Managing and Marketing Merchandise

Dear Kim:

I am hoping that you can give me some information about non-profits selling merchandise. I volunteer for a statewide women’s rights organization and they have created t-shirts, sweatshirts etc., that people love. Our operations manager is in charge of fulfilling the orders: downloading the orders, processing the credit cards and sending out the merchandise. She is already extremely busy with other job responsibilities, so we have not been able to fully take advantage of the great products we have. It seems like we have a really good opportunity on our hands.

My questions about selling merchandise are:

1) When do you know it’s time to outsource certain tasks?
2) Do you have recommendations about companies that are reliable and won’t break our bank?
3) How can we better market our products? (We already feature them on our website.)

I appreciate any and all advice you can give,

–Time to Sell-Out.

Dear Time:

Your dilemma is very common and you have outlined the questions very well. Many organizations create great products and then don’t even think about all the “back end” work required to distribute them. I go to organizations all the time with boxes of tote bags, mugs, reports, videos and so on that molder away in their office because no one had the time to sell them.

So, to answer your questions:

1. It is time to hire more staff when the competent staff you have cannot keep up with their work. Whether you out-source this task or give your beleaguered Operations Manager an assistant will depend on the volume of work and whether you have space for another person. I am fan of hiring in-house because it is usually cheaper, you have more control of the working conditions of the staff person and you are more likely to have someone committed to your cause. But do hire someone else somehow because you are leaving money on the table when your sales are limited by staff capacity.

2. I don’t know the world of distributors well enough to recommend any. Readers—if you know any please send them in and I will post your ideas in the next issue.

3. I could write an article or even a short book on marketing products, so let me just give you some cliff notes:

-Take your items to conferences and sell them at deep discounts at your table.

-Arrange for sympathetic clothing stores to sell them on consignment

-See if nonprofits that have gift shops (museums, YWCAs, Humane Societies) are willing to sell them for a profit to themselves

-See if organizations similar to yours are willing to link to your website or even mention your items on their site.

-Advertise them in your newsletter and put them on sale over the holidays

-Take flyers about your products everywhere you go and hand them out.

-Encourage all staff, board and volunteers to wear your products so that people see them and want to know where to get them (whereupon you will hand them the flyer mentioned above.)

-Keep track of people who buy them and send them announcements of sales or of new items. Your best buyers are your previous buyers.

Have fun and good luck!

–Kim Klein