SBJ/20031222/Marketing/Sponsorship

One writer, one Visa: A holiday e-tail adventure

On the weekend starting Dec. 5, just three weeks before Christmas, much of the East Coast was blasted by the season's first blizzard. Many malls hoping for huge numbers of holiday shoppers were closed by more than a foot of snow, which led to a rush of buyers going online. Weekend Web sales jumped 40 percent from the year-earlier period, according to Virginia-based research house comScore Networks. Sitting at home during the first major storm of the season and watching the snow continue to fall outside my window, I realized I wasn't venturing out to start buying my holiday gifts. Instead, I figured there was no better time to test the Web capabilities of some of the country's largest sports properties. So I huddled in my basement office with a cable modem and a Visa card as shelter from the storm.

Away we go ...

All the official major league sites had to be included, so it seemed appropriate initially to browse nflshop.com. Bob O'Keefe, NFL senior director of publishing and direct marketing, says awareness of the league's merchandise site among avid fans has increased from 30 percent to 55 percent over the past few seasons.

But I eschewed conventional wisdom and decided to begin my shopping spree at the starting line for so many Internet visitors — Google — which handles more than 200 million searches daily and attracts 73.5 million unique visitors a month.

NFL Shop is easy to navigate, but a slippers questions required human intervention.

NFL.com — plus NFL team sites — attracted 13.9 million users for its best-ever month, boasting some of the best sports traffic on the Web. So I'm surprised to find that when I type in both "NFL merchandise" and "NFL licensed merchandise," my search results page shows no sponsored link to the NFL's site. Amazon.com is the only sponsored link that I have ever heard of. Other than that, the sponsored section features the likes of tailgatetown.com and varsity.shack.com. I wonder how many sales the league loses this way?

But I find my way to nflshop.com, and on the opening splash page, I'm instantly intrigued by Memory Co.'s NFL "Olde World Santas" made from "cold-cast resin and hand-painted for exquisite detail." However, there are only 14 teams available. Maybe it's a supply-demand issue.

The site is simple to navigate, the database is quick and I can search by team or product category. I also appreciate that each time I punch up a new product selection, the site asks if I want to see another team's versions.

Those Russian nesting dolls are hot again — but they also are $100 for a set of 10. Hey, you've got to shell out the bucks for dolls "crafted in Russia from hand-turned linden." I don't know what "linden" is, but someone should tell this licensee that there are 11 players on an NFL team.

Something practical with a logo on it? Thanks, nfl.com!

Everyone I know has plenty of licensed sports apparel, so I'm perusing hard goods (although that two-pack of Philadelphia Eagles thongs from College Concepts for $19.99 deserves a look). Remembering a buddy in the Windy City, I search by team and stumble on a Bears tape measure from Innovative Concepts for $15 — it strikes me for the rare use of licensing on a utilitarian item. Who could resist? It is in the shopping cart.

The cold snow outside my window makes me long for warm clothes, but outerwear is too expensive and gloves, well — who is going to wear them after your team loses? I find what's described as "NFL Shearling Slippers" from licensee G III. Seems like an original present, but they come in small, medium or large. What does that mean in shoe sizes, and what are they made of?

My dictionary defines "shearling" as "the skin of a newly sheared sheep." Certainly these aren't made from natural fibers. I discover that nflshop.com has a live help line, but they must not want me to find it, because it is well hidden. I inquire about the sizing issue and am told instantly what sizes correspond. Good information — why isn't on the product page?

My question about the material stumps them and they ask me to e-mail the "product specialist." Two e-mails later, I get the answer — they are leather bottoms and polyester, "shearling polyester," I supposed. Still, I like the novelty of the product and charge up a pair at $32. With express (two- to three-day) shipping, the order comes to $70.11. Checkout is relatively simple, but the system (like most others) insists on getting my phone number before it will process. Wary of telemarketers, I make one up.

Search, click, purchase

Wal-Mart's site is the kind of functional, no-nonsense environment you'd expect.

However, I have to get to the second page before I find that walmart.com doesn't sell apparel. Without apparel, there's not much in the way of licensed goods, but I'm determined to include the country's biggest retailer, so I look at DVDs and order the movie "Bend It Like Beckham" for the kids. It totals $22.18, including tax and "standard shipping," which it describes as three to seven business days. Quite a range.

The store on nascar.com is vivid, colorful and quick. I know what will catch my 6-year-old's fancy and quickly find the die-cast cars, reeling slightly when I notice some of them sell for more than $90.

I see die-cast with the new paint schemes from the recent Disney-ISC-Daytona deal are on the site. Clearly marked is the fact they won't ship for six or seven weeks.

My son's affinity is still with the cars rather than the drivers or paint schemes, so I can look by price. Voila! I find a 1:24 model with a Muppet paint scheme for $7.99 and a 1:64 model with a Happy Holidays design for $4.47.

Press Box polo from nascar.com: $37.99.

Feeling a little light in licensed apparel, I browse the store, which is searchable by driver or product. I spy a Chase Authentics "NASCAR Racing Press Box" polo shirt for $37.99 that will work for my friend. I add it to my cart, and when I check out, my receipt indicates when my items will ship — all by the third business day for an extra charge of $15.98. Nice candor on their part. The total is $66.43. There's no information more vital to an e-shopper than "when is my order arriving." NASCAR.com's e-receipt is the only one of the leagues tested that includes precise shipping information on the receipt. Why doesn't every site include that?

