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Volume 20 No. 41
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The big shop: This time, it’s personalized

In our holiday test of online retailers, we want a name on it and we want it fast

Cyber Monday 2011. Each one of these seems to be pronounced the “largest one ever.”

Still, even beyond the ability of the general media to force-feed a story and retailers’ reflexive need to understate even their best sales days, there seems agreement that things are good.

When the estimates emerge, no matter whose numbers you believe and how many grains of salt you take them with, it was a smash.

ComScore says Cyber Monday sales were up 22 percent to $1.25 billion.

The Cowboys broke off their licensing and merchandising from the NFL some years.
The National Retail Federation has Cyber Monday up “only” 18 percent to $1.1 billion. So while there are still 9 million Americans unemployed, there are also those who are happily spending.

There’s also the other side of Cyber Monday, as evidenced by the amenable woman who answered the Dallas Cowboys’ Pro Shop customer service line when I called to ask where the personalized Cowboys jersey was that I’d ordered 15 days earlier. “Oh, that definitely shoulda been shipped by now,’” she said, in a Texas twang so sweet it almost made me forget about the 14 times I had to listen to play-by-play of a Cowboys game-winning field goal while on hold. “We had so many orders on Cyber Monday, most of them didn’t get processed until that Thursday.”

Welcome to SportsBusiness Journal’s biennial voyage across the world of sports e-commerce.

In the decade of ordering sports merchandise online and writing about the experience, we’ve heard almost everything — from a request by Nike that we reship a misaddressed package to it, to the insistence of a Wal-Mart customer service rep that they decide which day of the year it is — not the calendar. However, “business is so good, your order is delayed,” was a refrain we weren’t prepared for, refreshing though it is.

The warehouse floor at Fanatics in Jacksonville has been humming this holiday season.
As in prior years, we ordered licensed sports products from league sites and a smattering of others. We didn’t register as any kind of preferred customer, assuming that’s the way most consumers would shop.

Over the years, one thing has become clear. It started out being difficult to shop league sites without testing the mettle of GSI Commerce again and again. Now that they have merged with, a Jacksonville e-commerce provider, it’s even more impossible. Fanatics, formerly, operates 200 e-commerce sites, including all the pro leagues, the U.S. Olympic Committee, 14 college conferences and 20-plus colleges, including Ohio State and Alabama. They also handle media properties, including Fox Sports, CBS Sports, ESPN and Yahoo! Sports. On its busiest days this holiday season, Fanatics was shipping out of its largest warehouses at the incredible rate of six packages a second.

League sites appear to have this customization thing down, good news for this Cyber Monday shopper.
So on this Cyber Monday they are going to get the most of my Visa card. This year’s shopping soiree is going to be largely based on personalization. The more licensing types tout women’s products as the next big growth opportunity in sports licensing, the more I believe that personalization/customization is the bigger opportunity. Look on any site and there’s a remarkable amount of both apparel and non-apparel licensed merchandise that can be ordered with your choice of names, colors and designs. With a list of names and matching team affinities, I’m out to investigate what has clearly become more than a niche business.

“Both for fans and retailers, customization has become a driving factor and a growing force whether you are talking apparel or hard goods,” said Jim Haskins, NHL group vice president of consumer products licensing.

“It’s allowed retailers to do orders as small as a few pieces and fans to feed their love of sports with something that is unique. So customization has driven a lot of growth — and it hasn’t stopped yet.”

Buying the right key words on Google has also become very important. While it seems to have changed by December, on Cyber Monday, “buy NFL jersey” and “buy NFL jerseys” yield far different results, with various companies appearing. But by press time, that had changed and the results using both terms were similar.


The first place to visit was Fanatics’ site, where a clock counts down the seconds until the “Cyber Monday” sale ends. Hmmm, the biggest discount I see is a whopping $80 bucks off of Baseline’s $400 NFL bunk bed, but with $165 for shipping? So I move on. Recalling the irony a few years back when the NFL’s site had problems shipping a football before Christmas, I throw one of those in the cart. The ball is supposed to ship in two business days, and there is nice branding from league sponsors Visa and FedEx on the checkout page.

Personalized Bears hoodie from The results are good.
Back to the search for personalized objects, which even includes highball glasses. But at $21 each, that’s too pricey. A customized hoodie for a Bears fan is next. The choices for front, sleeves and back logos even include the pink breast cancer ribbon. I settle for a Bears logo on the front and sleeve and a name and number on the back.

