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Creative Branded Merch and E-Commerce Platforms: How Small Service Businesses Are Looking to Survive a Crisis

March 24, 2020 | Brendan Menapace

A week or two ago, the idea of restaurants staying alive by offering boxes of branded merch, cook-at-home kits or “virtual beers” in the form of T-shirts would seem foreign. Things moved faster than a lot of us would have guessed, and major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia have shut down nonessential businesses like bars and restaurants.

Obviously, this means potentially devastating financial ramifications for these small businesses, who lose business from foot traffic as people stay home.

To make up for some of that lost business, bars and restaurants have had to get creative with ways to make money while their doors are locked, shining a light on the importance of branded merchandise for these businesses.

Back to those branded kits we mentioned before. While LA’s restaurants are closed, restaurateur Chad Colby been been buying empty cartons for homemade ice cream and creating cook-at-home kits for fans of the restaurant.

“We’re going to try every possible way that we can to—at this point, not make money, at this point just to keep this business going,” Colby told the Los Angeles Times. “Any income that we try to do right now isn’t even necessarily to break even, it’s to sustain the losses that are going to be coming.

Other LA restaurateurs are offering similar meal kits or bundles of takeout to provide food options for consumers who can’t find what they need on increasingly sparse grocery store shelves.

And one of the best ways for restaurants to maintain income without having to worry about perishable products or staffing restaurants, which would create unnecessary risk of spreading infection, is by selling gift cards and branded merchandise through online stores.

LA’s Clark Street bread has done just that, launching a webstore to sell apparel and gift cards.

“A lot of restaurants aren’t financially prepared for this,” Genevieve Gergis, co-owner of Bestia and Bavel, told the LA Times. “We’re prepared to work harder, we’re prepared to get through hard times, but we’re not prepared for nothing.”

As urban dynamics change, so too does the cost of production for a lot of these businesses. In Philadelphia, where gentrification has ramped up enormously over the last two decades, businesses in up-and-coming areas are facing the very real struggle of keeping the lights on once the government tells them they’re allowed to turn them back on.

Ortliebs, a bar in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philly, released a limited edition T-shirt design last night in order to maintain some income during Pennsylvania’s mandatory shutdown of nonessential businesses.

Small shops that already have e-commerce platforms in place, like Philly’s Reanimator Coffee, can offset cost by selling T-shirts and branded bags of beans.

These kinds of efforts can’t possibly replace all the lost revenue from forced closures or customers generally staying away. But every little bit helps. Having capabilities to sell branded merchandise like T-shirts, mugs, tote bags and more gives these companies a source of income beyond their designated goods or service. In good times, this generates extra revenue and creates brand awareness. In bad times, it becomes a potentially vital lifeline.

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