When getting your store ready for the holidays, sometimes you can read as many lists of tried and tested marketing tips as you like, but come out the other side none the wiser. The facts are there, but the story is missing.
So to make your transition into holiday survival mode a bit easier, we decided to find someone with a story to reassure you that getting through peak season is 100% doable and possible. You just need to be confident about your message and timing.
Our storyteller of the day is Dan Woychick, designer and creative strategist who combined his profession and love for Minneapolis to create Love MPLS Parks. It’s an online store with t-shirt designs that pay homage to the beautiful parks and lakes of the city. 50% of all profits are donated to People for Parks, a non-profit dedicated to improving Minneapolis Parks.
With three holiday seasons under his belt, Dan is just the man to turn to for some pre-holiday pep. Read on to find out about his story.
How did you come up with the idea for your store?
I’ve been running my own design firm for 28 years, and for most of that time I’ve been focused on working with mission-driven or non-profit organizations. A few years ago I was a part of my neighborhood board in Minneapolis that was working on projects to benefit the neighborhood.
There are a lot of parks and lakes in Minneapolis, and I’ve always appreciated them. For a large city it’s very green, which adds to its livability. So I became the liaison to the park board from our neighborhood organization, and that’s where I learned a lot about the parks.
What I found out from my work on the board was their funding streams had not kept up with the level of maintenance needed in the parks. I thought that it was sad to see these wonderful public resources going without the money and support they need.
So I wanted to bring light to that and create a new revenue stream that was devoted to them. The idea was to create a line of custom merchandise with 50% of the profits going to Minneapolis parks.
How did Printful come into play?
The idea for Minneapolis parks-themed merchandise actually predated my ability to launch the project. The technology didn’t really exist to work in a way that was simple. And I always want to keep things as simple as possible. What was revolutionary for me was the simplicity of the Printful set-up. It basically did all the things I didn’t want to do – order processing, printing, and fulfillment.
Before I became aware of the Printful model, I kept thinking How do I know if people are going to buy? How do I inventory for that? Do I want to stuff my house full of merch? I could end up with a whole bunch of merchandise and not see any profit for a really long time.
At the time you could open a store on a marketplace, like Etsy. But I felt that it was important for this initiative to have its own branding. I launched a stand-alone store built in WordPress and hooked it up to Printful with WooCommerce.
When did you launch the online store?
The soft launch was in November 2014, and it was up and running for the first holiday season in December. That was basically a launch just for friends, family and a few other people I know. A launch to see what happens. That December we sold about $1,500 worth of merchandise.
There are over 160 parks in Minneapolis, and I launched the site with designs of the 7 most famous locations. We had men’s, women’s, and kids’ t-shirts, and later on we added longsleeves and hoodies. At this time of year in Minnesota the longsleeves and hoodies sell well because it starts getting cold. We’ve also had some totes, caps, and other things, but the shirts sell the most.
But I didn’t really realize until I’d been in business for a year that I was in the retail business (laughs). You would think that with parks, people would be thinking about them mostly in the summer. In reality, 75%-80% of the business happens in November and December.
You realize that they’re sort of impulse buys where people buy it if they see it. But if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind. One of the main challenges with an online store is trying to find ways to generate traffic and interest.
So how do you go about it?
It’s all about finding ways to bring your products to people’s attention and putting it in front of people who weren’t aware of it before. People don’t wake up in the morning with an idea in their head to go support your cause. But if that idea crosses their field of vision, they may act on it.
I think it’s a mistake to think an online store exists only on the web, or electronic media. I believe you need to constantly find ways to raise awareness in the physical world and via traditional media, too.
Over the last two years I’ve helped organize Posters for Parks, a one-night event hosted at the Lakes & Legends Brewing Company. The show is a partnership between myself and a non-profit organization that supports the Minneapolis parks called People for Parks.
42 artists were in the poster show this year. Each supplies no fewer than 30 posters, so they are limited editions. We don’t sell merchandise from the online store at the event, but it generates a lot of interest. This year we sold more than 450 posters in one night and made about $20,000.
We had over 700 people at the show, and we invited them to vote for their favorite poster for a chance to win it. More than 300 people voted in exchange for providing their email address. Those are all people who have an obvious interest in Minneapolis parks and can be added to our mailing list. It’s a really simple thing, and you’ve got the right target audience.
What has your experience with traditional media been like?
In July 2016 one of the local TV stations, WCCO, saw our parks merchandise somewhere and invited me on their morning news for an interview. I never watch the morning news, but apparently lots of people do! Because I came home an hour later and had sold a $1,000 worth of merchandise. People saw it and went I gotta have it!, but they don’t see it all the time, so in the next couple of days the traffic and the sales went back down.
This February, the Minneapolis Star Tribune launched the Star Tribune Magazine and I sent them a note congratulating them on the launch. It’s a pretty nice magazine and you don’t see people doing magazines much anymore. Because I’d been involved in social good businesses for a while, I’d noticed that there are a lot more businesses launching locally and nationally with the idea of creating a revenue stream with one of the primary purposes of giving that money away to a good cause.
