyweight hoodies, long-sleeved shirts and windbreakers are great options, and you may find them selling out much faster than your warm-weather styles.

It’s About Quality, Not Quantity.
Though it’s great to provide options to your participants, we always have many more ideas than we can and should realistically execute. We’re lucky to have super talented graphic designers who create a variety of stellar designs for our events, so one of our biggest challenges is paring down to the best of the best. But difficult as it may be, this is a necessary step in order to keep merchandise lucrative. You may even want to select a single great design and make it available during online registration for your event. Making a fun shirt available at the click of a button for a nominal additional fee is a win for everyone. Your participant gets to sport their new threads well before event day, and you’ve got another recruitment tool out in the world.

Leftovers Happen.
As great as your merchandise offerings may be, due to minimum order requirements or other reasons out of your control, you will likely end up with some leftover stock. So, plan ahead with ways you can use these pieces. Extra merchandise can make great giveaways at outreach events or serve as impromptu fundraising rewards, so be sure not to limit yourself with the design. For example, it can seem very attractive to brand your merchandise with the event year, as a commemorative keepsake for participants. But don’t go overboard; “2017” shirts will lose their luster (even as a giveaway) as soon as January 1, 2018 rolls around.

You Are Your Own Best Teacher.
Or rather, your sales records are. Be sure to track and retain your data about what sold and when. This knowledge will be invaluable when it comes time to design next year’s merchandise. Your graphic designers can use this to inform their future artwork, your purchaser can make smarter decisions about quantities based on sales patterns, and most importantly, you’ll get one step closer to uncovering that elusive formula for merchandise greatness.

When not playing the role of participant in everything from 5Ks to marathons, Cheryl works as the Brand Manager for MuckFest® MS, helping to deliver a meaningful event experience to others.

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