Customization is easy, though it would have been nice to have a choice other than block letters. However, I’m cheered by the 20 percent Cyber Monday discount — a neat $29 bucks. Checkout is easy and I’m told my merchandise will arrive between Dec. 2 and Dec. 7. After payment, I am served an ad for an SI subscription. Isn’t the league now publishing its own magazine? The results are good: The hoodie arrives Dec. 5 and the ball even sooner.

Recalling that the Dallas Cowboys broke off their own licensing and merchandising operation from the NFL’s some years back, I am eager to see whether there is any difference between Fanatics’ offerings and those of the Cowboys. The team site has a lot happening; before I can digest a pitch for gift cards, co-branded Marvel T-shirts are splashed across the screen. Ordering a customized jersey is easy, and UPS shipping at $4.99 is reasonable, but unlike any of the Fanatics sites, there’s no immediate and clear indication of how long the order will take when it shows “See product page for more information.” Nothing. I click on a shipping tab and it says two to three weeks for customized on an order placed Nov. 28. This is gonna be close.

Personalized Blackhawks jersey from An impressive arrival time.

The day after — on “Cyber Tuesday” (some sites have taken to calling it “Cyber Week”) — it appears there are no customizable Kentucky basketball jerseys left in America. Amazon: No. No. UK’s online shop: No. None of the top 10 sites indexed by a Google search have any.

I could buy a customized Kentucky CANINE jersey for $34 from wins me over with some contextual advertising. Next to the jersey I cannot have, it shows a 27-by-37-inch Kentucky banner that can be personalized. It’s available and would likely get more use from the woman I am buying it for than a jersey. It costs $40 with shipping and discount, but I am warned it will take 10 to 15 business days. Ten days later, I click on an email from Fansedge telling me I can “quickly track the status of the order” by hitting a link. I click and get a product description — but nothing about when I will get it. Going old school, I call the toll-free number and I’m told by a helpful man that I may want to pay for expedited shipping. I try to have faith.

One of the best logos in sports is the Chicago Blackhawks’ colorful Indian crest, and that takes me to, a site that is colorful. Immediately, an NHL-logoed toggle coat falls into the “never-seen-a-logo-on that-before” category. Now that I have the GSI interface down, this is easy. So, it’s $125 for the jersey, but $55 to customize? That’s steep, but I go ahead. I am told plainly to expect delivery between Dec. 9 and Dec. 16. It arrives Dec. 9 — impressive.

HOOPS HEAVEN is offering a 25 percent “Cyber Monday” discount. Curiously, unlike the other Fanatics sites, which automatically offer a discount, you must enter a code at checkout. At the top of the price list on this site are Tiffany-style team-logoed lamps for $529. As I search, I get hungry, and see a $40 logoed tin of 54 bite-size chocolate cookies, which comes out to 74 cents a bite!

Personalized Cavaliers jersey from Maybe the best value of the lot, and delivered on time.
Nike and the NBA were pioneers in offering a range of jersey prices and still today they have a nice range from master licensee Adidas: $300 for the authentic; the Swingman for $90 and the replica for $55 — and all can be customized.

You can judge a team’s success by how many different jerseys are sold bearing its name plate. In the replica category alone, there are an astounding 22 Los Angeles Lakers jerseys offered for sale — and that’s before customization. The Pistons have only four. I throw in a personalized Cavaliers jersey — with the “Cyber Monday” discount, this may be the best value of the lot. Delivery is promised for a week to 10 days and it arrives eight days later — wow, Fanatics has customization down.

MLB’s “Cyber Monday” offer is “Buy one, 50% off the second.” A problem for someone seeking a single customized item, but then it comes to me — I work with someone with twin boys! A site search for a youth customized jersey turns up nothing, but a call to a service rep finds a pair of Majestic Mets youth replica jerseys with a substantial discount. VF’s Majestic has always outperformed, once shipping me a personalized jersey in three days. So I am only a little surprised when the jerseys, said to be delivered by Dec. 13, arrive a week early. However, some negative points and a razz from the green lobby: same order, same day, shipped in separate packages.’s site showcases MLB cap maker New Era’s success as a longtime league rights holder. Witness 100 colors of fitted 59Fifty Yankees caps, including brown and “Cardinal Red.” Unless you live in St. Louis, that’s just cruel.

