Revamped merchandise model will see more souvenir trailers at tracks

Sports retail company Fanatics will ditch its big superstore-like tent for many events and plans to start using merchandise haulers to sell driver shirts, hats and other souvenirs in fan activity areas outside of racetracks while increasing the number of mini-stores inside the spectator gates at upcoming NASCAR races.

Fanatics took over the NASCAR at-track retail business in 2015 and scrapped the merchandise haulers in favor of the tent, which it debuted in August 2015 and has continued to adjust in size and format over the last two years. The idea was to provide a better shopping experience where people could casually look through merchandise and feel the material of products in a climate-controlled atmosphere.

It has been a tough sale to old-school fans, who enjoyed the more personable experience of going to the hauler selling the products of their favorite driver, even if they could see the products only in a case or pinned to the hauler wall. While track operating company International Speedway Corp. said sales per capita were up 6 percent in 2016 using the superstore model, Fanatics Retail President Ross Tannenbaum said the tent sat empty during the races and the company needed to create a model that increased sales inside the gates.

"If all we were doing was dumping the tent to go to haulers, I know we'd be taking a step backwards ... and we would probably see [our numbers] drop because the tent shopping experience is a better shopping experience," Tannenbaum said in a phone interview Tuesday. "There are still people out there who go, 'We want the haulers back.' You're going to find most of them won't say it's because they didn't like the [shopping] experience, they liked it because of the nostalgia and they liked seeing Jeff Gordon's big picture on the truck, which is really cool-looking.

"What we're trying to do is we have a chance at seeing a much bigger increase of per capita [sales] if we can reach more of the fans more consistently throughout the entire race."

To do that, Tannenbaum said the company will use the merchandise haulers outside the gates and then have multiple shopping areas inside the gates, whether that's in the form of small tents, kiosks or areas that have been built or will be built underneath or just outside the grandstands. At select races, a superstore-type tent still could be used as well.

In the race April 30 at Richmond, Tannenbaum said that only 40 percent of the fans entered in the area close to the superstore and two-thirds of the fans who didn't enter in that area never made it over to the tent location. He said many people he talked to didn't even know the superstore existed. During the Daytona 500, where the track has stores built into the grandstand area that debuted in 2016, sales were up 7-9 percent inside the track but were down outside the track.

"We've got all this money and all this product invested [in the tent] and it's sitting outside the gates where there is nobody coming [while the race is happening]," Tannenbaum said. "All those people are inside and at some point walking around or doing something and there's a very poor product offering.

"To have the best shopping experience, our goal would be to have a really strong offering of product out front like we have today but do a better job of having destination shopping inside the track."

When Fanatics first took over the NASCAR at-track deal, it bought 10 of the haulers that teams had used and there was some expectation from teams that those would continue to sell team merchandise. But the haulers mostly were used as outposts to sell track- and race-related merchandise instead of team and driver items; the driver product was primarily limited to the tent area.

Because fans tend to shop in the 90 minutes prior to the start of the race, the tents -- which had separate pods for teams and highly popular drivers -- still were crowded inside the pods even though the checkout line moved steadily, Tannenbaum said. The idea with the new system, Tannenbaum said, is for those who don't want to stand in line outside to purchase items from the haulers; they will be able to find that driver merchandise now at the mini-stores that will be set up inside the ticket gates behind or underneath the grandstands.

"[The haulers] happen to be a good tool for retail, our perspective was, though, it shouldn't be the primary tool," Tannenbaum said.

"That is what we really tried to change in the old NASCAR model, which was put 20 haulers on the road. ... The reality is having a hybrid of having the haulers as part of the process but still creating more destination retail is the best way to do this."