Building A Better Merch Table Display

Photo by SoreThumb

I know, most of you who read my blog aren’t musicians, but occasionally I stumble across a business idea that’s worth sharing with others. Besides, I do see a lot of you at the nerd conventions trying to sell your art, comedy, comic books, hand-knitted cartoon characters, etc. Some of your merch tables are better than others, but some of you also have to bring a forklift to set it all up.

Over the years I’ve learned to maximize visual space while minimizing weight and setup time. I’ll include some links (yes, affiliate links) to some of the products I’m using for my own setup, but you can get most or all of this at your local hardware store.

The Problem

We all gotta sell stuff, so we all gotta grab attention. Building a marketing fortress around a 6-foot folding table really isn’t that novel an idea, but it gets a lot more complicated when that table lives 3,000 miles away from your studio. Do you really want to haul those metal wire shelves through an airport and pay the extra fortune for an overweight checked bag?

Sounds like touring musician’s hell to me.

Solution #1: A Series of Tubes

Creating a PVC banner stand is easy enough that most people don’t need my help figuring it out:

  • Calculate how much 1/2″ PVC pipe you’ll need to make a giant croquet wicket big enough to hold your banner over your head.
  • Cut it into sections that will fit in your checked bags (my Action Packer can take 27″ lengths diagonally at the top of the bin).
  • Buy enough elbows and couplers to assemble the thing into an inverted U
  • Grab at least 5 velcro cable ties to attach your banner to the frame AND keep it rolled up in storage. If your banner doesn’t have grommets… well, you figure it out then.
  • Quick-Grip Clamp THE SECRET INGREDIENT: Get a couple of those Quick-Grip clamps with a bar that will fit inside the PVC pipe. Clamp them to your display table with the bar pointing upwards and you now have a rock-solid base for your stand. I found a two-pack at the local hardware store for just $20.

The Quick-Grip Clamps completely eliminated the need for a free-standing leg system, shaving at least 5 pounds off of my previous setup. You might be able to get away with materials other than PVC pipe for the frame, but it’s hard to beat the price and versatility of something this simple.

Solution #2: Go Fly A Kite

As you can see from the first photo above, I used to travel with some flat poster-board standup displays that fit in either my keyboard case or my Action Packer. Handy, sure, but it looks more like a high school science fair than a professional musician.

Recently my adorable science-minded and ruggedly-outdoorsy boyfriend pointed me towards an idea that screams DIY at the top of its lungs. He mentioned that professional displays, tents, and kites all share five key features:

  • Above all else, light weight
  • Strength
  • Flexibility
  • Prop up a large, flimsy surface area and keep it taut
  • Collapse into a portable package

Tent Poles Compare prices for a basic tent pole replacement kit and a professional display stand and you might not believe they’re the same basic materials… But they are. Fiberglass poles (flexible, strong, lightweight) holding up a large surface (tent, banner) that can be collapsed into a small tube for storage (portable).

Even better, pre-made tent poles are already designed to separate and collapse with an internal bungee cord, so the assembly headache is minimal.

  • Find a tent pole kit that best fits your budget and size needs. In my case, it’s a set of four 27″ poles.
  • Make an X with the poles and figure out how big your banner will need to be. (It’s called a hypotenuse, remember geometry class?) In my case, 1 banner that’s 1 foot wide by nearly 5 feet tall gives me a diagonal of 54″, the length of two poles.
  • Kite Cross Piece Find a couple of small, strong, rigid tubes that you can epoxy together as a fixed cross-piece. The angle and size will depend on your poles and banner, but the idea is the same: This thing keeps the poles crossed in the center like the T-Junction behind a kite. Slide the poles into the cross piece when setting the banner up, slide them out when tearing it down.
  • Attach the corners of the poles to the new banner… somehow. If you’ve got grommets, fine. I plan on just using duct tape to reinforce the corners and make a little pocket to slide the pole ends into.
  • Remember those table clamps? Anchor the kite to the vertical length of PVC to keep it upright. Even if you’re not bringing the big banner, the clamp and vertical poles will come in handy as an anchor

Voila, you now have an impressive amount of banner space that completely rolls up into a lightweight package. The only thing that won’t go into a tube mailer are the clamps, but those really aren’t hard to store or lug around, considering the amount of work they do for their size.

Whatever you do beyond this- lights, sounds, etc. -is up to you, but this is an easily eye-popping start that’ll put you ahead of most indie merchants I’ve seen. There really are only two drawbacks I can see: Using clamps means you really can’t use the banner without a table… but honestly, if you’re playing a gig without a merch table, it’s probably not the kind of gig where a bigass banner would be appropriate anyway.

Also, you really can’t hold merchandise above the table other than hanging a shirt or two from the banner stand somehow. I really haven’t found this to be a problem, though; once the banners have done their eye-catching job, people don’t care if the CD’s are on the table or up on a pedestal. The important thing is that it looks professional and packs down smaller than two pairs of jeans.

If you’ve got any ideas, of course, please feel free to share. I’m always analyzing other people’s displays to get ideas for my own, hopefully this post will save you some weight and hassle on your next trip!

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