If there’s any industry that’s defied expectations, it’s the pop culture merchandise industry. When it first went public in 2017, vinyl figure manufacturer Funko reported abysmal sales. Gradually, however, the company grew to become the pop culture merchandise giant that it is today. Retail chain Hot Topic started in a garage. As of 2019, it had nearly 700 stores worldwide, even as many other brick-and-mortar retailers were struggling to stay open. Since then, many fans have caught up and made livelihoods of their passions. With the mass availability of insta graphic machines, fans have opened online shops on Etsy, creating and selling merchandise of their own making. So what are their secrets to success?
Find your niche
Sometimes, all it takes is for a single piece of media to develop a cult following. That was the case with Roy Preston and Nicholas Dollak, co-owners of the famed Greenwich Village shop called ‘The Little Lebowski.’ The shop started as a children’s bookstore but struggled to make ends meet as the U.S. economy collapsed and neighboring construction kept customers from knocking on their doors. They then got the idea to start selling shirts based on the 1998 cult film The Big Lebowski as a joke. But they turned out to be their best-selling items. The owners soon rebranded the shop to the Little Lebowski, which became a popular destination among locals and tourists.
When asked about what aspect of their unique business model worked, the owners replied that it was a matter of finding one’s niche. Be decisive about your target market and know what they want. You also need an edge, something to set you apart from competitors. What can you give consumers that they can’t get anywhere else? Etsy shops are successful because they’re owned by fans. As members of the target market themselves, Etsy shop owners know what the other members of their hive want.
Use digital tools
Apart from just asking customers to give ratings and answer surveys, today’s business owners can track customer satisfaction, purchasing behaviors, and more using analytics. This is a digital marketing tool that collects data about your consumers. It tracks age, gender, economic standing, and purchasing behaviors, to name a few. It also allows you to track your consumers’ engagements with your marketing materials, so you can see which of your marketing materials are the most successful in getting website clicks and purchases. This also allows you to personalize advertisements per customer for better efficiency.
Stay on top of trends
Despite its popularity, The Little Lebowski ended up closing for good in October 2015. While the shop’s closure is mostly due to the European financial crisis and neighborhood gentrification, there might also be another reason. Perhaps the influence of the film it was based on had run its course. It’s difficult to compete with other merchandise shops that offer more diverse selections – such as Hot Topic. The retail chain that’s become known for selling music and movie-themed apparel started by selling gothic-style accessories in the late 1980s. They also sold items that weren’t normally found in most malls, such as hair dye.
In the 1990s, Hot Topic began to sell music-inspired merchandise, from records to T-shirts. In 1993, Tim Burton released The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the film went on to achieve cult popularity. Hot Topic was the first retailer to sell merchandise inspired by the film. Over the next decade or so, the brand also expanded its merchandise to feature products on other hit films and television series, such as South Park, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Twilight.
The name of the store itself suggests that it sells things that are “hot.” Hot Topic always stays on top of trends and is ready to expand its merchandise to cover whatever pop culture media is popular. They’re refusing to miss a beat, and that’s part of what’s kept them alive all these years.
Whether physical or online, pop culture merchandise shops have been successful because of owners’ knowledge of their target market and market trends. But to retain consumer engagement and loyalty, they also need to use digital tools to collect data about consumers, helping marketers optimize marketing materials for better efficiency.