February 6, 2024
ISLAMABAD – While “merch stores” aren’t all run by the parties themselves, there are still big bucks to be made.
AROUND the world, political supporters are readily identified by their choice of wardrobe. For example, an American sporting the ‘Make America Great Again’ or ‘MAGA’ slogan on their cap or t-shirt can never be mistaken for being a Democrat. Similarly, those in the UK given to wearing anti-Tory symbols can only be Labour supporters.
The same is true for Pakistan; in recent years, political merchandise has become all the rage, with even closet supporters now deigning to wear their political hearts on their sleeve.
And just like cricket fever helps sell t-shirts of the boys in green, elections usually whip up a frenzy for political parties’ merchandise. Or at least that would have been the case, if anticipation ahead of this electoral exercise had been other than tepid.
Still, political memorabilia is a thriving business amid the pre-election hustle and bustle, with people paying Rs2,400 for a Maryam Nawaz hoodie, Rs2,000 for a water bottle with Imran Khan’s face on it, or $31 for a Khadim Rizvi-themed iPhone cover!
For some, it’s a business; for others, it’s party loyalty, but each merchandise shop has their own story to tell.
The most recent arrival on the scene is the Twitter-based business, Jiyala Hub. A business venture and a passion project, the PPP’s merchandise store is managed by young 20-something political workers. Though not sponsored or run by the political party, it is recognised and patronised by the leadership. A for-profit business, it was set up with initial investments from friends and families.
“The merchandise helps create an atmosphere for elections,” says Bhevish Kumar Maheshwari, one of its founders, who originally hails from Mithi. “Currently, people are disinterested, and the environment is not one of pre-polls,” he says.
Launched last month, the store offers roughly half a dozen apparel pieces.
Jiyala Hub mostly operates on bulk orders by candidates in the run-up to rallies. The quantity per order ranges from 200 to 700 pieces for articles that cost roughly between Rs1,700 and Rs2,500. These include hoodies that are popular in cities where winter still reigns, such as Punjab and Upper Sindh. Kurtis and shawls predominantly sell in warmer cities.
Though the variety of pieces on offer is limited compared to their rivals, the ethos behind it is that of love, explains designer and co-partner Prinka Kapoor, from Kashmore. “People love Bibi Sahiba (Benazir Bhutto), which is why my first article was [called] ‘Red Legacy’ as a tribute to my love for her. When one wears the kurti, one can still feel her love and support,” she says.
Aware that items which are too niche may end up being relegated to the wardrobe for five years, she aims to design apparel that can be worn after the elections as well.
Only official one
The PML-N store is the only one that a political party runs officially. “When Maryam Nawaz was appointed chief organiser, she wanted to improve the digital aspect of PML-N. Hence, PML-N set up a team with digital media experts for branding and image building,” says Ali Malik, operations head and part of the digital media team.
The team’s first big project was Nawaz Sharif’s return in October last year. Around 12,000 pieces of PML-N memorabilia were dispatched to ensure consistent branding, across Pakistan. After its success, the store was eventually launched online.
Not run for profit, the shop was set up with seed money from party members. That money has been mostly returned, and the shop is now self-sufficient, says Mr Malik, adding that the store sold about 1,000 pieces to PML-N supporters over the last month. The Lahore-based store offers 21 products, ranging from Rs80 for a badge to Rs2,400 for a hoodie.
However, its web traffic data to validate the numbers proved elusive. Data aggregation company Similarweb, which specialises in web analytics, returned an error message, and another similar website, Semrush, indicated less than 100 visits to the website since its launch.
‘Behind you skipper’
While there are various websites selling PTI and Imran Khan-related merchandise, the Insaaf Store is completely dedicated to it. However, it is not affiliated with the political party per se. A small business run online, its revenue is generated entirely by voters’ and supporters’ orders, not through bulk orders by the political party.
“Since 2022, when Imran Khan was removed, up till last month, orders have increased by about 1,000pc,” says Zeeshan Shafiq, a partner in the store.
However, they say they are facing distribution challenges, with roughly 60pc of their orders failing. “We get orders but are unable to fulfil them because our dispatches are returned from courier companies. However, we still have to pay for the delivery charges, which has adversely affected our business,” laments Mr Shafiq.
Insaaf’s store’s best-selling items are currently flags and mufflers in the run-up to elections, but usually key chains, t-shirts, and caps are very in-demand. The current hot favourite design is “Behind you skipper”, though sales were previously led by the “Absolutely Not” line.
“We did try to sell [articles bearing] ‘Qaidi No. 804’, but the pushback we received from the powers-that-be was too much to bear. People are now selling [those items] in the black market, but our company is an official business, registered with the Securities And Exchange Commission of Pakistan, and we do not want to take that risk,” he adds.
According to Similarweb, the Insaaf Store received around 13,000 organic hits in December from desktop computers alone. According to Shopify, nearly 60 per cent of web traffic comes from mobile devices, indicating pretty decent numbers for PTI shoppers compared to rivals.
While the Insaaf store offers merchandise ranging from Rs3,000 for a PTI flag to Rs500 for a t-shirt, internationally, t-shirts with Imran Khan’s face can sell for as much as $34 (Rs9,500).
But the prize for the most expensive piece of merchandise goes to Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP). An international website, creator-spring.com, has a section devoted to merchandise featuring Khadim Rizvi t-shirts, mobile covers, t-shirts and coffee mugs. Here, a hoodie emblazoned with the face of the TLP founder costs $44 (Rs12,000).