Dick's Sporting Goods tests in-store NHL-branded shops

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National Hockey League officials were walking through the NHL's flagship store in Manhattan awhile back with Joe Schmidt, president and chief operating officer of Findlay-based Dick's Sporting Goods, and talking about how that shop was a great way to connect with fans as well as presenting a different kind of merchandise.

But, Dan Near, the league's director of consumer products licensing, said they didn't see a way to re-create that experience elsewhere. "We're not retail operators. We can't bring this national," he recalls saying. "We're not equipped to do it."

Mr. Schmidt pointed out that Dick's had some experience in retail and would like to give it a shot.

A flurry of activity ensued and, just before Thanksgiving, three Dick's stores -- including one in Cranberry, one near Chicago and one in West Nyack, N.Y. -- launched in-store departments meant to offer a taste of that flagship NHL experience.

The idea of stores within stores is a signature strategy for Dick's, which has such setups for Nike and Under Armour, but the retailer with hundreds of locations around the country hadn't previously worked with one of the professional sports leagues on the concept.

NHL licensed merchandise sales hit $500 million in 2012 in the U.S., according to Matt Powell, a Scarborough, Maine-based analyst with SportsOneSource, a company that tracks the sporting goods industry.

The new 400-square-foot NHL shops are not likely to host a live television show for the league anytime soon -- something the 6,000-square-foot location in New York does -- but they are stocked with premium lines of goods that might not be found in most Dick's stores or other retail outlets that carry the league's licensed lines.

Brands carried in the shops include Reebock, '47 Brand and Old Time Hockey, among others. Mr. Near said the shops offer options beyond the traditional jerseys and hats, including products that carry a higher price tag. The merchandise options, he said, might help the guy who'd like to show his colors at work but is looking for something a bit dressier than a jersey. "Our fans are as sophisticated as anybody's," Mr. Near said.

The three markets chosen to participate in the test share some qualifications, including teams participating in a series of outdoors games being played in 2014. The shops will be stocked with official licensed merchandise for those games.

Dick's stores involved in the experiment also all happen to be two-level locations that had room for the NHL shops, said Dave Natale, director of sports and events for the retailer. "All three are really strong markets for us," he said.

The concept could potentially be applied to other sports leagues. Dick's has long had sponsorships with sporting events and leagues, but it seems to be tapping those relationships for more merchandising opportunities lately. Earlier this year it announced an agreement to serve as exclusive online merchandise seller for ESPN.com.

The next few weeks -- the important holiday shopping season -- will give officials at both Dick's and the NHL a chance to evaluate how well the shops are working and where to go next. Mr. Near noted Dick's buyers would need to start placing orders early next year for goods to sell during the 2014-15 hockey season, so decisions on how many of the shops to have open by fall could be made soon.

"I don't think we'd be satisfied if this ended with three," Mr. Near said, adding, "I think there are a number of markets that are ripe to have at least one."

Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.

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