First Person / A market for Pittsburgh goods waiting for a taker
If you have an ounce of marketing savvy, I have a can’t-miss proposition for you
August 23, 2014 12:00 AM
By Dan Kaczmarski
If you have an ounce of marketing savvy, I have a can’t-miss proposition for you. I know it’s a sure thing because even I turned a profit on it and my sales acumen is the size of a peanut. Better still, you’ll be providing a public service while making money.
For those who’ve never resided outside Western Pennsylvania, it’s hard to appreciate how strongly transplanted Yinzers yearn for things Pittsburgh. This is certainly true around Washington, D.C.
I was raised in Brookline, but an anemic local market for English majors led my wife and me to three decades of work in Maryland near the nation’s capital, until our recent retirement and return to Pittsburgh.
Although physiologists say red is the most stimulating color, for those of us from Western Pennsylvania it’s black and gold. In Maryland, I was drawn magnet-like to cars with Steelers fuzzy dice or Bucs or Pens caps in the window. It was refreshing and comforting to know other members of the diaspora were in the area.
Surrounded by Ravens, Redskins, Nationals and Orioles fans, we sought ’Burgh connections where possible. On the Beltway, we’d exchange honks with other cars sporting Steelers decals. Meeting someone in the supermarket wearing Pittsburgh gear could trigger a 15-minute riff on Forbes Field or the Kennywood Jack Rabbit.
Chats with former Pittsburghers followed a familiar shared script: “Hated to leave but no jobs back home … glad to be employed … given the chance I’d move back in a heartbeat.” Often the conversation ended with: “Too bad you can’t get Pittsburgh stuff down here.”
Because my parents lived in Brookline, I had reason to return home periodically. Whenever back, I’d luxuriate being among people who cared about the right things, as I sat next to Dad on the sofa and zoned in on meaningless Steelers preseason games.
We often carried back to Maryland items requested by other transplants — Iron City, greasy packets of chipped-chopped ham, Terrible Towels, sports photos.
It puzzled me why more Pittsburgh merchandise wasn’t available around D.C. An Internet search found at least 25 Steelers bars in the area but no stores dedicated to things Pittsburgh. I was sure someone was missing a money-making opportunity.
So several years ago, ignoring high school vocational advice cautioning I had next-to-zero sales aptitude, I (and my long-suffering wife) set out to prove a point and make a bit of the ’Burgh available to fellow emigrants.
Each time we traveled back to Pennsylvania, we bought at retail and returned to Maryland with items I guessed ex-Western Pennsylvanians around D.C. might enjoy, hoping they’d be willing to shell out a couple of bucks more than we paid. We supplemented these with Pittsburgh-related sweatshirts and Ts from secondhand shops.
Soon, we found it difficult to navigate our basement, crammed as it was with clothing racks, boxes of sports caps, bins of photos, license plate frames, car flags, Pittsburgh Extreme confetti cannons and sundry other memorabilia. When our kids threatened an intervention, we knew it was time to find buyers.
I’m forever grateful to Chip, owner of a Steelers bar in Maryland, who OK’d our putting a couple of tables and racks outside his establishment on game days.
We were an instant hit. His patrons called us a mini-Strip District. We peddled our wares there for three seasons. What amazed me was we continued making sales to essentially the same smallish pool of people. We could have done even better by moving to another Steelers bar, but Chip’s patrons had become our friends and we felt disloyal leaving.
Even with the smallest of markups, we more than recouped our costs, including inventory, display tables and clothes racks. Our profit would have been greater if I hadn’t made unnecessary expenditures such as yard signs and tech assistance for a blog supporting our endeavor. Plus, it took us a while to learn what not to buy (let’s just say we have enough Super Bowl programs and Pitt sweatshirts to keep us warm and in reading material for many a winter).
Based on requests, the one item that would have sold easily that we lacked — due to cost and variability of sizes and names — was Steelers game jerseys. By far, the merchandise eliciting the most smiles and reminiscences were framed photos of Pittsburgh sports icons past and present.
Near the end of our final season at the bar, we posted a “Moving back to Pittsburgh” sign for a clearance sale. Chip’s patrons were the only people we knew in Maryland not perplexed by our decision to move north. They shook our hands and said, “Congratulations. Can you take me with you?”
We consider our endeavor a success — we lost no money, had fun searching for inventory and seemed to spread some cheer. So if you have a talent for marketing and doing things right — such as buying wholesale — I say go for it. How many other times will customers thank you for allowing them to buy your product?
Dan Kaczmarski, a retired analyst for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is living back in Brookline (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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