Merch. It's a scary word, we know. For any club or society executive, merchandise can be one of the most exciting things to happen that year. It is so nice to see your members wearing, using and enjoying your merchandise, and helps to build a community identity within your club. It's also the easiest thing to go wrong, and carries a lot of risk - 'what if no one buys it and we've lost our money? What if it doesn't arrive on time? Where do we store it?'
Thankfully, most of these questions can be answered, if you know how. That's why we've put together this 10-step guide to producing merchandise for your university club or society.
Step 1: Timelines
With merchandise, it's never too early to start planning. There can be a lot of steps in this process that take time, and sometimes even longer than expected. If your team is deciding to do merchandise, before you even know what item you're making, start at least 3 months from when you'd like to sell it. Inadequate time management is what stops most clubs following through on merch. Better to be early than late!
Step 2: Deciding on Merchandise
There are lots of different items that your club may produce as merchandise - from the more common t-shirts and jumpers, all the way down to niche club-branded reusable metal straws. There really are endless possibilities when it comes to what your club decides to produce, but the main rule to keep in mind is that you need to provide value to your members - actually give them what they need.
If you're a media society, and all media students need a USB in first semester, sell USBs. If you're a gaming society, sell mechanical keyboards. If you're a law or business society, and your members will be attending a lot of important networking events, sell a society pin they can wear at these events that is easily recognised. For more inspiration, see our 5 Unique and Unusual Merchandise Ideas article.
You may want to run multiple merchandise items at a time, and this is possible, but is a lot of work and financial commitment. Most clubs opt for one item at a time (and use the proceeds to fund the next), but doing multiple is entirely feasible if you plan correctly.
Step 3: Research
Once you have decided which merchandise item/s you're wanting, you'll need to start some fairly comprehensive research into what you can order, the variations, and most importantly, the pricing. Always shop around suppliers where you can - don't just place an order with the first promotional products site that comes up on Google when you search for 'custom branded pens'. There is almost always an affordable option and the more you save, the more you can save your members.
Our recommendation is, where possible, to go with suppliers in your country. This is for a few reasons:
You'll be supporting a small or medium business! Yay!
There's no chance of a miscommunication or hefty fees for currency exchange (most overseas suppliers will charge in USD).
Your production time is likely to be quicker, as shipping won't take as long.
There will likely be free shipping for your order.
They will be receptive to you expressing that you are a not-for-profit student organisation, and may offer you a discount - you should always ask!
It may be more expensive to go with a local supplier, but you'll save money through things like free shipping. Being more sure about delivery times and availability is important, and a local supplier achieves this - you can maybe even pick up the products to expedite the process or save on any postage costs. No point in ordering merchandise if your products are stuck on a ship and haven't got to you on time!
In some cases, it may be far, far cheaper to go with an overseas supplier. In this scenario, you'll need to use your common sense to make a judgement - if you're ordering far enough in advance, it's a lot safer. Planning makes perfect, and ultimately making this more affordable for your members is only going to increase its success.
Other elements to research include colours, materials and design. If you're producing hoodies, check if the method of a supplier is embroidery, or screen printing, or vinyl - this may explain differences in prices between other suppliers. Go into the research process with an open mind, and decide what works best for your club while considering pricing.
It's always best to have a preliminary design in mind when researching merchandise. This will help you determine how many prints there may need to be on a t-shirt, or what size the logo is for a tote bag, which may change the pricing.
Step 4: Deciding Processes
Before you spent ANY money on merchandise, you need to decide on an ordering and distribution strategy. Here are a few popular ones:
Allow members to pre-order (including paying) for an item before you've placed the order. Some clubs incentivise members to pre-order by running a special discounted price for that time, which you may want to consider. The pre-order method helps to give you an idea of how many you might sell by projecting pre-order numbers over different periods of time, so you don't order too many. It also means that you have access to some money to pay for the order, making less of a dent on your society's savings or club funding. You can then arrange a pick-up time on campus or post individually to pre-orderers.
Expression of Interest
As an alternative to your members paying for an item that doesn't exist yet, you can run an Expression of Interest form. This will also give you an idea of interested numbers for your merchandise - but at the same time, these are not guaranteed to be sales as pre-orders are. If this is your club's first merch item ever (or in a while), you may want to take expressions of interests rather than pre-orders as your members won't have had any experience with your club merchandise before.
With many suppliers, it is cheaper per unit to order merchandise in bulk (say, 100 or more). You may not want to run a pre-order for a number of reasons (time constraints, complications, semester schedules, etc.). In this scenario, if you have plenty of savings in your club's bank account, it's possible to order a larger quantity than may sell at one specific event or club stall. This stock can then roll over to the next year, and the committee following you won't have any additional expenses or planning to do. This works with simple, staple merchandise pieces, that are unlikely to change year-to-year; sponsor logos, for example, may not be current forever, and so this method should be avoided with merchandise that include them. Again, you can choose to arrange selling/pick-up of items in-person, or post them after ordering online.
