By Jason Schultz / @NASCARJason
In a time when change seems constant in NASCAR, another major transformation has arrived at the race track.
The days of fans purchasing their favorite drivers merchandise from the souvenir haulers that lined the outside of a track have ended. This led to the rising of the new merchandise tents four weeks ago at Pocono Raceway. Along with the tents, it also marked merchandising company Fanatics’ entrance into the sport.
This change brings a new dynamic to the at the track experience. With a majority of the haulers that once lined “souvenir alley” gone, a group of large, white tents has filled the void. While this system lacks the environment that used to surround the haulers, it brings a new feel that comes with mixed emotions.
Three weeks ago on the morning of the Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International, I explored the new tents and had a firsthand look at the change.
When NASCAR announced the new system, I wasn’t pleased with the decision to remove a staple of the race day experience. It seemed as eliminating the haulers would take away a part of what makes the experience of being at a track special.
Those attending a race experienced this walking down the rows where the haulers stood. It created a buzz in the air as you shared excitement of what’s to come that day with the thousands around you.
However, money talks in the sport more now than ever and a decision sent the haulers packing in favor of a new merchandising system.
As I headed to the tents that morning, I was expecting to be disappointed and not enjoy the new experience.
However, I was surprised to find my reaction mostly positive. The system is much different and will take getting used to. In the end though, I believe its goal of providing fans with a better shopping experience was accomplished.
Walking up on the midway, the large white tents stick out and look out of place. It doesn’t seem to be a natural fit among the other sponsor setups.
While the design may not be up to par, the selection and variety is. I was most impressed with the amount of items available to purchase.
This is an efficient setup that allows fans to shop specifically for an item and not have to glance over the entire selection at once.
It also gives the shopper time to make decisions, rather than waiting in line outside a hauler and having to make quick choices.
The setup receives high praise as despite being fairly small, it provides many options that I believe fans will enjoy.
Other than not having the same products for every driver, everything you could imagine is available for purchase. I’d list everything but there is just such a variety that it would take awhile.
Another impressive aspect is the wide range of competitors who have gear for fans to buy. Nearly every NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver has at least one item for sale. In addition, the most popular contenders in the lower-tier series have shirts and hats to buy.
While before the smaller teams couldn’t always afford to sell merchandise trackside, having an outside company do it allows the fans to support each and every team in the garage area.
Much like with the haulers, the more popular drivers have a wider selection of merchandise. Dale Earnhardt Jr. essentially has his own store while Gordon, Harvick and others have more products available.
The overall experience of the tents is a dynamic change for race fans. The setup represents more of a routine shopping experience found at a mall as the products are available for the customers to look at and feel before making a decision.
This atmosphere allows fans to shop, look around, and take their time purchasing merchandise. I liked this aspect as I found myself buying more than usual as it is all laid out for fans to glance over and see what they like.
While the selection and variety are great, the employees couldn’t have been more unhelpful. It’s clear they don’t know much about the sport or drivers and were given quick training to know the basics of working retail.
When I asked questions, they didn’t seem to know much. Even when inquiring about where items were, they could only offer guesses and showed clear confusion about the products.
In the checkout area, which is another tent with rows of cash registers, the employees also clearly lacked adequate training. The computers and scanners worked rather slowly which dragged out the checkout process that was designed to be quick.
When exiting the tent, an employee stood there to assure the number of items on the receipt matched the number of items in the bag. However, this contradicted what the cashiers were trained to do as they first asked those with bags from previous purchases at the track if they wanted to place the new items in the same bag.
In turn, this led to confusion and a poorly executed exit from the tent. If measures aren’t taken to improve this process, there will be many items leaving the superstore that were not purchased.
Another major aspect that sets the haulers and tents apart is the prices. For the same merchandise, the tents have much higher costs. This includes having to pay nearly ten dollars for the 1:64 scale die-cast cars and around $25 for a t-shirt.
In a family sport, these prices are outrageous. The over-pricing will more than likely drop sales numbers and have a negative impact on the new system.
Being only the second week of its existence, kinks are to be expected with the system. However, they are major and will need improvement if the experience is to be improved.
I’ll return to the track in New Hampshire next month and will see if two months of work experience has bettered how the tent system is managed.
While not perfect, there is room for improvement with this system. If the employees can improve their performance and can match the incredible selection, this will be a home run system that revolutionizes the merchandising world of NASCAR.
Header image and checkout image: Jeff Zelevansky
Other images: Jason Schultz