The Crazy Logistics Behind Pre-ordering Concert Merch

Co-founding Sidestep has been a tremendous learning experience. At Sidestep we allow fans to pre-order merch for pickup or delivery (if the artist allows it – more on that later) so you can reserve an artist's tour merch before the show. The idea is quite simple: browse merch before you arrive at the show, pre-order so your merch is guaranteed, and skip the main merch line. Our goal has been to make the fan experience better through allowing artist to sell their merch while they're on the road (or preparing for a tour). While the idea is simple, it's been difficult to create this change in the industry on all fronts. Let me explain.

One of the most popular questions we receive is, "Why don't you have more artists" or "when are you going to get my favorite artist, The Grateful Dead?" The simple answer (and you can skip to the next paragraph if you'd like) is that we have to convince the artist, their record label, their merch company, and management company and the road team that it's a good idea. That's a lot of people!

The second reason is that most companies are naturally resistant to change, in fact, so are most people. Just think about when Facebook makes a design change or when Apple removed the CD drive from the MacBook. It's always with the best intentions at heart, but it may feel like pushing two magnets together of resisting forces (our goal is to make opposites attract and that requires change). They are trusting us to help sell their merch instead of leaving it all up to the venue. An artist is really just another company with a louder leader (pun intended). A lot of the management groups want a white labeled solution where we do all the heavy lifting, can't use our brand, and conduct all of the logistics. However, this is a bit flawed. We need the full support of many teams in order for this to work. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to bring everything together.

Getting an artist is only half the battle. Now we need to move to the second phase: selling the merch and logistics. Here's how it all works:

First, we let you pre-order the merch. How does it work? Well the artist has a bunch of merch following them around from show to show. We provide the tools and a system to be followed by the merch people on the ground at each venue the artist stops at. It takes a lot of effort to teach this new system. We do training and provide guides and a phone number in case they have any questions 24/7. When it finally clicks, they always tell us how much better and easier is it for them. The road team spends less time showing off merch and have a more streamlined job. They know what's sold before the show starts, then when it does sell, they scan an order and hand it to the customer. Scan an order, hand it to the customer. It's pretty simple, right?

Digital hawker selling merch to cut down on the line and saving fans timeDigital hawker selling merch to cut down on the line and saving fans time

Ok, so you've pre-ordered merch and the trucks pull up in San Jose. The show is tonight at 7:30pm. What happens next? The merch people figure out where they are going to be setup – the physical space inside the venue. Where they can setup the tent (if they are allowed) and what the other rules and restrictions are – they're different at every venue. They usually find out a few hours before the doors open (when they let ticketed fans inside). The race begins to setup before doors open. It's a frenzy. They hang the products on the wall for everyone who prefers the non Sidestep way (usually because they don't know about Sidestep), getting the merch to the different booths, setting up signs, talking to security and the venue people and learning the schedule for the night. After hanging the merch on the wall, they begin pulling the merch you ordered and set it aside for the Sidestep pre-orders. It's their responsibility to do this. The better they do this the easier their job becomes because the merch is already sold and just waiting to be picked up. And the more people that use Sidestep the better it is for the merch people and the artist. The average Sidestep pickup transaction from the time you get to the front of the booth to the time the merch person hands you the stuff is about 33 seconds. The average time for purchasing merch without using Sidestep is about 5.7 minutes. We save the merch people a lot of time, but it isn't easy.

Merch booth in Atlanta about to be setup

We work incredibly hard to make their lives as easy as possible. Them being the artist, merch company, management company, road team, and the record label. However, the system only works if they buy into it 100%. Sometimes the road team doesn't set aside all of the merch and a customer has wait 10-20 minutes while the merch person runs back to the truck (or another merch booth) and pulls stock from that booth. If they buy in to the process 100% then they would never have to run around. Their night goes very smoothly. It's a fact. Every merch person we've spoken to wishes more people use Sidestep. It makes their life easier. All of this is outlined in the training material that we provide to each road team for each tour. But wait, there's more!

We work really hard to make the lives of "corporate" business people better.

These people include the merch company, artist, management company and the record label. We spend a lot of time on the phone and in email meeting all of their needs. White labeling the stores, printing custom signage for each show and providing them with detailed reporting and analytics. We do this because we want to make the experience better. Waiting in line sucks and there's no other way to put it.

Working around the clock!Working 'round the clock

Each day before the show everyone involved receives an email with a breakdown of all of the merch sold including quantities and sizes for each product. The goal is twofold: provide them with details about their sales and to let them know what products are necessary to set aside. They can also deduce other info form this such as what products are hot or not and what needs to be restocked. Not only is this data emailed the day of the show, but it's also available in real-time 24/7 in the dashboard. Think about that, before Sidestep the artist and their team had absolutely no idea what merch would be popular, how to properly forecast for an event, and could only sell merch in a 4 hours time window (from doors to close) with the bottleneck of long lines. For artists like Beyonce, Selena Gomez, Fall Out Boy, Weezer, Panic! At the Disco, Florida Georgia Line and many more, we've opened that 4 hour window to 24 hours a day 7 days a week as long as the tour is running (and sometimes even longer if the artists chooses to enable delivery).

And now onto my favorite person: the fan. We do all of this to make the experience better for you. We work with the team to make sure your merch is waiting to be picked up. We work with the venues, unions, merch companies, security, and all of the other parties to make sure you have your own booth to pick up the merch at. Once we find out where that is, we email and post about it so you can easily find the place to pick up your merch. Yes, we're a bit selfish, we want a better experience when we go to the shows, too. We provide 24/7 customer support via live chat and email on the website and in the apps, we work with all of the stakeholders mentioned above to provide a seamless experience, work with the road team every day, create and manage logistics, and we do everything we can to make something wrong, right. We've been collecting feedback for as long as I can remember and have iterated our apps, logistics, and support to make things better. I personally read every piece of feedback that we receive. It is incredibly important to Eric, myself and the entire Sidestep team (nine of us in total) that we do everything we can to provide the best experience possible.

Dave Matthew Band merch Line without Sidestep - this is what the typical non-Sidestep line looks likeDave Matthew Band merch Line without Sidestep - this is what the typical non-Sidestep line looks like

We're always working to make this experience better for all parties involved. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to convince everyone of what we truly believe to be a better experience. Fans win when everyone involved buys into it 100%. We've come along way and aren't stopping here. Our success increases the artists' success, fans happiness, and makes attending a live event much better. It's a symbiotic relationship and we work incredibly hard to bring our A game every day.

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