A far less risky but more complicated mode of merchandise ordering is to order them one at a time. For example, many local merchandisers (ThePrintBar.com, for one) offer a range of apparel that can be branded using an online editor and ordered to a specific address. This means you only pay for items that have actually already been sold, and there is no limit or 'selling out' - which means there is no roof on your profits, if an item is really popular. This is only available with certain items, like apparel, but can be a lot more economically efficient, especially if the merchandiser organises shipping for you. Get in touch with their sales teams; they may be able to set up easy repeat orders of the same design, to different addresses, or allow you to send different items in an order to different addresses.
You should choose a strategy and ensure the supplier you decide on after the research stage will fit into this strategy - production timelines, order quantities, and so forth.
Step 5: Design and Mockup
At this stage you need to decide on the final design and pricing for the item. Once you have your design, reach out to the supplier you decided on in Step 4 and provide it to them in the file format that they need. Most likely it will be in Adobe Illustrator or a Print-Ready PDF. There are lots of guides online as to how to create these, including outlining fonts, etc. Ask your supplier if you're not sure - but try and format the file yourself if you can to avoid additional artwork costs.
The supplier may send back a product mockup (an example of what the product will look like, with logo placement, size, etc.) or ask you to create one. You can use photo editors like Photoshop or online mockup tools to put your logo on the item. This helps the supplier know what your intention is for the product to look like (or confirm it with you, if they make one). It is also handy for marketing purposes.
This mockup is now something you can use to advertise your new merch to your members. You should announce merchandise on your social media channels as soon as the design is finalised, to create hype! Additionally, you can use this mockup as your product listing image when selling your item online.
Step 6: List and price your item
Now you'll need to list your item online so people can pay for it, and you can set your final pricing.
Your pricing strategy will vary depending on the club's financial standing, union or university funding available, member base size, upcoming opportunities to sell, and a number of other factors. Most clubs opt for a middle-of-the-range price - keeping it affordable for your members but also ensuring enough of a profit from each item to a) cover costs if the merchandise doesn't all sell and/or b) grow funding for future club initiatives.
Get is free to use for merchandise and allows you to list your item with different variants (for example, size and colour) and keep track of order quantities regardless of if payments are made with cash or card. You can easily share the link online and people can order with the click of a button - you won't need to track payments or add them to a spreadsheet, because Get does it for you. You can request a payout of your account balance at any time and it will be processed within a day, in order to pay for your merchandise order.
Step 7: Market your merch and boost sales
To maximise how many of your members will buy your merchandise, be sure to hit them on all the possible online touch points. For help, see our guide to online presence and engagement, which explains the various channels you can interact through online.
Step 8: Place your order
If you haven't already placed an order with suppliers by this stage, now is the time. You should always leave at least a month (unless the supplier communicates a longer production time) to allow for your products to be made and find their way to you, even if the supplier states less time is needed - you can never be too safe. You can still continue to take pre-orders once you have placed your order, if you'd like, so you don't need to cut it short.
When placing your order, make sure all the fine details are correct - ask for a product design proof and a final quotation/invoice, and double check everything. Once you approve a proof or pay an invoice, often it is not possible to make changes.
Step 9: Distribute!
Once your order has arrived, you're ready to distribute it to your members. If you ordered for all the stock to come to you, but took pre-orders, you may want to post these out - alternatively, you can arrange a pick-up at your next event or at a merch stall you set up on campus. The Get Australia team can help with distribution - get in touch.
For non pre-orders, you should be selling your merch at every available opportunity. The Sydney Arts Students Society took their hoodies, bucket hats and shirts to their First Year Camp, and sold double the quantity of merchandise that they did on their O-Week Stall - by having all the leaders wearing it and talking about how good it is. It's all about looking for the opportunities where you can maximise your members' exposure to the merch and prove that it is worth their money/they will get value out of it.
Step 10: Tracking and Storage
Be sure to keep track of all merchandise you sell, as well as how much stock you physically have (in case something wasn't logged or paid for, and you sell someone an item you don't have).
You also need to track the finances and make sure that you know exactly how much loss/profit to attribute to the merchandise, as well as planning what you will use any profits for.
Storing excess merchandise can be tricky. Firstly, ask your university or union if they can provide a storage space for your club's merchandise (even temporarily). Otherwise, you can store it in executive team members' houses or rent a cheap storage locker as a last resort. Even more incentive to get out there and sell more merch!