Lids’ customization capabilities are easily the best we encountered. MLB caps can be customized in an endless array of colors and fonts. The site warns that the custom production deadline is very tight, but also advises that for an additional $10.50, it can expedite production. That’s an easy decision and probably a decent profit center — this whole process seems likes a model everyone in the business should adopt. The cap is promised by Dec. 13 and arrives that day. I am pleased enough to go back to try to make another custom order two weeks before Christmas, but can’t find the option. Through customer service instant messaging, I am told that Lids, like the Cowboys, is another victim of the buoyant holiday shopping season.

“Our [customized] business was blowing out so much we had to shut it off the first week of December,” said Steve Wentzell, director of e-commerce for Lids. “Customization is between 5 percent and 10 percent of our e-commerce sales, and we’ll be expanding that with more apparel.”


In delivering games, Kmart won the race by beating its promised delivery date by nearly a week.
A race is one of the oldest spectator sports, so that’s what will finish off this exercise.

Let’s ask some of the biggest retailers to ship something simple: an EA “Madden NFL” game. Wal-Mart’s site is always bright and easily navigated. Their price of $49.96 for the game is nicely complemented by the $1.96 shipping charge. So, Dec. 7 is the promised delivery date, and I receive an email Nov. 30 telling me it has shipped. Unfortunately, it does not arrive until 13 days later! I can’t believe I paid even $1.96 for shipping.’s search function is not wonderful and you have to work too hard to find prices. They are sold out of Madden, so let’s see how quickly they can get Activision’s “NASCAR The Game 2011” around the track.

Free shipping, a promise of Dec. 7 delivery — and it crosses the finish line on that day.

Kmart is not a store or site I frequent, but after is sold out of the Madden game, that’s the next stop. Kmart’s $59.99 price tag is an affront to online shopping, but it is in stock, so for that plus a $4.99 shipping charge, there is a promised delivery between Dec. 6 and Dec. 8. It wins the big-box retail race, hitting the doorstep three days after it’s ordered and nearly a full week before promised delivery.

Negative green points for shipping in a box big enough to fit five games.

So, on to individual athlete sites to see how they are doing. I chose Derek Jeter, the man who moves more merchandise than any other MLB player.

The voice of Bob Sheppard announcing Jeter’s name greets visitors, but that’s not the only thing that’s familiar.

Here’s the dirt: This Fenway Park memento from Steiner Sports arrived in three days.
Collectible pioneer Steiner Sports has 38 pages of Jeter items, ranging from a $20,000 signed, game-worn jersey to a $5 photo of Jeter diving into the stands after a foul ball. Nothing strikes me, so on to investigating Steiner’s inventory when up comes authenticated dirt. There are 46 pages of items containing game-used terra firma. Jeter’s game used cleat, packaged with some Yankee Stadium dirt for a grand? The site wants my email address in exchange for a 25 percent discount, so that’s an easy trade and I grab a Fenway Park dirt collage. Steiner Sports in New Rochelle is 20 minutes away, so how long can this take? The answer: three days.


As one might expect, every vendor we tested has advanced their capabilities since the last time we undertook this exercise. A few conclusions: As the market leader, it should be no surprise that Fanatics has its act together. However, even for an e-commerce mentality that says the less paper, the better, we’re surprised that almost no one markets “inside” the box anymore. Are we so accustomed to virtual shipping that the value of an enclosed coupon or catalog has vanished?

With the exception of Lids, packaging was utilitarian, bordering on ugly. There’s an opportunity to step it up there. And isn’t that something customers have a right to expect when buying pricier customized goods? Emails after the order are now epidemic, but tracking still isn’t as simple as it should be, though the quality of customer agents responding to phone appears to have improved exponentially. As cyber sales continue to expand, we can only hope that trend ports over to the virtual side.

Looking back

Check your past issues of SportsBusiness Journal for Terry Lefton's e-commerce adventures

2009 holiday shopping: The power of E
Dec. 21-27, 2009

Show this e-shopper a little love
Dec. 17-23, 2007

The sites before Christmas

Dec. 19-25, 2005

One writer, one Visa: A holiday e-tail adventure
Dec. 22-28, 2003