Seeing that there’s a lot of that happening in the Twin Cities, I suggested that it could be a good story for them – the narrative of people liking your merchandise, feeling good about their purchases and knowing that something good is going to happen from that. I named a couple of businesses, including mine, and then a couple of months ago they contacted me for an interview. That issue came out last Sunday, and we’ve sold nearly $1,200 in merchandise since the magazine story came out.
So this is your third holiday season. What do you do to prepare?
You have to bear in mind as soon as it hits November 1st, people are thinking about gifts. So I start working on a schedule of when I’m going to start reaching out to people, whether it’s via traditional media or Facebook campaigns. Like everyone else, I’m aiming right before Thanksgiving.
The poster show plays a big part. It kicks off in the fall, and then you’ve got a whole bunch of eyeballs now aware of the organization, emails from people voting on the posters and so on. Then in October I start thinking about reaching out to media who might be doing something for the holidays and who’d be interested in sharing ideas about local gifts with their audience.
I’ll also be tidying stuff up on the store. Some shirt colors have been discontinued, so I will replace those and maybe add a few new colors across the product line.
What do you do for online promotion?
When I first started the store, I just sent emails to everyone I knew. Over the years, between the poster show and sales, I’ve been building two email databases, one of prospects – the people who might be interested in the merchandise – and existing customers and people that I know personally. I currently use MailChimp for my emails, I’ll see a bump when I send a coupon code or new product announcements to past customers.
I keep an active profile on social media. That’s where people are likely to click through to get to the store. I work on expanding the Facebook audience through events, promotions, and people sharing things. There’s about a 2-3 month lead-up to the Posters for Parks show, where we share sneak previews of the posters. That’s when you start seeing a lot of traffic to the Facebook event, you can invite people to like your page and go from there.
I’ve had a good response on Reddit and LinkedIn. Although there’s a Twitter feed, too, the analytics show that Twitter doesn’t do much for sales. I also do Facebook Ad campaigns, one in the fall and one the spring, with lookalike audiences and all that, although I think Facebook Ads are getting less and less effective for me.
I added Instagram this year, so it’ll be interesting to see how that affects sales. It’s good because it’s visual and it’s quick. Most of the images aren’t mine, so I credit them to the people who take them. That also gets you additional attention from their followers.
Do you do anything for the major holiday sales events?
Yes, but these aren’t things that necessarily goose sales higher. I did free shipping for last Black Friday weekend, and I hit existing customers with a week-long early bird special before getting deluged with everything else. There was also a Cyber Monday hoodie special.
Everything sort of builds on itself, though. If I’m currently posting on social media a couple of times a week, we’ll do more promotion as the holidays get closer. On Instagram, 80%-90% of the time the posts have nothing to do with the products, like beautiful images of Minneapolis parks. I think a steady stream of product shots makes it hard for us to have a following anyone’s going to pay attention to. I’ll mix in more of that as we get into the season where people are thinking about gifts.
What happens after the holidays?
After the holidays, it’s actually nice not to have as much business (laughs). Again, this is not my main business. I work on the store experience with my developer to get it to be even more intuitive and easier to use. We built a better filtering mechanism, so you can filter by design and by product. We also simplified checkout and installed abandoned cart tracking.
Then you have to determine whether you need new products. I added one new park and I don’t think it’s sold anything yet, the audience for it isn’t there yet. People often ask, Why haven’t you made a shirt for this park or that park? I could, but it’s a lot of effort. If I sell two all year, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth doing.
The website isn’t super sophisticated and super automated because I’m doing all this in my spare time, as a side gig. So I keep thinking, Yeah, that would be a good thing to do. Someday. When I get around to it.
And you do all the designs, right?
Yes, except the I Cherry Minneapolis one, that’s done by a friend of mine, Jeff Johnson. It’s inspired by the iconic statue of a cherry in the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis. New York has the I <3 NY, Big Apple thing, so this was Jeff’s take on that. In the end he was so enthused about my parks project and the Printful platform that he launched a store himself, Replace Everything.
The idea behind the designs was to create these long-lost logos of the Minneapolis park system. They kind of have a retro vibe to them. They’re all custom, but as a group they look like they belong together.
And I wanted to start with the most famous parks and have them from different parts of the city. First I did what we call the Chain of Lakes: Lake Harriet, Lake Calhoun, Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. Then came Minnehaha Falls and Lake Nokomis.
I started with Lake Harriet, because my grandmother lived near there. And I remember thinking, if someone’s grandma came to visit Minneapolis, saw a concert at Lake Harriet, and went back home to Seattle with their grandkid’s birthday coming up, it would make a great gift or souvenir. But Minneapolis Parks merchandise didn’t exist, and I thought it should exist. That’s one of the advantages of being a designer – if something doesn’t exist, you can just make it.
Any last piece of advice you’d like to share with store owners getting ready for the holidays?
Lean on your friends! People are generally excited to help people spread the word and spread awareness. So show them what you’re doing and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
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