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Devilishly good… it’s this week’s Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes uses a trip to Manchester and Old Trafford to check out Manchester United’s destination store.

Like many others in licensing, I ventured up to Manchester recently to take part in Northern Light Fund Quiz. It was a really enjoyable evening and a successful fundraiser, but suffice to say I won’t be rushing to appear on Mastermind anytime soon.

The quiz took place in Hotel Football which sits in the shadow of Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United. Indeed my room in the hotel looked out on the ground and the Manchester United megastore. Despite my Millwall allegiances I found the pull of the retail outlet too strong and ventured in. I thought it was a good opportunity for a bit of football related Looking Out. I was pleased I ventured in. The shop is very impressive and had a feel of a destination store in its own right. To that point there were a number of overseas visitors in the shop when I arrived.

LL6As you enter the shop there is a display of football kits emphasising how replica football shirts are a core part of a club’s merchandising mix.

The cost of football shirts and the frequency that they change has been a point of debate in recent times, with many thinking that clubs should slowdown the rate of change in terms of kit and maybe not introduce third kits (traditionally clubs had two kits used for home and away matches – with the away kit only used when there was a kit clash).

LL2The kits within the store were really well displayed and merchandised – a general observation about the Manchester United store was that it was stylishly presented, well lit and used the available space well.

Manchester United has just launched a special edition kit and apparel line in partnership with Manchester band The Stone Roses. The design used is a nod to the album cover artwork used on the Stone Roses debut album. It is an enterprising collaboration bringing together music and football well. Despite some pushback around the price of football kits and the frequency they are changed, there does seem to be an appetite for special edition kits particularly ones like this that crossover from football into other genres.

Indeed special edition kits are also used as charity fundraisers – I remember a few years ago Millwall playing in a camouflage pattern kit with the match worn shirts auctioned off after the game to raise funds for Headley Court Military Rehabilitation Centre and the Royal British Legion. And yes the Millwall players were able to spot each other in their camouflage kit to successfully pass the ball! The Stone Roses partnership is a strong reminder of how football and music mix well being key ingredients in the melting pot of pop culture.

LL1There were other examples of fashion driven collaborations on show in-store including a partnership with designer Paul Smith which was centred on a branded Paul Smith area. Products on sale included a Paul Smith x Manchester United scarf. This sort of partnership recognises that football fans, while united in their support of a club, are not necessarily united in their product interest. A club like Manchester United has to make sure that its merchandise caters for a broad church of supporters and partnerships with the likes of Paul Smith allow it to deliver product options for fans looking for more style driven products or more upscale products. I also sensed that Manchester United is well aware of its global appeal and as such offered a range of products that were relevant for overseas consumers. Paul Smith probably ticks this box as well, as the designer is recognised internationally and his brand is one that has travelled well internationally. Another example of Manchester United recognising the international pull of the brand was a range of products such as porcelain mugs produced by Melitta. These seemed to be developed very much with international appeal in mind.

The offer within store was comprehensive and in a sense no stone had been unturned in regards to partnerships – for example there was a branded chiller cabinet for Wow Hydrate products which is the official ‘sports hydration partner’ for Manchester United.

In this regard having the product available in-store is a vital part of Wow Hydrate’s deal, I imagine not least as it brings credibility, but it is also a valuable distribution point to encourage consumer trial. Seemingly in sports licensing and partnerships it is important to recognise that there are multiple opportunities available from a commercial perspective and deals have to be framed in such a way that the rights holder retains flexibility to maximise their potential in a category.

LL3One category I was very surprised to see in-store – and one I think we will never see in Millwall’s club shop – was a range of Remington x Manchester United haircare products including hair straighteners. I guess this is in part recognition of the wider appeal of football these days and as such the mix of branded products has evolved, but I also feel this might be a deal driven by Manchester United’s international reach. Another factor is that football brands undoubtedly work well on ecommerce platforms and as gift purchases – products like the Remington ones work well in that context. Being stocked in the club shop can be a great showcase for a licensee and great way of encouraging other retailers to stock products. Generally clubs run a mixed economy, mixing licensed products with their own brand products but in categories like haircare having a partnership with a trusted brand like Remington reinforces what benefits licensing can deliver to the retail product mix.

LL5There was a good mix of more traditional merchandise on sale as well with the likes of hats, scarves, posters and souvenir merchandise well represented. There was also lower priced items to cater for those on a more limited budget or those simply seeking a souvenir of their visit to Old Trafford. I was pleased to see this as it is important to remember that some football fans are restricted financially. Manchester United has worked well with some of the key suppliers to deliver a positive retail experience. One example of this was a display of baseball caps and bucket hats presented in a dedicated wall space in conjunction with licensee New Era. This displayed well, but also allows the shop to deliver a comprehensive selection of headwear from a trusted supplier.

When I visited the store, Easter was approaching and I noticed that there was a range of Cadbury’s Easter Eggs co-branded with the Manchester United badge. Again a good example of how a club like United can work with a big brand like Cadbury’s, but also a good example of how brands like Cadbury’s are seeking out new distribution while also adjusting their model to take advantage of custom selling opportunities like this.

LL4The sense that the shop was is in part a ‘visitor experience’ was enhanced by the fact that customers could avail themselves of a photo opportunity to be photographed alongside a United player pitch side near the Player’s Tunnel. A great memento but also a great example of a retailer using new technology to deliver a different kind of product and product opportunity. I thought this was a nice feature and maybe an idea that could be used in other types of retail – I presume the photo technology is widely available and it didn’t seem to need a lot of space. I’m sure it is a relatively high margin business as well (I watched Dragon’s Den last night).

Overall I was very impressed by the Manchester United shop. It blended a good selection of products at different price points well. It made good use of display and dialled up brand partnerships in a well curated way. It was good to see The Stone Roses product in-store and it will be interesting to see if this sparks ideas for other similar partnerships, not least because Manchester has such a rich musical history. I am sure for Manchester United fans they would really enjoy shopping here and it was a great example of a brand delivering a great fan experience at retail. I am sure other retailers could pick up some tips in regards to fan engagement from stores like this. It is also a great example of how licensing and licensees have to embrace different ways of selling these days and be flexible in their approach to retail.

While I enjoyed my visit, I think I should put on record that I didn’t make a purchase. As a Millwall man that would have been a step too far!

Ian Downes runs Start Licensing, an independent brand licensing agency. His X handle is @startlicensing – he would welcome your suggestions for what to look out for.

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