College sports fans are notoriously passionate and full of pride, and fans at the University of Washington (UW) are no exception. At UW, Husky fans are known for their extraordinarily vocal support of their teams. In fact, Husky Stadium holds the record for highest decibel reading in the history of college football at 133.6 decibels—the equivalent of a jet taking off. Inspired by their fans’ enthusiasm, UW Athletics strives to deliver an exciting, unrivaled experience to match.
In July 2018, UW launched a new partnership with Barnes & Noble College to operate its Husky Team Store, athletic venues and e-commerce site. Barnes & Noble College has been successfully running campus bookstores and e-commerce sites for over 750 schools across the nation, and in 2016, began offering athletics-focused websites to its existing partners. However, working with UW represents a major first: the company’s first athletics-only partnership. It’s an opportunity to work with a historic institution and athletic powerhouse with a complete focus on delivering a powerful, seamless fan experience—online and in store.
In early 2018, with vendor contracts expiring, UW had an opening to re-examine operations for their athletics e-commerce site and on-campus retail. The school had a clear idea of what they needed in a potential new partner.
“In everything we do, we want active and engaged partners who have a legitimate stake in working with us to achieve both organizations’ goals and objectives,” says Brian Bowsher, Chief Marketing Officer for UW Athletics. “Generally speaking, there are companies out there where you’re one of however many dozen items in their portfolio. You sign up for products or services, and you get what you get, whether great or mediocre. What was evident about Barnes & Noble College from the start was that they would be hugely invested in ensuring we, as a department, would be satisfied with their services. And, even more importantly, we were confident that they would deliver a fantastic experience to our customers—fans, students, alumni and community.”
For Barnes & Noble College, the partnership offered an exciting new challenge, but the fundamentals of building strong relationships would be the same.
“We seek out partnerships that allow us to be more than vendors, and from the start, we could see that UW shared our vision and philosophy. As our first athletics-only partner, that was incredibly important to our shared success and go-forward strategy,” says Russell Markman, Vice President, Campus Relations for Barnes & Noble College. “When we begin working with a school, we become members of the team and a part of campus, and UW has welcomed and fostered that integration. We were able to begin engaging with the community, forming relationships and collaborating immediately to get our partnership off to a strong start.”
Providing a targeted, consistent experience for athletic fans where they can find exactly the school spirit merchandise they want—and only that merchandise—helps fans stay fired up and coming back for more. One of UW’s first priorities was to improve that experience in terms of branding and merchandising, both in store and online.
“It takes a nimble and capable company to manage both the online and brick-and-mortar retail businesses—then add to that the complications and challenges of running retail at a football game with 70,000 people in attendance,” says Bowsher.
“We’d seen what Barnes & Noble College has done with some of their bookstores across the country, and it seemed like an area where they excelled. It’s certainly borne out so far, as we’ve really revitalized our retail spaces,” he adds. “Our brand is front and center, the overall look and presentation in the stadium stores are noticeably improved, and the space is packed wall-to-wall with a deeper selection of products than we’ve ever had before.”
This expanded product inventory is now centralized, with the on-campus Husky Team Store also serving as the online fulfillment center. Fans can shop the same selection of merchandise in store and online, and no matter where they make their purchase, they can return or exchange in store. It’s an added layer of convenience that supports the consistent, seamless customer service fans expect.
Raising the fan experience to the next level also requires constantly refreshing the product assortment and marketing tactics to keep fans engaged. UW and Barnes & Noble College are working together closely to ensure all merchandise and activities are tailored to Husky fans and the UW community.
“With the Barnes & Noble College team, there’s not just a willingness for collaboration, there’s enthusiasm, and that’s pretty unique,” says Bowsher. “Our store manager, Jesse Nelson, comes to our marketing meetings to stay on top of what’s going on and chime in where relevant. We also meet weekly, one-on-one, to talk about everything from marketing and operations to new product ideas.”
The team has more than 20 customized promotions and marketing events scheduled to generate energy and excitement for fans. Bowsher is particularly excited about the throwback hat series for football season. At each home game, the Husky Team Store will feature a new hat with different throwback logos from UW’s history.
“Co-programming like this helps us deepen the fan experience at games and throughout the year,” he says. “It’s complex to get the stars aligned and create a custom product line that’s new, unique and exactly what Husky fans are looking for—but we can make it happen together.”
That successful collaboration begins with being a good listener. “We start listening way before we start acting. You have to know where you are to decide where you want to go,” says Lori Schmit, Barnes & Noble College’s Regional Manager for UW. “Strong communication is at the heart of everything we do, from our relationships with partners like UW to our internal teams. As a company, we work together closely across departments and areas of expertise. For example, we have a weekly conference call with our UW store manager and our corporate product team. We review inventory, graphics, what we need to reorder, what’s working, what’s not working and what we’re hearing from customers. We have all the right people in place to take what we learn locally, communicate it up the right channels, and make instant changes to help drive the business and deliver what UW wants to see.”
As the fall sports season swings into full gear, UW and Barnes & Noble College are excited to continue rolling out the refreshed retail spaces and website to students, alumni and fans—and deliver an unprecedented fan experience.