What to sell at Cons

From time to time, folks ask us about product development, and what to sell at cons:

My husband and I went to one of the Tiny Army events where you were discussing what to do at a con to get noticed and one of the things you suggested was Product! Product! Product!

However we’re having trouble thinking outside of the box. We’re going to be doing typical things such as buttons, stickers, etc. but really want something unique.

Can you advise me on what more unique items sell well at cons? Any suggestions you may have will be very much appreciated. Thank you!

It’s a difficult question because there are no universal answers.

What works for you may not work for me. Combine that with the whims of fashion, differences of region, audience, and product popularity… and you’ve got a complex problem indeed.

The biggest mistake would be to simply copy what others are doing.

It might make sense on the onset (it works for her, it might just work for me) but in the end, you’ve taken the easy way out. You’ll end up with all the same products that everybody else has, essentially turning your offerings into a commodity.

Instead, I suggest focusing closely on your own brand, your characters, and the worlds that you’re trying to build with your comic/story.

  • What’s the main thrust of your story? Funny? Lighthearted? Dark?
  • What’s your genre? Fantasy? Post-apocalyptic? Steampunk?
  • What are you characters like? Can you make some products that reflect them, their likes or fashion?

If you’re Madame M, and do a comic like Super Vamp, it might lead you to develop ghoulie jewelry, Gothic portraits, a Vampire survival guide (for vampires) and maybe something like coffin purses.

Basically, things that both reflect her brand, her genre, and appeal to the sensibilities of her audience.

The next thing you need to do is know your audience.

This can be a difficult thing to do, because your audience may not be exactly who you thought it would be at the beginning.

When we published our first book, Caught Creatures, I figured that we’d sell our stuff to a bunch of alternative families; basically folks like us who didn’t want to dish Disney stuff on their own kids. In reality, our customers are unique, free thinking people who are confident, generally don’t have kids, and like to collect cute (but spooky) monster stuff.

Here are some easy ways to learn more about your audience:

  • Create a poll for your blog, and ask about their likes, dislikes, age, gender, and so on. You don’t have to ask everything at once, and you can do different polls over time.
  • Create a larger survey via SurveyMonkey or even Google Docs.
  • Make a note about who purchases your stuff at Conventions. (We had X females to X males for transactions.
  • Pay attention to the names on your mailing list; do they skew more male or female?
  • Ask questions on your blog posts, and see what they say in the comments.
  • Look at your Facebook Fan Page statistics. This has lots of demographic information about your followers.
  • Ask your followers about what kinds of products they’d like you to make. (Easy, and effective.)

While none of these will create a scientifically sound idea of who your audience is, it will start to help you realize who they really are.

Zig when they zag

If everyone is offering a product, it could be time to go the opposite direction, and try to find something entirely different to offer.

If everyone has X product, that product is going to become a commodity in the marketplace. Basically, everyone is going to “know” that a t-shirt is $20; it becomes more difficult to charge more, and some folks start trying to undercut the competition with price. Pretty soon, prices start falling.

You want to avoid that if you can, by offering stuff that other people don’t have (and don’t really know that it should cost $X)

Design around your art strength

Not every-one’s art is perfect for every type of product. Some folks do really detailed character art that may not work great for 1 inch buttons.

Make sure that you’re playing to your artistic strengths with your product design. If you do beautiful pinups, consider making pinup prints. If your work is very graphic and simple, maybe make resin-cast toys.

Again though, reflect back to your brand and your audience, and make sure that it’s the kind of stuff that they (and you) like.

Design around your unique sense of humor

If you’re a witty writer, you can contribute to some great products too. (Funny buttons, funny t-shirt slogans, stuff like that.)

Weregeek is an RPG comic, so they offer some funny t-shirts that appeal to their RPG gamer audience. Same goes for Little Vampires, and their t-shirts.

How to discover new products

Look for existing products that match your brand/story values, but also could be repurposed/rebranded cheaply. Ad Spec (Advertising Specialty) companies have tons of this kind of stuff.

Drunk Elephant Comics could sell Drunk Elephant metal flasks. (His audience is adult, and he already features drink recipes on his site.) He could buy in bulk, add a Drunk Elephant sticker, and he’d be golden.

Look outside comic conventions

Go to a crafting event, go to a Chinese market, visit an army surplus store, go to Value Village. You just might find a product that isn’t terribly expensive, but could be customised to be your next repurposed product.

Make something

Use your hands and skills to make something by hand.

Miss Monster makes resincast beast masks that are amazing, and more importantly different, than anybody else is selling. This makes her brand stronger, and she’s able to offer stuff that nobody else is selling.

You could sew your own plushies, make a hat that one of your character wears, or whatever.

You could take a common item and repaint it to make it cool, to reflect your brand, or echo something from your comic. Don’t limit yourself.

What to avoid

Buying too much of something. You may not need 1000 flag hats, even if they’re a great deal. Scale back to what you might reasonably sell.

Making X product because THEY do it. Sure, it might look profitable or great from your point of view, but research it first. They might have an IN with a supplier to make those fleece jackets more affordable than you might.

Not thinking through the entire product cost. Make sure that you factor in shipping, packaging, rebranding into the true cost of your product. THEN, and only then, you can determine what price you should charge for it.

If you start with price first, you may find yourself with margins that are far too slim to survive and excel.

Expensive Products. It’s tough to make 4 times the cost of your product, when that product initially costs $25. It’s really easy to do that when your product costs $.25 to make.

Be careful, and realize that $20 is a magical price point. Under $20 is usually an easy sell; over $20 it’s a bit harder.

However, if you’re delivering real value, and have a product that is fantastic and unique, you can start to go even higher. (And it’s really nice to have a $50 item that’s selling to help you pay off that table cost, hotel, and plane tickets.)

Closing

Really, developing and selling unique products is the name of the game. It can help make you stand out, help people better understand your brand, and delight your audience, who in turn show the products to their friends. It’s a devilishly complicated thing to do well, but if you stay true to your brand and your audience, you’re bound to have some successes.

What’s your killer product idea? (Anyone brave enough to share?)

 


Daniel m. Davis is the co-owner (with his wife Dawna) of Steam Crow LLC,  a Phoenix, Arizona studio that creates Good Monsters/Monster Goods.

They also create the Monster Commute, a 5 day a week monsterpunk adventure comic. They enjoy gifts of pie.

About Daniel Davis

Daniel is the co-owner of Steam Crow, a company that makes monster goods. He also makes the Monster Commute webcomic, which is updated 5 days a week. It's an Orwellian adventure story about steampunk monsters, and it isn't supposed to be jokey. Daniel lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and is the founder of TINY ARMY, a local illustrator/comic creator group.

3 thoughts on “What to sell at Cons

  1. Great article, Daniel! The thing about detailed art and buttons hits home – the first set I designed had complicated artwork, and you can barely tell what’s on the pin from a distance. The ones that seemed popular were (obviously, in retrospect) the ones with simple, well defined artwork.

    We mainly are doing prints, buttons, and bookmarks, but the thing I think will really stand out are the posable dragon dolls. Everywhere I’ve shown the first resin-cast dragon head, there’s been a great response, and a lot of interest already. The plan is to make several different parts – different heads, arms, legs, horns, etc. – and mix and match them (along with several different colors of paint and fur) to make each one unique. The first prototype is just about done now, so I’m hoping to have a few done for Phoenix.

    Playing to your strengths is very important, I agree. I’ve done a lot of work with molding and casting in ceramic, latex, plaster, so the jump to silicone and resin was not a far one. At the end of the day, it’s the unique merchandise that is the most fun to come up with and create!

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