“We are designed for live entertainment, that's all we do. We are assuming that the doors are going to open, you have 90 minutes to sell T-shirts to 14,000 people, go!”
atVenu Founder and CEO Derek Ball emits a raspy chuckle. And why not? Merch sales per head at events have surged beyond the pre-pandemic level of $5.54 in 2019 to $8.16 in 2022, and so far Ball says that trend looks like sticking.
All of which is good news for atVenu, the live event commerce platform Ball co-founded with Ben Brannen and James Seigel in 2012, and which these days is servicing an average of 125,000 shows annually all around the globe.
“We are helping our artists sell well over a billion dollars of merchandise every year,” notes Ball proudly.
Over the past 10 years Ball has learned a lot about the merch game, with atVenu pioneering initiatives such as their Ship to Home feature, through which fans can purchase sold-out T-shirts at events which are then manufactured and dispatched post-show, and atVenu Mobile Orders, where punters can order merch and food & beverage by simply scanning a QR Code or clicking a link.
Here, Ball outlines 13 key steps venues, artists and vendors can take to increase their merch sales in 2023…
1. Be Creative With Your Display...
“A great example, BottleRock went from the typical white tent to building out these really beautiful wooden storefronts, and since they're in Napa Valley, making these wine barrel display cases. [They] created a whole theme around this, and built an awning over the top so that people wouldn't have to stand in the baking sun while they were looking at the merchandise.
“And that was very creative. And it drew in people to the stands. We saw sales go up very materially when they improved the experience for the fan when they were engaging with the merchandise. A higher quality stand significantly increased purchases.”
2. ...But Not Too Creative With Your Merch
“If you start to invent something really cool – ‘I think people are going to really want to have this surfboard’ – it's not necessarily going to really sell well or do much to promote your event.
“The data speaks loud and clear that it's the T-shirt [that sells]. It's the hoodie. It's the poster. We know what sells, so getting too creative can actually be counterproductive.”
3. Have Some Variation In Your Designs
“The classic mistake is people who make 25 black T-shirts, and they all have slightly different designs. And so you can't really see very well what makes one shirt different from another, which means if you're standing way back in the line, you can't tell which one you want until you get to the very front, and then you're slowing things down.
“[Don’t make] too many designs that are too close together, because then fans can't decide between them very easily.”
"Three items make up 61% of your sales, four items make up 75% of your sales."
4. Less Merch Items = More Sales
“If your fans are faced with indecision, and they get to the front of the line and they can't decide what they want, it's going to dramatically decrease your sales.
“Our data shows that three items make up 61% of your sales, four items make up 75% of your sales. The optimum number for an artist is seven unique items. We actually see sales fall off once you hit 10.
“Also, it just makes it so much easier for your team to manage. If you have a trailer full of 50 or 60 different items, times five sizes, it's just a brutal job for your merchandise team to manage on the road. You want to make sure their job is not difficult, so there's fewer mistakes.”
5. Know Your Audience
“Across every genre, the T-shirt is still the [most popular] item, and it is the black T-shirt.
“But then you see differences as you get into genres. With rock, after the T-shirt, one of the best sellers is the poster, followed by the hat.
“If you're looking at pop and K-pop, T-shirts, pullover hoodies, long sleeve T-shirts are the top sellers. You don't really see posters, you don't really see hats.
“For country, after the T-shirt, it's the beer koozie, which is stereotypical, but it's true. They sell a lot of beer koozies. And then there's the hat.
“There are always these interesting anomalies in certain genres where something will stand out – like if you're a country artist, you better have a beer koozie.”
6. Open a Pop-Up Shop Outside the Venue
“Doors open 90 minutes before a show, but fans are often milling about outside before they go in.
“Some venues have started to put trailers, sometimes actual pop-up tents, outside to capture that walking-by traffic. And what’s really interesting at some of the venues is that in addition to the people who are milling around waiting for the show, there's other people going by who get excited, maybe aren't even going to the show, that buy the merchandise outside.
“So you actually have new customers who you wouldn't have been able to reach if you were only selling inside the venue.”
"All of a sudden, what had been the worst selling shirt became the best-selling shirt."
7. If the Artist Creates a Personal Connection to the Merch, Sales Will Go Up
“I was at a Gerard Way concert. And he had his merch line, it was great.
“And there was one shirt that was quite different – it was a cartoon drawing, and it wasn't really clear what it exactly was. And at one point during the show, he stopped and said, ‘As many of you know, I'm also a graphic artist and I do graphic novels and here's what this shirt is and what it means to me. I just wanted to explain it to you.’
