Opening an Online Store
In retail, they say location is everything. This athletic director found a perfect place to move his school store: online.
by Karl Heimbach
Like many high school athletic directors, I have the responsibility of overseeing our school store, which sells athletic department apparel, season athletic passes, snacks, and other items determined by school administration. This task used to take up quite a bit of my time, yet we saw very little profit.
In response, we decided to try moving our merchandise to an online store. In the four years since, we have seen great results.
How It Works
While it may be possible to set up an online store solely with school district resources, we chose to seek the help of an outside vendor. Magruder receives a 10 percent profit on clothingbut as you'll see, we get a lot more in return. When choosing a vendor, we had several questions concerning this new endeavor. They included:
- How would the dispersal of funds from the vendor work?
- How would the company communicate an accurate record of sales to us?
- What would be the options for school apparel?
- Could customers return apparel if they didn't like it?
- Could customers without credit cards still purchase products?
After interviewing several vendors, we chose the company that best answered these questions. Their process requires a minimal time investment on our end, yet allows us to track sales as often as we want and provides many merchandise options.
Every two months, I receive a statement directly from the company so we know exactly what has been sold. They also issue our profits to us through multiple checks, which makes the accounting process simple for me. The different checks can be deposited in predetermined accounts at our school. In addition, I can track sales online daily by using a special password provided by the company.
Parents, students, and community members access the online store through a link on the main page of the school Web site. There, they find a variety of T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, and other memorabilia in multiple colors. Items can then be customized with our school logo or mascot.
People who have access to the Internet can order from the store 24 hours a day, and most merchandise is shipped within a week. If the purchaser does not like what he or she receives, they can send the order back for a full refund. The process is very similar to buying clothing through a Web retailer.
For community members who are wary about shopping over the Internet or do not have a credit card, the vendor also accepts personal checks. The customer orders and sends a check directly to the vendor, which handles the transaction. We have also created a flier so people can order items through the mail without accessing the Internet at all.
Another plus for our customers is that at the start of the school year, we make one bulk order of sweatshirts and physical education uniforms. Customers can select their size and pay for the order online. The order is then filled in bulk and sent directly to the school, which saves on shipping and handling charges. The items are distributed before school from my office.
Pros & Cons
The best result of the switch to an online store is that it has led to tremendous growth of sales due to the convenience and variety we can now offer. Much of the apparel can be customized by simply clicking on different icons, which allows for a personalized touch. Options include color, size, logos, embroidery, style, and countless other combinations, which would be expensive and very difficult to offer in a typical school store.
With a traditional store, the expense that is invested in clothing inventorywhich may or may not be sold during the school yearwas always a problem. This concern is now history for us.
Another huge benefit has been the time savings. I am now relieved of handling countless transactions and deposits at the finance office, as well as preparing the annual financial report for the auditor, which always occurred at the same time I was trying to complete the athletic financial report and order equipment for the upcoming year. I have also been relieved of managing inventory and staffing the store.
What are the negatives? The biggest is that more cost is passed on to the customer, as there are fees for the various customization services. Each cash transaction has a set charge determined by the company, and there is also the cost of shipping.
Also, when students order apparel, the inability to try on different sizes and models can cause difficulties. Finally, a few parents and students have complained that the online process is a bit time consuming on their end, and said they preferred to purchase school items on-site and in cash.
Room to Expand
Overall, we feel the benefits have far outweighed the drawbacks in this endeavor and we are continuing to expand our online store's inventory. For example, last year, we began selling season athletic passes through the online store.
In previous years, I had to collect orders, deposit money or checks daily at the finance office, print and laminate passes, and then distribute them in school or mail them to buyers in a timely manner. Using the online system, season passes are shipped to the customer by certified mail within two days of the order. Along with saving me time, this has increased apparel sales since people often buy additional items when they visit the store.
This year, we also added individual pages for each team where they can sell sport-specific clothing. The profits from these sales go directly to the team.
Most recently, the company has proposed taking over all money collection from students at the school, such as lab fees, locker fees, and so forth. Students and their parents would pay the company directly, and the school would then receive a single check. This would virtually eliminate money collection by coaches, teachers, and our finance office.
Now for the best part: Profits from our online store have been hefty enough to help us purchase a new message board for the front of the school and a new scoreboard for the main gym. The store has not eliminated all headaches from handling merchandise, tickets, and other sales, but it has made the entire process more manageable and more profitable. Athletes, parents, fansand last but not least, the athletic directorall have reason to be happy about that.
Karl Heimbach, CMAA, is Athletic Director at Magruder High School in Rockville, Md., and President of the Maryland State Athletic Directors' Association. He can be reached at: Karl_S_Heimbach@mcpsmd.org.
This article also appeared in Fundraising For Sport's sister publication, Athletic Management.