After the Lockout, Shop.NHL.com Hopes to Score

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Don't expect Shop.NHL.com to start out in the penalty box because of last year's lockout. According to experts and the National Hockey League itself, direct marketing sales and overall revenue won't suffer to the extent that they did for Major League Baseball after it scrapped a season 11 years ago.

"Hockey is different than other sports," said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director and sports analyst at Pickett Advertising, San Francisco. "Its fans are more rabid. For them, it's hockey, hockey, hockey. It might take a little time for merchandise sales to ramp up, but I think hardcore fans will be there to carry the league right away."

Dorfman's assessment may already be holding true. Since the lockout ended in July, the NHL's online average order size has risen from $60 to more than $70.

Once the season starts Oct. 5, the league predicts that average order size will match or surpass the 2003-04 season's average of $78. Supporting the prognostication is a report by market studies firm Scarborough Research, New York, which found that fans average more spending at Shop.NHL.com than online patrons of any other professional sport.

Still, attracting diehards is one thing, but getting fans who go to five or fewer games each season to click through to purchases is another, Dorfman said, especially on the heels of a canceled season. Attracting such casual fans also will be key as the league tries to capitalize on the rookie season of Pittsburgh Penguins sensation Sidney Crosby, whom the NHL hopes will have a marketing impact similar to the National Basketball Association's recent phenom, LeBron James.

"Post-strike direct marketing will be important in getting the marginal fan off the fence and to the Web shop or the hockey rink," Dorfman said. "The league and teams can make this happen with special offers and discounts. I know from my personal experience that I go to a few San Jose Sharks games a year but am not overly passionate about the team. But when I get a special e-mail offer, it does make me feel more connected and leads me to be more inclined to go to another game or purchase a team product."

Such promotions already are heading for his inbox. The league sent 500,000 fans an e-mail last week proclaiming, "Gear Up for the New 2005-06 NHL Season at Shop.NHL.com," all the while hawking jerseys, caps and T-shirts from an assortment of its 30 teams. Next week, a follow-up e-mail will go to the same database but might prove more dynamic. That's when Shop.NHL.com debuts a system designed to be higher tech with superior targeting. It will deliver rich media messages that entail products only from the team in which the recipient has shown interest.

Viewers who click on products will be taken to a remodeled www.shop.nhl.com designed by the NHL and Web services firm GSI Commerce, King of Prussia, PA. RichFX, New York, powers a part of the technology that lets end users browse virtual pages as if they're thumbing through a traditional catalog.

The refurbished site will offer not only player jerseys, everyday apparel and other gear made by Reebok, the NHL's new exclusive manufacturer for those items, but also a large mix of clothing and accessories aimed at women, teens and children.

"It will be the largest collection of NHL apparel and merchandise anywhere," said Brian Fitzgerald, director of commerce and development at the NHL, New York. "Our virtual and paper catalogs are different than ones offered by the other leagues. It's a cleaner, more J. Crew-style presentation. We are very fashion-oriented. It's a hockey-as-a-lifestyle approach to merchandising."

The league will drop a gift-oriented traditional catalog in early November to 1.2 million fans to rev up holiday sales. Another 600,000 books will mail in February during the Winter Olympics, when many of the NHL's stars will perform on the world stage.

The NHL's level of success with its direct marketing will be important in deciding whether overall sales during the comeback season are off the mark or a slapshot goal, Fitzgerald said. He suggested that the league has not taken lightly the lockout's potential harm.

"When you look at where we've been throughout the last year, it makes sense that we are going to use every one of our channels to reach out to our fans," he said.

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