Fandom Shopping

A whole bunch of merchandising start-ups are cashing in on pop culture

For The Big Bang Theory fan, Ajay Bhatia, finding T-shirts like the ones his favourite character Sheldon Cooper sported was a pain four years ago. There was no website or offline store that he did not comb through, but none of them offered what he was looking for. That was until he landed on VoxPop, an online store for pop culture merchandise. Today, the 20-year-old enthusiast is a frequent buyer at VoxPop and has an impressive collection of posters, T-shirts and more. As for Sheldon Cooper, many of his popular zingers, especially ‘Bazinga’, can be found on VoxPop’s T-shirts, wallets and even, socks.

Pop culture fans are not restricting themselves to the apparel of their favourite personality. It’s everywhere — from phone covers, coffee mugs to stationery. Young India wants to collect them all and homegrown merchandise companies have stepped in to cash in on this frenzy.

VoxPop received seed funding from numerous investors, including Blume Ventures, before it was acquired by the US-based Bioworld Merchandising in 2016. Bioworld had entered India in 2014 after tasting massive success in the US with its self-designed licensed merchandise. Here, it has now partnered with Landmark and Crossword to sell its products offline.

“There is a good market for fandom merchandising in India especially after the advent of social media. People are lot more aware about television and movie franchises. Besides, every time a movie or TV show releases and its merchandise is launched, there is an immediate increase in the demand for its books too, which helps the book business. This trend was visible with franchises such as Harry Potter and Game of Thrones,” says Maulik Desai, head, Crossword Bookstores. Around 10% of sales revenue for Crossword comes from selling such merchandise.

Pop culture merchandise companies such as Bewakoof and The Souled Store have also gained a following. Bewakoof received institutional angel funding from Kunal Bahl and Rohit Bansal of Snapdeal, after six months of operation. On the other hand, The Souled Store managed to succeed by bootstrapping an initial investment of Rs.175,000 in 2013. Till date the start-up has invested around Rs.525,000.

However, up until a few years ago, Indians had only two options when it came to buying merchandise. They either had to settle for low-grade knockoffs from local shops or kerb sellers, or buy expensive stuff from Amazon. A small group of people even ordered from Chinese website AliExpress, which took between one to two months to deliver the order, but it would not always be original or licensed.

Today, most of these enthusiasts would not really bother to visit an offline store to buy their merchandise as the entire phenomenon is social media-based and online stores are selling them at rates similar or lower than the ones sold offline at bookstores and retail stores, such as Pantaloons, Lifestyle and Max. Despite competing with the online portals,the bookstore chains still manage to get a good number of customers for their merchandise sections on a daily basis. “Sometimes, the touch and feel of these products lead the to customers to pick up the products,” says Desai.

Although one would think that buying Harry Potter, Star Wars, Friends, Marvel and DC merchandise, among others, would be more of an big city niche culture, a major volume of orders on these websites actually come from Tier-II and Tier-III cities. The Souled Store has a chunk of customers from Indore, Lucknow, Patna, Guwahati and more. Similarly, Bewakoof’s customer base includes cities such as Pune, Bangalore and Kota, where the youth congregation is high.

Disney, for a long time, had dominated the licensed merchandising market in India but its focus was mainly on the kid’s category. It was not until the huge popularity of Marvel movies, around 2008, that the company found a scope in the adult category. Today, it has a huge market and amazing brand awareness. Bollywood has also tried its luck in merchandising. In 2015, Yash Raj Films collaborated with Bewakoof to sell Shahrukh Khan-themed products, titled, The King Khan Collection. It was followed by merchandise for films such as Gunday, Sholay and Baby, and providing merchandise for events such as IIT Bombay’s Mood Indigo and Comic Con India.

Interestingly, the new trend in merchandising is statement T-shirts featuring stand-up comedians and popular names in sports and music. All India Bakchod (AIB), East India Comedy, Kenny Sebastian, Kanan Gill and Biswa Kalyan Rath are hot sellers on The Souled Store. While musicians such as Sanam and Nucleya hawk their merchandise on Redwolf, Bewakoof had previously collaborated with Deccan Chargers, Chennaiyin FC and Atletico de Kolkata.

“We partnered with AIB in January 2017 and the demand for their T-shirts is huge. Every time they release a T-shirt and promote it on their social media, we get between 1,500 and 2,000 orders in half a day,” says The Souled Store co-founder, Rohin Samtaney. He is estimating FY19 revenue of Rs.600 million compared with Rs.250 million in FY18. “The stand-up comedians and musicians themselves promote their merchandise, and their popularity brings customers to our website,” adds Samtaney.

On most of these websites, T-shirts form a popular segment. On VoxPop, a T-shirt starts at Rs.599 and goes upto Rs.999 and more for select brands. It expects to clock around Rs.204 million in FY19 revenue. For The Souled Store, T-shirts contribute 80% of its revenue followed by the recently launched T-shirt dresses, backpacks and boxers. For Bewakoof, T-shirts account for 30% of its total revenue while mobile covers and boxers are some of its best selling categories. Bewakoof, has sold cumulative merchandise of about Rs.1 billion till date.

While for most websites, the target customers are between 15 and 30 years old, Crossword's Desai explains fanatics exist across age-groups. He says, “Superheroes existed even in the 50s and 60s. So, we also have many older customers who would buy these products out of nostalgia.”

However, investors believe that the pop culture merchandise trend is here to stay. “Those in the age group of 15-30 years are more likely to experiment with newer trends than someone who is in their late-30s. The trend will be there but the question is how big the market really is?” says Karthik Reddy, managing partner, Blume Ventures. Presently, the market size for merchandising in India stands at about $1 billion, and it is predicted to be $5 billion by 2022.