Some comedians hate the idea of merch, as it can make the post-show feel like a flea-market and forces you to interact with the crowd whether you’re in the mood to or not. However, comedians often make more from merch than they do from the gig (and merch is what kept me financially solvent during my first few years on the road). If you are going to sell merch, here are a few tips.
1) Only sell things that have a direct correlation with your act. If you’re good at making bracelets or leg warmers, rent a booth at a trade show but leave them out of comedy. If you’ve come up with the next “Co-Ed Naked” or “Big Johnson” craze, try to sell it to Urban Outfitters, but leave it out of comedy. If you use the stage to sell things that have nothing to do with your act, you will be looked down upon by comedians and industry alike.
2) Don’t sell unless you’re at least featuring or headlining. Selling merch from the MC position or during a guest set is silly. You won’t sell much, and it’s not worth looking desperate over a couple of bucks. When you’re an MC or a guest, you’re typically there to audition. Imagine ending a job interview by selling your kid’s girl scout cookies? That’s what it looks like. The same goes for showcase shows in NYC or LA. The point of doing comedy in NYC or LA is so that you can impress other comedians and industry, leading to a break. Trying to get a few extra dollars for gas money doesn’t impress anyone. If you want to make more on gigs, leave NYC and LA for anywhere else that pays better, and sell your merch there.
3) Merch can be just about anything – most common are t-shirts because of their wide appeal and high profit margin. When you’re deciding what to sell, consider profit margin, not gross sales. For instance, pens might not cost you much per item, but they don’t sell for much either. Sweatshirts sell for a lot, but cost a fortune to make. I’d also advise not to sell low-cost things like bumper stickers (those should be given away if you have them). Most people who buy merch do so because they want a souvenir. If you have a $2 option, they’re not going to buy what you have for $20.
4) I’d recommend against glassware or anything breakable, as it’s a huge pain to transport and often shatters, eating into your profits.
5) Quality. I can not emphasize this enough. Anyone who has ever done one of my festivals knows that we pay extra for super soft shirts because we want people to get excited to wear what they bought. Also, they sell better – as soon as someone picks up a quality product, they’re much more likely to buy it. Never sell someone something that they’ll eventually regret buying.
6) Design, design, design. Don’t just throw words on a shirt, make it look nice. Also, don’t clog it up with your URL. The person who bought it knows already who they bought it from. And anyone interested will ask them – no one is staring at a shirt close enough to read a tiny URL anyway. Moreso, if someone is interested in finding you, who doesn’t know how to use Google? Less is more – just make a shirt people actively want to wear. Your merch shouldn’t look like a college event giveaway.
7) Pricing is important – when you tell people something is worth a lot, that’s what sets the price. I used to sell shirts for $15 or two for $25. When I raised that to $20 or two for $30, my sales doubled. I confidently told people that this was a quality product, and that helped make it one. And don’t let people negotiate like you’re a sidewalk merchant. Very rarely, someone will balk at the price – when they do, I tell them that they can pay me $5 less if at some point they donate that $5 to their favorite charity. That way the price is still seen as the price, they save a few bucks, and everyone is happy (especially the charity, if the buyer follows through).
8) Always ask the club if it’s okay to sell merch before you start. I know I can’t sell shirts at the Hard Rock because they make more money on their merch than they do on their food, and it would be ridiculous of me to try to change that. If you’re featuring, ask the headliner before you sell, too. Any headliner who tells the feature they can’t sell is selfish and crazy (you know who you are!) but it shows respect of the feature to ask. The one thing I make my features agree to is they can’t undercut me – if they sell their shirts for $10, well, it’s $20 today. Presenting a united front helps us both sell better.
9) Your merch display is extremely important. You would rather buy something from an actual store than out of the trunk of a car – so do your best to emulate an actual store. I have a pre-printed, laminated sign with my pricing, and I bought commemorative plate stands from a craft store as CD stands. And when I drove to most of my gigs, I even brought a tablecloth. However you do it, make it look nice.
10) Some venues will mandate that they take a % of merch sales, which usually ranges from 5% to 20%. Whatever the amount, I always ask to negotiate it out, or demand that in exchange for the %, they supply someone to staff the merch table for me. After all, that % should go to pay for something.
11) How much money can you reasonably expect to pull in from merch? It depends on what kind of gigs you’re doing. I find it’s easiest to sell in Canada (especially Calgary and Edmonton), during orientation week at colleges, and at charity events. But there’s no rhyme or reason most of the time – sometimes you’ll kill a sold out show and sell nothing, and sometimes a tiny crowd will all buy things just to support you. Often I sell nothing. But I’ve also cleared over $500. Your merch averages out over time – I found my average to be about $75 per gig. That adds up quickly over the course of a year.
12) Whether you drive or fly, you’re going to have to learn to pack proficiently. I recommend using the same bag every time so you have a method of exactly what to put where – everything should have a defined place. So you’re not scrambling to pack, make sure your merch bag is repacked when you get BACK from a gig. Also, keep track of exactly what you sell, so you know your average sales and thus what inventory to travel with. Businesses keep detailed inventory and sales records, and so should you.
13) You will need a credit card payment solution. While every customer is willing to get cash from the nearest ATM, no one has ever given me a wad of cash and asked for “one of everything” – but that’s happened with a credit card several times. I have used many payment solutions over the years, and I am very happy with Square. They take a barely noticeable %, there’s no monthly fee, and the device works with almost any smart phone. It’s also ultra portable.
14) The reason I didn’t offer advice about CDs until the end of this post is because they’re no longer viable. I’ve been selling CDs on the road for 10 years, and they’ve helped make some terrible gigs very profitable. However, their days are over. I sell fewer and fewer each year due to the proliferation of digital content. I do not yet know the next way of getting your standup to customers at a live show. Flash drives have a terrible profit margin, and download cards don’t sell for nearly as much as CDs did. Sometime soon, there will be a widely used replacement for albums. I hope to know what it is and share it.