Before the days of robust online shopping and music streaming, on-site conference stores were hopping with attendees shopping for books, CDs and conference gear. Now, some organizations have done away with the merchandise component of their conferences altogether, opting for digital download options for attendees or click-to-purchase functionality in their event apps.
Yanet Coombes, resource manager of the International Network of Children’s Ministry, has taken a different approach for the store at the Children’s Pastors Conference, and the on-site store she manages sells out of merchandise consistently.
Coombes was first involved in the annual event for children’s ministry leaders as a volunteer nine years ago. Later, she was tapped to oversee volunteers and the conference store, and now she works on staff year-round, leading all resources and partnerships, plus planning the conference store and exhibit hall.
Coombes sees the store as an additional place to serve attendees—whether they need a place to decompress in between sessions or to purchase something fun that will help them remember the conference.
Interestingly, ministry resources aren’t what drive attendees to the store at Children’s Pastors Conference. In fact, the store doesn’t offer any books or music for sale. A limited number of attendees can purchase conference experience kits—which include a book from each speaker, breakout session content and a T-shirt in a custom tote bag—but those purchases are made separately from the store.
So what does it sell, and how is the store viable? Here’s what works for Coombes and could work for your next event too.
1. Focus on apparel and souvenirs.
Coombes and her team sell items that have sentimental value. The conference mug sells out quickly every year, as do T-shirts. "We want our things to trigger what God is doing in their lives and prompt good memories," Coombes says. "When they put on those shirts or drink out of that cup, they remember when the Lord spoke to them at the conference."
2. Study your audience.
As you decide what products to include, seek to learn what attendees like and their financial grounding. Because Children’s Pastors Conference attendees primarily work as volunteers or in part-time, bivocational roles, Coombes prices items reasonably. Mugs are sold for $6 or less each year. And because 85% of attendees are women, the T-shirt designs are geared toward them.
3. Order limited quantities of everything.
First, don’t offer an overwhelming number of items to choose from. Coombes never has more than 25 different products available in the store. Then, order small enough batches of everything to generate buzz, a la supply and demand. She produces a handful of new shirt designs for each conference, orders only 300 of each and retires the shirts after that event, truly making them available only while supplies last. Her strategy works, as there is a rush of attendees waiting to get into the store as soon as it opens the first afternoon of the conference.
4. Set the stage leading up to the conference.
Tease to the merchandise in pre-conference communications. Children’s Pastors Conference is in January, but in November, Coombes and the INCM staff host a “pop-up party” online where some of the merchandise is revealed. Additionally, if possible, they place merchandise subtly in the background of some of the photos they post on social media in the fall. It’s become a fun challenge for followers to spot items, which then drives attention to social media and generates excitement about the products.
5. Design the store footprint strategically.
"Don't create an environment that says 'we’re here for your money,'” Coombes says. Make the store itself inviting, and train your volunteers to serve customers—not just sell products. The Children’s Pastor Conference stores include a seating area for attendees, and Coombes encourages her volunteers to engage with them.
"The sales should be consequences of our interactions," she says.
Coombes encourages planners not to eliminate an on-site store from their next event. “Nothing beats an in-person conference,” she says. “There’s something about being in the moment and seeing a tangible object you want to take home to make a memory.”