I now want to see what a more seasoned direct-merchant can offer, so I click over to landsend.com, which is, for my money, the best-kept secret in apparel licensing. Through deals with MLB, the NHL and Collegiate Licensing Co., Lands' End has an expansive variety of both logos and product.

Clearly they've got the formula down, their goods aren't embroidered until they are ordered, so they can be sold with or without logos and without the risk of taking an inventory position on any particular team. The site also tells you exactly what the markup is.

The Yale fleece that I'm buying for my sister is clearly listed as a $35 vest, with a $10 markup for the licensing fee and embroidery. So, I'm paying almost 30 percent more so my sister can show she's an Eli.

The product selection is comprehensive for men, women and children, and the site's look, navigation and graphics are first rate. Online help is offered and easy to find. My only complaint about the site is that if you don't know Lands' End offers this "Classic Fan Collection," you may never find it online, as the promo box is near the bottom of the home page.

I receive the Lands' End catalog but have never received a piece of direct mail touting the "Classic Fan" offerings — which I find strange considering the number of licensed apparel catalogs I do receive. I test their mettle with next-business-day shipping for $14.95. With the monogramming, they state it will take three business days before the order is shipped. I'm impressed when it actually arrives in less than two business days.

For a sports licensing junkie, there's no better Web destination than eBay, whose selection and price range of licensed goods is unrivaled. There are 10,062 listings under "New York Yankees," starting with a Babe Ruth-autographed baseball for more than $3,000. I do a reverse price sort and find a pin that is an amalgam of the iconic "NY" Yankees logo, Santa and the words "Happy Holidays." Unique — and only $11, with shipping. The U.S. Postal Service gets it to me in a week.

Seeing the snow piling up outside, I consider the idea of an MLB snow cap for the off-season. Surfing on to the mlb.com store that day, the opening page was very cluttered for my taste. I begin searching for my cap and type in "ski cap." Nothing. "Ski hat." Nothing. No wonder MLB is switching from Digital River to GSI for fulfillment. I punch in "Hat." Finally, polar tech ski caps show up, but only for five teams and none of them interests me.

I'm gone, and head off to shopping.yahoo.com. A search for a Boston Red Sox ski hat instantly returns one from top MLB licensee New Era for only $12.99. I click on it and find myself now redirected to a site I've never heard of, enter24.com. Now I'm losing interest, so I order it quickly at the cost of $12.99 with shipping. As it turns out, this is the only item that did not arrive by press time on Dec. 18. Perhaps I should have known better when shipping was promised "ASAP," whatever that means.

From nhl.com, easy to find but slow to ship

Over to nhl.com, which navigates well and is the best destination for hockey fans looking for a comprehensive collection of merchandise. I bang in an order for a kids' Flyers sweatshirt — it's a father-son bonding thing. I decide to test regular shipping on this order.

The front-end of the nba.com store is attractive and familiar — it should be — it's powered by amazon.com, though fulfillment and shipping are provided by the same Foot Locker division that ships out a million packages a year for nfl.com. Navigating quickly, I grab a Celtics sweatshirt. I'm obligated to test the second-day shipping, but paying $18.98 to ship a $19.99 sweatshirt kind of reduces the value equation, n'est-ce pas? Nonetheless, the shipment arrives on the second business day.

It's still snowing. But I'm weary, and my shopping is done.

The waiting is the hardest part

NHL.com allows buyers to track merchandise without having to dig out customer numbers or order numbers, but the user-friendliness stops there.

After more than a week, I am concerned about my order from nhl.com. I return to the site and find that it's slightly easier to track orders here compared to many other merchandise sites. I can input my ZIP code and e-mail address as opposed to remembering a customer number or order number, a requirement by most sites that customers aren't likely to have close at hand.

Unfortunately, that is where the user-friendliness of the NHL's e-commerce, administered by FanBuzz, ends. While the site says I can click on order status any time to find out "where the order is currently (in packaging or transit) and item detail, shipped date, anticipated arrival date, (and) shipper tracking number," all I get is information that the item I ordered on Dec. 5 wasn't shipped until Dec. 11. There is no tracking number nor estimated time of delivery. I have to call to find out the package was sent via U.S. mail — not that this untraceable method was mentioned when I ordered. I ask the customer service rep why it took more than five days to ship my order. I get nothing but stony silence. Hmmm, wrong kind of Fan Buzz developing here.

While special delivery services can be pricey, the sites tested generally had their shipping acts together. Everything ordered for second-day delivery came in by deadline. Wal-Mart used regular mail and took seven business days, probably too long for Internet standards but still within the parameters of the promised ship date. Wal-Mart shipped the DVD in a padded envelope, along with three offers from Wal-Mart vendors — perhaps hoping to make enough on those deals to pay for shipping.

The report card

My verdict? From the last time I did this kind of test three years ago, shipping and fulfillment on these sites have made great strides. However, the sites are still not user-friendly enough. They are filled with complexities that serve the site operators but not the users. Live online help and traceable shipping on every piece should be considered a cost of doing business on the Web. If I'm buying online, I'm probably willing to pay more for those services. Another important consideration for the sports leagues is that their most loyal fans and best customers are the ones buying from their Web sites. These loyalists deserve the best treatment, but in too many cases they still aren't accommodated as well as an Amazon customer purchasing a single book.

The leagues might all be able to teach Lands' End a few marketing lessons, but Lands' End and the best direct marketers could teach many of them about exceeding customer expectations. If they all get bigger without getting better, it will just be another snow job.

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