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Designers come up with an ingenious way to pump cash into small businesses

Wear new work by your fave designers. Support small businesses at the same time.

In New York City’s Chinatown, there’s a beloved 30-year-old business called New Kam Hing Coffee Shop. It doesn’t have a website or a large social media following, but it used to bustle with both locals and tourists who’d stand at the counter to order one of their sponge cakes. The shop, like so many others, is now closed because of the coronavirus.

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There are lots of independent, family-owned businesses like Kam Hing that are really struggling right now. According to a report by MetLife and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 54% of small businesses have either already closed or plan to close in the coming weeks. And closed doors means no revenue for shops like Kam Hing, which relies on in-person sales and doesn’t sell products online.

[Image: courtesy Merch Aid]
Zack Roif, an associate creative director at global creative consultancy R/GA, wanted to help businesses like these. So he, along with colleagues Chloe Saintilan and Matthew Woodward, launched Merch Aid, an initiative that pairs designers (some of the best in the biz, I might add) with beloved local businesses to create original illustrated merchandise in lieu of the goods and services they typically offer.

New York Nico x Astor Place Hairstylists. [Image: courtesy Merch Aid]
The T-shirts and tote bags, which are made to order, can be purchased on the Merch Aid site for $25 and $20, respectively. There has been a strong response since the site launched on April 6: four styles have already sold out (but will soon be restocked) and they made $40,000 in sales. One-hundred percent of proceeds go to the businesses.

While there are some bars and restaurants in the mix of businesses, Roif made sure the partnerships represented a range of services. “I think it’s easy to overlook the different types of businesses that are all integral to our communities, like nail salons, barbershops, hairdressers, and dry cleaners that are all suffering economic hits as well, but often don’t have the support system or network like many bars or restaurants tend to have,” he explained.

[Image: courtesy Merch Aid]

There are 12 collaborations so far, featuring artists like Chloe Wise, and designers and illustrators like Debbie Millman, Ilya Milstein, Naomi Otsu, and New York Nico. Merch Aid will continue to roll out additional New York collaborations over the next week, including designs from illustrator and muralist Timothy Goodman and Pentagram partners Jeff Close and Matt Willey.

Roif said they’ve received requests from over 50 U.S. cities, as well as some international requests. For now,  they’re planning to add partnerships in LA, Chicago, and Austin over the coming weeks.

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When choosing a business to feature, Roif considers three main criteria: the business isn’t offering merch of their own; it hasn’t received venture capital; and it’s at least partially closed due to coronavirus. Many of the artists chose businesses that are personally meaningful to them, but Roif has also reached out to a few shops and paired them with a designer who lives in the same city.

Roif acts as the go-between during the process and has even stepped in to help the businesses in other ways. When working with Astor Place Hairstylists, Roif said he was trying to teach the owner how to share posts to promote the merchandise, but it was proving difficult to explain via direct message. So the owner gave Roif the business’s Instagram login, and Roif posted the stories for them.

“Our goal is to help as many businesses as possible that might not be social first, or even have social platforms to begin with, and then give them one, rallying their loyal communities to help,” says Roif. Sure, an exclusive T-shirt doesn’t taste as good as a sponge cake, but it offers a new way to support a business you love—and it lasts a lot longer, too.

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About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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