Beauty of Branding: Keep Merchandise Sales In-House!

All martial arts school owners should make the most out of selling merchandise to their students.

To do that effectively, you need to have a school merchandise program in place, one that's designed to steer customers away from acquiring their gear elsewhere. The program should include an official equipment policy, the creation of branded merchandise (uniforms, sparring pads, gear bags, etc.) and an enforcement policy.

I know — you don't like to think of your students as customers. That's understandable. What you do is a higher calling. You teach a way of life. It's a noble ambition that precludes you from looking at your students as parts of an income stream. I'm the same. We have to get past all that if we want to stay in business and continue to change lives.


Before diving in, I'll share two of the many stories that led to the creation of our program. Our dojo was stocked with two pairs of each size of all the sparring gear. On display for everyone to see were bright red foot pads, hand pads and helmets. Everyone knew that they were supposed to buy their gear from us. Great place to be, right? Wrong.

One day, I pulled up to the dojo and noticed a mom and her two kids wearing red hand pads and helmets with the wrong logos. That set up an awkward confrontation: "They're the wrong kind — why didn't you buy them from us?"

We ended up having the family place stickers on the helmets to hide the logos, but what a hassle it was. Afterward, we decided to brand our sparring gear with our school logo and get it that way directly from the supplier. Problem solved, right? Wrong.

One day, I was sitting at my desk when in walked the mother of an orange belt. She handed me a printout from a website and asked whether the gear was the same as ours. I said, "Yes, but aren't you going to buy it from us?"

She said, "No, I can get it a little cheaper online," then drove off in her BMW.

Although I thought I'd solved the problem by branding our gear, I needed to come up with a policy for enforcing it.

The first step, however, is finding a supplier that's capable of branding your merchandise. Your primary concern should be uniforms — that's the first thing a new student purchases, after all. Therefore, an official gi with your school logo printed on the back should be the first thing you source. Such a uniform will give students a sense of pride and belonging. Nevertheless, you might get pushback from parents or from students who transfer from another school and want to use the gi they already have.

Your policy and your response must be clear: "You're part of this school, and you must wear the school gi. You wouldn't join the Green Bay Packers and wear silver and black with the Raiders logo. The same goes for your karate uniform."

Sparring gear is the next item to consider. My advice is to follow the same policy you use for uniforms. If you wish, you can implement a system of color coding for sparring gear (and for uniforms) that has color belts using blue or red pads and black belts using black or silver pads.

It's also recommended to brand gear bags and have plenty of them available. If you don't, students will just walk in with their Everlast or Nike bags and you'll lose potential sales. (Note: We don't require our students to buy a gear bag from us, but most do.)Other products can fall into the branding category, including items that may not be necessary for training but that make training more comfortable. Think about bag gloves, mat socks, martial art shoes and even COVID masks. T-shirts, of course, are a no-brainer — whenever a student walks around town or school in a shirt bearing your dojo name, it's free advertising.

Eventually, problems will arise. Maybe Grandma buys a piece of equipment as a Christmas present for her grandkid, who trains at your school. When the kid brings it in, you should politely say no. If you cave, it will only get worse. That student will tell other students — or other students will notice — and in no time, everyone will demand the same treatment. Then little Johnny will walk in with black sparring pads despite the fact that you allow only red and blue. You must nip it in the bud — which is why I crafted a letter and posted it on our dojo bulletin board. This has eliminated most of the problems.

SCHOOL EQUIPMENT POLICY

Uniforms and sparring gear used/worn by those training at this school must be acquired here. In many cases, they will bear the school logo.

This policy/directive, instituted by the committee, is in place for consistency, safety and dojo solvency. It is in the best interest of all persons who are part of this school.

Those who have acquired items elsewhere will have one year to comply with the directive. A payment plan can be worked out for anyone needing assistance.

Be on your school team and help keep your tuition among the lowest in the county by purchasing all your equipment here. We appreciate it.

Later, we added an abbreviated version of the letter to our school handbook. For safety, we included the following: "Oriental weaponry/demonstration devices also must be acquired here at the dojo." The reason? No school owner can afford to allow students to bring in homemade weapons, which could injure others if they malfunction.

The bottom line is, the more direct you can be in outlining your school's equipment policy, the better off you and your students will be.

For those school owners who lack the space to carry a variety of sizes of everything they use in class, I recommend contacting Century Martial Arts. Its Century Direct program helps you set up a website for your students to purchase equipment from you, and you get to choose the items they see. When they make a purchase, you get the commission. You never have to manage inventory. It couldn't be simpler.

For more information about Century Direct, visit cmasdirect.com.

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