Weather Factory - who made Lovecraftian card game Cultist Simulator, you should buy it - recently opened a merch shop. We’re a microstudio of two people (Alexis Kennedy, creator of games like Fallen London and Sunless Sea, and myself), so I wanted to see whether selling physical merch was a worthwhile side-project for an already over-busy indie team.
We launched our Church of Merch on Monday 17th September 2018. The following three-parter will take you through the deets: set-up, the merch itself and how it did in Month 1, and then some searingly insightful takeaways on, like, the ontology of enamel pins. It'll be a zinger.
If you can’t be bothered to read ’em all, my conclusion is that if you have anybody in your team who’s interested in doing it, you should totally set up your own merch shop. Read on to find out why. :)
TLDR: merch is just another game dev project. Be clear about what you’re trying to achieve.
Weather Factory has a rich, weird, jazzy IP that lends itself nicely to merchandise. I wanted to lean into this and personally design rich, weird, jazzy items (#branding). Cultist is a niche game, so I also wanted to see if I could make merch that appeals to people who haven’t heard of Cultist as well as its core fans.
This meant our stuff had to be high-quality enough to attract buyers without relying on the quality of Being From That Game You Like. This put extra pressure on initial design, but I hope pays long-term dividends by enabling us to reach beyond our game’s user base and generate sales from a wider, non-Cultified audience.
Finally, we want to incorporate physical items into future Weather Factory games, so our merch experiment was also about market research and practicalities. Is it possible to set up and manage a merch store with only one part-time resource? What sort of items do our fans particularly respond to? Are there any types of merch which are a particular pain in the butt to make, so we can avoid them in the future?
In short, and in order of importance, the Church of Merch’s aims were to:
- Create attractive, boutique, on-brand merch within a sensible indie budget
- See if selling physical merch was a viable long-term option for us, in terms of pipeline, storefront, profit and time
- See what sort of items go down well with ‘our type of people’: people who are already playing Cultist Simulator + the people who aren’t but like weird occult stuff
- Make some money!
TLDR: there’s no single ‘best’ place to sell merch. Pick the best shop for you, based on your project aims.
I looked into a bunch of different options. Did we want a dedicated page on our Weather Factory site somewhere? Did we want an entirely separate site? Did we want a ‘buy’ button on our website which would lead to some external seller like Shopify?
Bearing in mind our whole studio ethos is boutique, personable open production, I ended up settling on Etsy. It’s friendly and personable too; it’s full of weird individuals making weird individual stuff; it’s entirely controllable by us, without complicated add-ons; it gives our merch the chance to be seen by a wider consumer audience who are looking for other things; and I personally understand it, because I’ve shopped on Etsy for years.
So far I’m very happy with it. The back-end is slick, there’re a lot of marketing options I haven’t yet made much use of, there’s a nice app, etc. If we scale up, maybe it’ll be less sparkly, and it’s a shame there isn’t (yet!) a Slack integration. But otherwise, it’s pretty perfect for what we’re trying to do.
TLDR: we spent time and resource on this. It was worth it.
The Church of Merch cost ~£7k to set up. This includes all stock costs, store listings, and my time. Our estimated profit from selling all our base stock comes to ~£7.7k, which already tells you merch stores are worth it for cashflow-delicate indies!
I love getting my art on, so I wanted to be the core designer on our merch where possible. I drew up a list of some feasible-sounding but not entirely generic merch ideas then looked around for specialist producers, who’d offer me the biggest range of highest-quality options. This meant I took on a time-cost of looking for specialists and talking to multiple people (rather than a quicker, more expensive one-stop supplier), but I think it also meant the end result was unusually weird and wonderful. YOU DECIDE!
For each item we made, the basic process went something like this:
- The first step is your GRAND VISION. You take your GRAND VISION and you email a supplier and you say are you able to make my GRAND VISION a reality.
- They email back politely saying yes if you make it less stupid, how about this mock-up?
- You have a back and forth about colours, material and costs per volume.
- It all ends with a big boss battle between yourself and TNT delivery who insist you haven’t been home since March 1943 but eventually you receive your goods and weep delightedly over their beauty.
Leave time in your schedule for these initial designs. If you want to open your merch shop in time for a specific event (e.g. Christmas), leave waaaaay more time than you think you’ll need. All in all I think I spent 2-3 months setting up the shop, though I wasn’t working to a fixed deadline, or working full-time on it.
One final thing to note is: even though I spent considerable time on finding suppliers and commissioning weird stuff, the majority of this pain is now over. Restocking is as simple as pinging someone an email or clicking a big blue REORDER button. If I branch out and decide to make a new bit of merch that’s totally unlike the others, I’ll probably need to go out and look for a new specialist supplier again. But over time – as I collect a larger and larger group of friendly people to make my stuff – this’ll go away, too.
TLDR: what’re your brand and project aims? How much do you want to be involved?
We worked with a different supplier for each bit of merchandise you see on our shop. This is because I wanted specialists, I wanted to keep costs down, I wanted unique rather than scalable items, and I figured we’d have more creative control with a smaller producer than in the production line of a bigger company.
All of our producers are in the UK, bar one that’s in China, because it didn’t make sense to pay international shipping for stuff I can get made here for roughly the same amount. China makes sense in one instance (our USBs) simply because the cost per item is so much cheaper than in the UK, even with vastly more expensive shipping + hefty customs charges.
If you’re looking for quantity and budget-friendliness instead – less ‘ooh, so boutique’ and more ‘make this not my problem’ – here’s a list of larger suppliers. This isn’t remotely exhaustive, it’s just a collection the various names I’ve been recommended by kind devs who passed on their own pearls of merch wisdom when I was asking around.
In case it needs to be said, there’s no shame in wanting to fling your merch over the fence to make it someone else’s problem. It may well make more sense for what you’re trying to achieve. Please don’t take my interest in the strange and smol as a critique of a more scalable, economic approach!
TLDR: it’s a total pain in the butt, but you get there in the end.
Let me introduce you to the Babadook that’ll haunt your own Church of Merch. It was hard working out shipping costs ahead of time (see mad scrawlings, above), as there’s a lot of inconsistency across weight, size, service speed, item value, delivery country, etc… You also have a significant time-cost of actually posting stuff when the orders start coming in, the fact that countries are constantly buggering about with customs checks and postal strikes, deciding whether your profit margins can eat the cost of postal fees (which significantly helps shift items), and managing ongoing customer queries about where things are. Budget for all of this!
BUT. Once you’ve shipped a few things you’ll know how it all works, you’ll learn all the boring parcelly things you didn’t know you didn’t know before, and you’ll realise how insane you were to not have a Drop & Go account. The admin side of shipping stuff is a real, significant pain in the butt, but so long as you *expect* it to be a pain in the butt and leave time to get to grips with it all, you’ll be fine.
One final bit of advice here: draw this tedious shipping stuff back up into your #branding. For example, every Weather Factory parcel comes in some fun colour-coded parcel, with ribbon and hand-written cult thank-you cards and some of them are holographic fuschia parcels. You could opt for the most economic options, but then your studio’s brand becomes ‘Most Economic’. Maybe that’s you! But if it isn’t, seek ye some jollier packaging.
Thus endeth Part the First of my merch research! Next time: the stuff we actually made and sold, and the numbers the Church did in its first month (with little to no marketing, I might add).
If you’re an indie and have questions or stories about setting up your own store, ping me in the comments here, or on Twitter. :)