Dan Angelo 2015-09-10 11:03:39
Opening a spirit shop taps into campus pride as another way to expand your service to the institution. Taking pride in your school is an integral part of the academic experience. Offering merchandise to satisfy that connection is as much a part of the college store’s role as providing course materials. Tapping into school spirit involves much more than catering to cheering, face-painted fans at the football stadium. Every tee shirt, ball cap, or keychain with the school colors or logo emblazoned on it promotes the school to everyone, wherever they see it. “Any time we can sell university merchandise, we’re getting the Black Hills State University name out, and we think that’s a win-win,” says Michael Jastorff, CCR, director of the University Store, Spearfish, SD. “That’s how we approach it.” College stores deliver spirit merchandise in a variety of ways. Some open satellite locations, as Jastorff has done in downtown Spearfish and Rapid City, while others supplement in-store sales by setting up concession stands at campus sporting venues. Some stores enter into agreements with their athletic departments; others create a store-within-a-store spirit shop; and, of course, there are those that take the all-of-the-above approach. “It’s important to take care of our great fans and to get product into their hands,” says Drew Sims, associate director, VolShop and Tennessee Official Team Shop, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “We feel like we’re different than other retailers. We’re giving back to the students, we’re giving back to the campus, and we’re making our customers happy.” The collegiate emotional bond extends well beyond students to include parents, faculty and staff working on campus, the surrounding community, and alumni worldwide. Here are a few ways stores are spreading the spirit on their campuses and beyond. REBRANDING THE STORE The UT Bookstore rebranded itself as the VolShop in 2009, when it was decided the operation had outgrown its old name. The VolShop continues to provide all the course materials Tennessee students need, but now includes a newly renovated main location, off-campus sites, and a new store in Memphis on the UT Health Science Center campus. There’s also a VolShop online store, official team shops, a new partnership for Nike Shops, and 20 sales locations in and around Neyland Stadium, including fully stocked trailers and a 30-by-40-ft. walk-in tent with full fixtures and display tables. The VolShop also operates four shops at Thompson-Boling Arena, has an agreement with New Era to provide a fully stocked kiosk for baseball games at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, and maintains a presence at every other UT sporting event. “We were trying to be forward-thinking when we rebranded,” Sims says. “It’s helped distinguish the store as we’ve moved and it’s made our marketing easier.” The athletics department earns a percentage of sales, and store profits go back to the university. The scope of the University of Tennessee and the size of the VolShop operation make it possible to offer fans more items at competitive prices, while also providing better financial returns for both athletics and the institution. “This makes a lot of sense because it increases our economy of scale and our buying power,” Sims says. “The university and athletics obviously want to take care of our great fans. Our main goal is keeping them all happy.” The Simon Fraser University Bookstore, Vancouver, BC, Canada, also jumped on the rebranding bandwagon with its SFU Spirit Store, a portion of the store designated for university apparel and gift items. “We realized the bookstore speaks to one side of our business, relating to course materials,” says Mikhail Dzuba, director. “We would never eliminate the SFU Bookstore name, so we decided to run sort of a dual identity for the other side of our business.” The store promotes the concept aggressively, using a social media contest to drive engagement. Campus groups and individual students eagerly compete for store gift cards by posting photos of their SFU spirit with the hashtag #SFUspirit—the university even adopted the hashtag for many of its promotional items. Sales increased by nearly 50% in the first two years of SFU Spirit Store operation. “I’d say part of it was ramping that up and giving it a profile,” Dzuba says. “Part of it was us pushing out the brand ‘Be proud and show us your SFU spirit’ and really connecting with that.” Cynthia Forrester, manager, University of St. Mary Spirit Shop, Leavenworth, KS, says the decision to rebrand was made for her store seven years ago, when the school shifted all textbook sales to an online provider. Happily, retooling the college store into a spirit shop has paid off. “I think our school has, without a doubt, one of the most spirited student bodies around,” she says. “There’s not a day on campus where I don’t see 80% of the students wearing some sort of University of St. Mary merchandise.” ATHLETICS PARTNERSHIP IS OPTIONAL While both the SFU and USM spirit shops work with their respective athletic departments, neither one pays that group a commission. The SFU store is the official supplier of university-licensed merchandise, while the athletics department is more interested in merchandise for its athletes. “We have a mutual understanding that we both have a joint interest in selling SFU merchandise,” Dzuba explains. “We don’t give them a commission and they don’t look at us as a threat. We work as closely together as we can.” Both stores also tweak university logos so they aren’t identical to the merchandise used and sold by athletics. “We try to buy at least a tee shirt for every sport so parents and girlfriends or boyfriends can come in and buy one,” Forrester says. “We try to make sure our designs are unique and different enough that it doesn’t look like the parents are wearing uniforms.” That the University Store, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, sells a lot of spirit gear is no surprise considering a run of national titles that includes six NCAA Division III football championships and crowns in volleyball, men’s basketball, baseball, and gymnastics. At the same time, the store doesn’t share profits with athletics. “We’re on our own,” says Director Terri Meinel, CCR. “They do allow us to sell at the stadium on game day, but that’s the only arrangement we really have with them. It’s a service we provide to those customers who may not come into the store, but will pick up a tee shirt or sweatshirt or whatever on the premises.” CMU Bookstore, Central Michigan University, Mount Pleasant, sold all the usual licensed products and even had small spaces in both the school’s football stadium and its basketball arena. When athletics came asking about a commission, Director Barry Waters agreed on the condition he was granted all the sales, including those that were going to a third-party vendor at football games. “You can sell it to athletics with the idea that the store can take all sorts of worries away, such as inventory controls,” he says. “That’s what’s been a great benefit to our athletic department. They know we’re going to be there and that we’re going to have all the latest styles and merchandise pertinent to the game going on.” A RACE FOR SPACE The VolShop went from an 8,000-sq.