SBJ/December 17 - 23, 2007/This Weeks News

Show this e-shopper a little love

Come along for the ride on SBJ’s traditional holiday shopping spree through sports cyberspace.

Two days after Black Friday, and one day before Cyber Monday, SportsBusiness Journal started its biennial online holiday shopping expedition to examine sports retailers and their performance during the busiest time of the year.

Overall, while we found most sites better looking, more functional and easier to navigate than in our first online foray six years ago, it’s with some regret we report that while sports properties’ e-commerce has come light years, it still trails some of the pioneers such as Amazon and Wal-Mart when it comes to overall customer satisfaction.

One of the challenges now is differentiating the sites of the nation’s top sports properties. GSI Commerce is close to cornering the market, it added fulfillment of the NBA e-tail store this summer, and now operates sites for MLB, NFL, NASCAR and the NHL. That should mean fairly even service across all those sites, but that was not always the case.

We started our buying exercise on Sunday, Nov. 25, stoked by an afternoon of NFL tubing. By 5 p.m., with highlights coming in from the early games, I get an e-mail showing 20 percent off tonight at NFLShop.com. Once there, I begin to see the development of two trends that become apparent on every sports shopping site this year: personalization and more holiday-themed merchandise than ever.

On NFLShop.com, you can customize everything from a $16.99 T-shirt to a $315 authentic jersey. While browsing, I’m intrigued by the team-logoed SC Sports Xmas tree skirts, though dissuaded by the $50 price and exasperated by the fact there’s no measurement for something that certainly hasno uniform size. The same licensee, SC Sports, also offers team-logoed tree ornaments ranging from $14 to $30. Guess the tree in the league office on Park Avenue would need to have all 32 ornaments, right? It’s difficult, but I resist the $40 SC Sports team-logoed 16-inch fiber-optic snowman. The neighbors might complain.

Jerseys were the original customized licensed sports item, and so I order a customized Dallas Cowboys replica home jersey, promised for delivery within three to five days; impressive, if true. While perusing, I see more interesting items — one featured is a Reebok Chicago Bears Brian Urlacher Super Bowl XLI replica white jersey for $49.97. On this chilly Sunday, the Bears are tied with the Broncos late in the fourth quarter and another loss would be their seventh — so no wonder it’s marked down. Even more deeply discounted is a Reebok Bears 2006 NFC Champions long sleeve locker-room T-shirt, cut to $1.97. Shipping will exceed the price.

I’m looking longingly at some logoed tailgate chairs, but wait until 7 p.m. when the 20 percent discount kicks in. I click on the chair, but am informed that it will ship in four to six weeks. Will anyone ordering online have that much patience? Let’s see how quickly the NFL can deliver a football. I order the Wilson Duke, with former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s facsimile signature.

The order is fairly easy to process, but it’s noteworthy that with all the millions Visa has spent on its NFL sponsorship over the years, branding on the site is almost invisible — it is less than the size of a postage stamp and not adjacent to the spot on the page where you plug in your payment. It’s not even the default payment mechanism.

By halftime of the “Sunday Night Football” Eagles-Patriots game, I’ve received an e-mail confirmation. Not until then am I told the football is on back-order. Hmm, I wouldn’t have ordered it if I’d known that. How long will I have to wait? The site tells me “Delivery dependent on shipping method.” A call gets me voice processing, with no better results. An e-mail the next morning says “item(s) will be shipped when it is in stock.” Wow. And the Pats’ opponents feel frustrated? A call to the number to order (not the customer service number) finally finds a human voice. After she pitches an NFL Extra Points Credit Card, I finally get the information. It’s Monday, Nov. 26, and she says the ball will ship Tuesday at the earliest; Friday at the latest. OK, I can live with that, but why couldn’t I have been told that via e-mail? Around two weeks later, it still hasn’t arrived, though e-mails assure me it has been back-ordered. The football order gets spiked.

Conversely, jerseys are clearly something the NFL and GSI have been specializing in long enough that they have that process down to a science. The customized Cowboys white classic jersey is promised to leave the warehouse in two to three days and ship in three to five. Five days later, it’s at my door — remarkable timing for any custom piece. Still, isn’t it ironic that the NFL online shop can’t get its act together when it comes to passing a football?


When landing on MLB.com, I immediately notice prominent branding for corporate sponsor DHL and a free shipping offer for purchases of $99 and above. The site is relatively uncluttered. With their second championship in four years, some Red Sox merchandise seems appropriate. With hopes of scoring an MLB jersey, I look at the customized offerings, but two to three weeks is just too long. Can an MLB jersey be that much more complex to letter?

Seeking some San Francisco Giants merchandise in the outlet section, I find a long sleeve/short sleeve T-shirt bundle reduced from $35 to $20, and throw it in the cart along with some Red Sox, er, socks, a pennant and then I total it up. Looking to test DHL, I pay $10 for second-day shipping, defined on the site as two to three business days. With the speed of a line drive back to the box, the package arrives in two days. I would like to have purchased a customized jersey in time for the holidays, but it was still a positive overall experience from GSI in terms of value and service.


When I go to NHL.com, I first want to see how they can service personalized jerseys. But I’m informed it will take seven to 10 business days, which will blow the story deadline. Ornaments seem like a better deal, and there’s a “personalized laser-etched ornament” for $20. There is a nice collection of Reebok apparel commemorating the New Year’s Day outdoor game in Buffalo, but none of it is available until Dec. 15, and today is Nov. 30. Argh!