“And all of a sudden, what had been the worst selling shirt became the best-selling shirt. Because he called it out and gave people a personal connection to it. Now they got what the shirt meant.”
8. A Ship to Home Option Recovers Potential Lost Sales
“When somebody stands in line and gets to the front and finds out you're sold out of their size, if they walk away it’s a 95% chance they're not going to buy that later. So you’ve got to capture that sale now when they're interested.
“So we have a ship to home option. [If] we don't have your shirt, we can actually still sell you the shirt, and text you a link to then fill in your shipping information. And this shirt will get produced after the show – we only do that for shirts that can be produced after, not the entire line necessarily.
“But if it's one of the top selling shirts, you might be able to then collect 10% more in sales by being able to sell somebody something that you didn't have, as long as you make sure you get it to them in a timely way after the show.”
"[If] we don't have your shirt, we can actually still sell you the shirt, and text you a link to then fill in your shipping information."
9. Mobile Orders Converts Those Who Are On the Fence
“Mobile Orders is a way of entering your purchase on your phone without having to stand in line. And you can do that with a pickup at the venue or a ship to home.
“Whether it's a festival or a concert, there's a group of people who are never gonna buy the T-shirt, and there's a group who are gonna buy the T-shirt, no matter how big the lines are. And then there’s this group in the middle that may or may not buy the T-shirt.
“And what's going to make them buy or not buy might depend upon, was the line too long, they were out of my size, or I just never got around to it.
“So how do you capture that group? How do you try to encourage that group to join the, ‘I'm going to buy the T-shirt’ group?’ Mobile Orders is a tool for that. It isn't going to transform your business, it's not going to increase your sales by 50%. But it might bump them by five to 10. And that's material. It's a convenience feature for those fans who [don’t want to queue].”
10. Manage Your Stand Inventory and Replenish in Real Time
“You only have one chance to sell to the fan – they're not going to come back to your store the next day because your store is gone. So if you're the Rolling Stones and you have 15 stands around the stadium, you need to make sure you capture that purchase at that moment.
“So, making sure you balance your stock and have real time information about what's in each stand. Making sure that you are able to move stand to stand if necessary: ‘We’re going to take 24 of the mediums from this stand and have somebody run them over to that stand.’
“If you can actually watch it in real time, you can get way ahead of it.”
11. Forecast, Learn From Your Previous Sales Data
“If it's a festival, what were your sales trends last year? If you are an artist travelling from show to show, we have a platform called MerchIQ, which analyzes the sales by item, by size, and uses that to forecast out what you're going to need at each of your subsequent dates.
“The last thing the record label or the merch company wants is a call from the road rep going, ‘Hey, we're out of mediums.’ It’s like, great, it's gonna take me three weeks to get them queued, ordered and shipped to you. So now we don't have anything for the next seven tour dates. So you want to be way ahead of that. The right tools allow you to never miss a sale.”
"The right tools allow you to never miss a sale.”
12. Think Quick and Innovate to Keep the Line Moving
“We added something called Preview Mode, because we had a situation where a big metal band was moving through a series of outdoor venues. And they're one of the classic examples of having a whole bunch of black T-shirts that look basically the same.
“And it was really affecting the line speed because people standing back couldn't really tell the difference between T-shirt 1 and T-shirt 2 and T-shirt 3. So they had to wait till they got really close to the front to see it.
“So we ended up activating Mobile Orders, popping up banners with QR codes, [even though] they didn't have the staff to actually take a mobile order. But they could preview all the merchandise, they could look at each of the T-shirts, look at the print on the back, zoom in, and by the time they got to the front, they had their mind made up. So the line could move a lot faster. And that was impactful.”
13. If You Employ RFID You Will Sell More… of Everything!
“We absolutely can prove with the data that people who register and use a cashless wristband spend 18% more at the event than people who are just using a credit card. That's absolutely clear. So you're going to sell more.
“On average, a cashless transaction is 10 to 20 seconds faster than a credit card transaction. And that may not sound like a lot. But when you have 40,000 people making an average of four transactions a piece during an event, those minutes add up, and that's a lot more opportunity. Those minutes mean shorter lines. And it means that people are going to be faster to get that next drink or that next slice of pizza or that T-shirt.
“The other big benefit is data. You can really start to get that one view of the fan through what they're purchasing, because with the wristband we know exactly who that fan is. With a credit card, it's more anonymized, and it's harder to tell.”