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Main Spotlight: Merch on Main Street

November 8, 2022 | Main Spotlight: Merch on Main Street | By: Zac Alfson, Executive Director at The Milk District | 

Examples of Milk District products. Photos courtesy of The Milk District.

Great merchandising and branding are powerful tools to build civic pride and sense of ownership and can be used to celebrate historic places, people, and events while raising awareness and funding for a Main Street’s programming. The Milk District in Orlando, Florida, leverages our brand and amplifies local culture through merchandising while opening a new revenue stream for the program.

The Milk District is home to diverse businesses and interests, and we look to the community to help guide our strategy. We constantly adjust and innovate to bring new items to market while keeping our brand fresh and engaging. Using techniques like limited sales and made-to-order products, we can drive excitement and demand, which helps the District offer a wide array of items while keeping overhead low and generate compelling designs beyond the basic logo tee.

Designing for the Community

The Milk District works with local artists and retail stores to make sure our products are on-trend and in demand, giving more options for customers who have different tastes. In addition to leveraging local history as pastureland (and an active dairy processing plant), the District draws from a wide range of people who call the area home, from youth at Orlando Skate Park to the LGBTQ+ community. By including different designs, we show residents and visitors that they are welcome in the area, building a sense of community and ownership with diverse groups.

We will reach out to a local artist from a specific community we have a relationship with to work together on a design. One example is Ashley Hallenbeck, who has designed skate-themed products and graphics for us. We meet up, brainstorm on the product, and work with the artist to finalize a design. Having flexibility within your budget to pay a new artist connection for a design - whether you end up using it or not - can help you be responsive to new connections and build long-lasting relationships for your program in the artist community.

When commissioning murals or other artwork, consider negotiating rights to reproduce that art for other purposes like merchandise or holiday cards, an opportunity to both add a merchandise design without additional cost, but also celebrate the art in your community.

Values and Strategy

Adding another project to your plate can be daunting. Be sure you’re approaching your merchandise with strategy, goals and objectives like any worthwhile program. The Milk District prioritizes efficiency in our online shop, and even though the margins aren’t as good, we work with a company on printing/embroidery and fulfillment in order to get our brand out into the community while making a little profit. These projects primarily function as brand awareness and community engagement tools rather than income sources.

When we are planning a merchandise item with the goal of a larger profit margin, we take a deeper approach. This can be a high-impact strategy, but it takes a lot of staff and volunteer resources to manage everyday sales in this way, so we reserve this approach for special projects, often working directly with a manufacturer and on a pre order model or on low-cost custom items that keep inventory costs low. Using social media to promote drops of limited-edition items, we leverage excitement and scarcity to drive focused windows of high-volume sales.

Larger Margin merchandise runs have included LED neon signage, Logo branded corkcicle water bottles, and hotel key tags. Photos courtesy of the Milk District.

The Milk District has also partnered with District businesses to sell items on a wholesale basis or through consignment. This gives us an opportunity to drive visitation to that business while selling merchandise for the District.

Merchandise is a powerful way to share your organization’s values. Our “Drink Good Beer” stickers don't promote a specific brewery or bar but share the message that the District is committed to high-quality experiences. Our “Clean Plate Club” shirts promote our foodie culture without singling out an individual business. Our pride merch puts full organizational weight behind the message that we cultivate safe, inviting environments for members of the LGBTQ+ community. Focusing on messaging, graphics, and products that center your values builds brand far beyond a logo.

Different Merch for Different Audiences

Just like when you stop by the merch table when you see a band on tour and pick out the right shirt for your personal style, The Milk District tries to make sure there are a variety of options available. The District offers apparel in a couple of different ways, from logo wear and lifestyle wear, to promotion and event related merchandise, which helps balance competing priorities.

Logo wear is always available on The Milk District’s website, where we work with a Direct to Garment (DTG) printing company to fulfill orders as they come in. This allows the organization to offer a wide array of products without worrying about stocking them, keeping overhead low and eliminating guesswork on which sizes and colors will sell. You can buy a logo shirt in many different colors, but also in youth and toddler sizes… even onesies.

Lifestyle wear is where it starts to get fun! Through the same DTG supplier and limited runs, we are able to work with local artists to offer options that speak to specific members of the community. The District’s “Laundry Day” shirt embraces skate culture, showing the Grim Reaper changing out of his robe and into a Milk District shirt. The District’s pride shirt incorporates a rainbow with the District logo, and the Calfnapping shirt shows a UFO abducting a cow, a homage to the 1897 Cow Abduction Hoax and how cows have been depicted in popular culture. Someone who might never wear a logo tee can see themselves in something a little different.

Online services can help you create compelling mockups that feature your merchandise in different ways. Photo courtesy of The Milk District.

The Milk District creates event tees like many organizations, but we are careful to make sure the shirt fits the audience for the event. Limited edition tie-dye shirts for the Get Moovin’ Fitness Challenge, Krampusfest, and Skate of Emergency event can be seen year ‘round because the shirts themselves are designs that people want to wear over and over. We have found that investing in higher-quality event merchandise drives increased sales and additional exposure through increased wear.

Tie Dye Event T-Shirts designed by local artist Ashley Hallenbeck. Photos courtesy of the Milk District.

Merchandise Beyond Apparel

In addition to shirts, the District offers products for people to use in their everyday lives. Hotel-style key tags featuring the District’s ZIP code instead of a room number have proven popular. The District consulted with a shop owner on colors and whether there’d be enough demand for the items and ended up consigning some through her shop.
Neon Signs, originally offered to high-level contributors to the District, were recently offered as a fundraiser. The milk bottle motif that can be seen through the District on banners, branding, and artistic crosswalks has been made into an LED Neon sign. The District opened a 3-week pre-order window and generated over $7,200 in revenue on sign sales, working directly with the manufacturer to maximize net revenue on the project.

Embracing local culture, The Milk District issues custom stickers throughout the year. Sometimes as giveaways, and sometimes available for sale, these stickers are purchased to adorn laptops, water bottles, skateboards, and other surfaces. Themes have included rainbows distributed at Orlando’s pride celebrations, “Drink Good Beer,” handed out a beer festival that takes place in the district, and illustrations in various styles that embody different cultures and groups within the District.

During Orlando Beer Week, The Milk District ran a Bingo punch card promotion, with a bar tool bottle opener for people who achieved Bingo. The tool, a premium item, encouraged more participation and drove engagement in the promotion. In addition to finding a home with people who completed the promotion, they are seen in bars throughout the area. Bottle openers that were not given away during the promotion were sold as merchandise.

Looking to Create Your Own?

Thoughtfully adding merchandise is a great way to add revenue to your program and celebrate your community. Remember, this work can be done incrementally, one item at a time, as you grow your offerings. Employing a strategy that incorporates a variety of community partnerships and items that will appeal to different demographics while effectively managing workload can help you see more visibility and engagement with the work you do.

Author Bio

Zac Alfson has been the Executive Director of The Milk District in Orlando since 2018 and has volunteered with Orlando's Church Street District and Mills 50 Main Streets since 2012. Zac’s introduction to Main Street was walking to summer concerts and farmers market in Historic Valley Junction, IA while visiting family. His background is in arts administration, working in marketing and development for performing arts organizations after attending University of Central Florida for Stage Management. Zac is still actively involved in the cultural community, serving on the board of Friends of Levitt Orlando.