Crocs has signed a license with nearly every sports property of note this year, so I settle for a pair of Buffalo Sabres-logoed Crocs, the NHL’s top-selling team last season. I dare anyone to wear those to the Jan. 1 game. After checkout, there’s a bombardment of pop-ups, including a coupon selling discount magazine subscriptions. Very cheesy. With third-day delivery for $10, the Crocs, promised in a week at minimum, arrive in six days. The customized ornament is promised within 10 business days at the outside, and takes 10 days.


Looking for something outside the growing influence of GSI, I head over to Niketown.com, which has a gift-finding feature on its opening page. I’m prompted to answer a few questions, but then the site freezes. After three tries, it seems hopeless. Four hours later, I return, only to get the same results. It could be a problem with Vista or Firefox browsers, both of which I was using, but no customer is going to stick around long enough to find out.


It’s time to find a real retailer. Dick’s Sporting Goods has become the leading marketer among sports specialty retailers over the past few years, taking that honor from Foot Locker. The site seems familiar — of course — it’s another one operated by GSI, which also manages e-commerce for sporting goods retailers The Sports Authority and Modell’s. It’s far easier to run through than Nike’s. A swooshed T-shirt is easy to find, and perhaps in retribution, I throw in a top from competitor Under Armour. While the order is relatively small, I pay $17.50 for overnight shipping. The package arrives before 10 a.m. the next day. Even before that, I’ve been sent an e-mail with a tracking link. That was easy.


Inspired by a traditional retailer’s e-commerce prowess, I set up a race between Wal-Mart, the ultimate brick-and-mortar store, and e-tail pioneer Amazon. Both of those sites are the brightest and easiest to navigate among the ones visited for this story. So what’s a widely available licensed sports product? How about a copy of EA’s Madden NFL 08? Wal-Mart comes in 17 cents cheaper then Amazon at $59.82. As always, Amazon gives free shipping for any purchase over $25. Employing that method, the game is supposed to arrive Dec. 5; it arrives Dec. 1 by U.S. Postal Service. Wal-Mart charges a very reasonable $1.97 for shipping, and unlike all the league sites, which offer separate time windows for clearing the warehouse and shipping times, Walmart.com states flatly when to expect delivery. The game from Walmart.com is two days late, having taken from Nov. 27, when the order was placed, to Dec. 8. A tracking check on USPS.com shows it was mailed in Carol Stream, Ill., on Nov. 28. Hmm, that was a slow mail truck. Because of that, Amazon wins the Madden race, even with free shipping. Still, despite being two days late, I give Walmart.com points for price, selection and transparency.


Now I’m looking to put Amazon to a stiffer test. Can it do something difficult — like keep a good supply of championship apparel in stock, weeks after the title was won? Most of the Red Sox merchandise is sold out, but Majestic’s “official parade shirt” is not. It’s annoying that at $24.99, the item is missing the $25 free delivery minimum by the slimmest of margins. However, Amazon offers a range of delivery from Dec. 3 to Dec. 6, and the shirt arrives Dec. 3.


While the NBA store also is administered by GSI, it does have a somewhat different look and feel. I want to test out its jersey acumen. Navigating the site, it’s not quite as cheery as Amazon and Wal-Mart, and the virtual aisles aren’t as wide. With only a loss or two, the Celtics are the surprise of the new season and as anyone in licensing knows, there’s no demand like pent-up demand. Sure enough, there’s not a lot of product. The Celtics replica home jersey is only available in XL. Are the Knicks jerseys marked down yet? No, so I’ll stick with the C’s. Personalized with a name, the replica is $60 with a shipping upgrade to standard ground. During checkout, only about a quarter of the page shows up on the PC screen. It’s a problem with the Mozilla browser, so a switch to Internet Explorer 7.0 and checkout at NBA.com runs smooth. The jersey is promised in five to seven business days, and it arrives faithfully in five days.


Time to test drive a team site, and NASCAR seems like a natural. Surprisingly, two-time Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson’s site is not easy to find. There are a lot of fan sites, but no merchandise. Finally, I mouse over to the Hendrick Motorsports team site. While there’s none of the personalization so apparent elsewhere, there is a plethora of championship items, including a replica championship car hood for $80. However, only by clicking on each separate item can you find out — one at a time — that almost every item is sold out. For a sport that prides itself on being fan friendly, this is not. There’s a WinCraft sign that would look nice in any NASCAR fan’s driveway — reserved parking for the back-to-back champion No. 48 Lowe’s car. The site tells me it is 11-by-17, but it would have been nice to know what it is made of. Many clicks later, there’s one style of a championship T-shirt still available. Checking out is simple; I opt for two-day FedEx delivery, but the site and a subsequent e-mail doesn’t tell me when I’m getting my order. “If the item you ordered is in stock and you did not ask for express delivery, please allow 5-7 business days for delivery.” How impersonal. Didn’t I already opt for two-day delivery? Why wasn’t that recognized? Not counting the day it was ordered, Hendrick Motorsports delivers in two business days.

Since our first efforts on the e-commerce trail, selection and shipping at sports properties’ sites has improved exponentially. The storefronts are still too cluttered, relative to those from heavyweights Wal-Mart and Amazon. With all the business being written in customized offerings, it’s striking that there is isn’t much customization in terms of customer care. Too many form e-mails, which easily could be personalized, and too many vague delivery promises, are going to send consumers back to the brick-and-mortar experiences.

If an item is late or back-ordered, wouldn’t a small discount be a great way to bind that customer for life? Even after the order, how hard are thank-you notes? Only Dick’s Sporting Goods had the touch to send a personal e-mail thank-you note for shopping on their site.

Companies such as GSI have helped immeasurably as retailers and properties have set up storefronts. Now that they’ve got those processes set up, it’s time for a better focus on the customer experience. There’s too much licensed sports product available at too many competitors for them not to take better care of their fans and customers.

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