-ft. space to more than 14,000 sq. ft., just in the main store. The SFU Spirit Shop repurposed an area that had been used for technology goods and added a second distinctive sign to its entrance, while the USM Spirit Shop took over the area vacated by textbooks when course material sales moved online. Once Waters worked out his agreement with CMU’s athletics department, he began looking for ways to find more space for the store. He started with tents and uses a pair of trailers for selling spirit goods at CMU sporting events, but the partnership ultimately led to the Chippewas Varsity Shop, a permanent location inside the gates at Kelly/Shorts Stadium, and the Maroon & Gold, a shop inside the atrium of the CMU Event Center. “You have to partner with athletics because you have to have space to sell,” Waters says. “They have to be able to give you space and you want it to be in a high-traffic zone. That’s the key. “Once you determine your space, you figure out what’s going to be the best avenue for you,” he adds. “For some universities, the best avenue is an 8-ft. table with your basic cash drawer and it’s cash or checks only.” Infrastructure is also important. Having a great space with no access to electricity or data connections to run registers makes it nearly impossible to do business effectively. “Our lives are a whole lot easier if we can plug into a data connection,” Waters says. “I can take a cash register and go anywhere on campus. And if there’s a data plug, I can have that machine up and running with one phone call to my server.” Meinel sells spirit merchandise in a shed near the entrance of the UW-Whitewater football stadium. The space is small, which makes it hard to stock anything other than very basic items. Customers interested in more understand the main store is just a short walk away. “You’ve got to have the space,” Meinel says. “You have to have a variety and with our arrangement, we don’t. We can show the merchandise that we have. We can hang some things on the doors and whatnot, but shoppers like to come in and see all the options.” AT ANY AND ALL EVENTS Waters understood that his agreement with athletics meant more than just football game days. CMU Bookstore had to be willing to show up for almost every sports event, so he made sure to have the necessary trailers and tents to make that happen. “You have to think of it as more of a service,” he says. “I don’t think of this as making millions of dollars because we’re selling at athletic events. I think we’re showing how we support the university and athletics by being there and selling.” The partnership has led to CMU staff being at nearly every sporting event on campus. Athletics even works with the store when it’s planning renovations or new sports venues. “It’s all about being that campus representative, that campus ambassador,” Waters says. “People may see a student sitting in a trailer at a field-hockey game not selling a single thing all day, but they know the CMU Bookstore took time out of its operation to have someone over there to sell a field-hockey shirt if they wanted it.” Some stores have the wherewithal to take their show on the road. The VolShop travels across the state for alumni and planned a trip to Nashville for the Volunteers’ first football game of the season. “You want to start with your alumni and administration and try to figure out what they want,” Sims says. “There are so many options now, but you want to get everybody involved and build interaction with them. Over time, you grow that and it can turn into something special.” While selling at every game or setting up at out-of-town events sounds good, it’s not for every store. Staffing presents a challenge that can limit some stores to just the occasional event that draws a big crowd, such as homecoming, the annual game against a particular rival, or commencement. Selling spirit also requires the right product mix in the right amounts. Students are probably not in the market for those expensive name-brand polo shirts, while parents and alumni may not be tempted by low-cost tees or the trinkets that attract the younger crowd. “You’ve got to have a relevant product offering or customers aren’t even going to come in and peruse,” Dzuba says, “but as soon as you have things that are on-trend and hitting their wants and likes, they will not only come back over and over again, they will start to buy.” GETTING STARTED Since logo gear is a staple for all campus stores, creating a spirit shop shouldn’t be a reach. Students and alumni take pride in their school even when there are no sports teams to support. “I definitely say go for it, just for the branding opportunities that help the campus in general,” Sims says. “It means something because it helps fans associate with your school and it helps you engage with your alumni. You can’t put a value on wearing that Tennessee tee shirt around.” “I would encourage anyone to start small with a couple of classic designs,” Forrester says. “Start with tee shirts, sweatshirts, and maybe a coffee mug, and grow from there. It’s also important to work with vendors you trust and limit the number you deal with. A lot of times, the initiative for new product comes from the students. I don’t think we ever carried sweatpants before, but we had a lot of students coming in saying they really wanted them. We ordered sweatpants and sold them out.” Stores should look for partnerships with both vendors and other campus entities. The campus ticket office might be one potential partner, and conversations with even the largest vendors can be worth the effort. “Even though you’re not necessarily going to work with some of these companies, just seeing what they do and how they do it is valuable,” Sims notes. “They know how to make money or they wouldn’t be in business. It doesn’t matter the size or level you are on, you can pick and choose the best fit for your school.” If you view one of your store’s roles as being a brand ambassador for your school, a dedicated spirit space, whether a segment of your sales floor or a free-standing operation, makes perfect sense. Dan Angelo is assistant editor in the Publications Department at NACS.
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