Last month I played a seven-night residency in Portland, Oregon. It was a blast. A marathon. Exhausting. Exhilarating. Each night I had a different featured guest play their own music for an hour, and I’d usually do both a solo acoustic and full-band set as well.
The week before I flew out for the shows I went to Kinkos, Goodwill, and some crafts stores to try to piece together a new merch display. It’d been a while since I put real effort into a proper merch setup.
I liked what I came up with this time around and thought it was a good compromise between being easily portable (because I needed everything to fit in a suitcase) and easily modular (so I could give different merch items their own little section of the display).
[The picture above shows what it looked like when I first set it up in the venue.]
So the shows began: Sunday night, Monday night, Tuesday night,…
I sold some CDs, but I wasn’t selling as many as I thought I would.
After my set on Tuesday night I mentioned to my friend Naomi, who performs in Moody Little Sister (the featured guest that evening), that I was feeling a little bummed about my merch sales.
Without missing a beat she attacked the problem like a pro-makeover artist. Seriously, she should have her own reality TV show. In literally three or four minutes she helped me switch things around in such a way that I started selling twice the amount of CDs in the second half of the week as I did in the earlier part of my residency. (Ya know, we’re still talking modest sales, but hey, double is double!)
So here’s the tips Naomi gave me…
1. The merch display needs to be higher up
When we go into big box stores, our eyes are naturally drawn to things at — yes, you guessed it — eye level! My merch display had been hiding down at waist-level because I’d just grabbed a nearby table when I first got to the venue.
Naomi let me borrow Moody Little Sister’s plastic fold-up table for the rest of the week. That helped me give my merch display some height. But it also let me spread the merch out more. This came in handy when it got to tip #2…
2. Focus on ONE product
Again, thinking about big box or grocery stores, imagine an end-cap; there’s ONE product being displayed (often in large quantities). The message is clear: this is what we want you to buy. Don’t look anywhere else. Look HERE! It’s simple.
In my original setup I had five different albums on display. Naomi suggested that I put up five copies of my newest CD instead, and then find a different spot on the (now wider) table to display older albums.
Not only does this convey that my newest album is the priority, but it also saves fans the awkwardness of going up to the table and having to search around for something in front of the audience while the concert is still going on.
Focusing on one product is like an unspoken call-to-action, and the clearer the message, the easier it’ll be for fans to give you money.
3. Bright lights, big money
I had lights. But they were battery-powered tea lights, a single reading light, plus a short strand of white Christmas lights. It wasn’t enough. Naomi let me borrow another long strand of extra-bright Christmas lights and we strung them around the area where my name and new album were displayed.
Again, it’s about focusing the eyes on what’s most important and also making it easy for fans to find what they’re looking for in an otherwise dark venue.
4. Mention “the honor system”
Naomi’s next suggestion was so simple (but brilliant) that I couldn’t believe I’d never made a habit of it myself whenever I didn’t have someone working merch. She suggested that I state from the stage that everyone was welcome to purchase merch on the honor system. I had a mason jar set up for tips anyways, so the merch money could just go in there!
You don’t have to wait for me to get off stage. You don’t have to wait for me to finish my set. You don’t have to wait for me to finish my song. If you like this tune, it’s on my new album. Get it right now. And may a lightning bolt strike your stinky feet if you steal a CD.
5. Mention merch more often
Naomi does a great job plugging her merch in a way that doesn’t come across as sales-y, and she suggested a few ways to work that appeal into my sets more often:
* There’s the “let me explain this totally different process we used to record my new album, and I’m psyched about it, and CDs are available right over there if you want to check the music out” method.
* There’s the “this is a song from my brand new album” method.
* There’s the “in this day and age, one of the best ways you can support music you love is by purchasing merch directly from the artist at the venue” method.
* There’s the “hey, we’ve got free stickers at the merch booth, and while you’re there, check out our new album” method.
* There’s the “since I’m so happy to be back in Cleveland, and I want you to take as much music home as you’d like, I’m doing a sale on CDs tonight — three for the price of two, or five for the price of three” method.
Plus a bunch of other ways you can creatively prompt fans to check out your merch. And any of the above can be repeated with slight variations throughout the night.
We’ve covered some of these tips before on this blog, but they served as good (and necessary) reminders during a week when I had a lot of other things on my mind: 80-something songs, singing 2+ hours a night, making sure all the guest musicians were comfy, etc.
Anyway, if you want to read more about how to sell more merch at your next show, check out “A Musician’s Guide to Merch.”
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