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On a sunny May afternoon, Milwaukee Brewers fans of all ages walked through the permanent retail shops within Miller Park holding up shirts and jerseys and Racing Sausages plush toys, perused the pop-up stands for the newest hats, or thought about different name and number combinations in the custom shirt and jersey areas.
It was a full retail experience with a ball game going on in the background, which makes shopping for Brewers gear at Miller Park different than anyplace else.
"It’s a great way for fans to show their loyalty and be excited about the Brewers," said Senior Director of Merchandise Branding Jill Aronoff.
Miller Park has two team stores, the main one being the 4,500-square foot Brewers Team Store located in the Hot Corner that is open year round, and another at the Home Plate Gate. The retail experience for fans changed considerably with the opening of Miller Park in 2001.
An added focus came when Mark Attanasio purchased the team in 2005, and his wife Debbie is credited with enhancing that experience with store renovations and additions, as well as more cohesive branding throughout the park.
"It’s not just that the product has increased in terms of variety but also the spaces have increased," Brewers Vice President of Communications Tyler Barnes said. "You could say it’s right in line with what our philosophy is, which starts with Mark and goes through (Chief Operating Officer) Rick Schlesinger and goes through everybody else here is that we’ve got an absolutely spectacular ballpark but you have to continuously look at ways to update it, upgrade it, understand the fan’s tastes and retail is a big part of that experience."
To do that, the Brewers continually roll out new products throughout the year – even the offseason – to keep inventory fresh and season-ticket holders or frequent attendees coming back into the stores. The club does have the flexibility to create specific, specialized items – like the popular Japanese Norichika Aoki T-shirts – outside of the gear that is seen across all of Major League Baseball.
"The MLB licensee’s will come to us a couple times a year to show us what’s available and we’ll go from there," Aronoff said. "We’ll also push them a little bit and give them some direction on what we’re looking for."
The organization also has the added element of the Racing Sausages to market, and the mascots have their own retail area called the Meat Locker.
A special part of the retail experience is when the team clinches a postseason berth, like in 2008 and 2011, or if there were to be a special moment that fans would want to remember, like a no-hitter or perfect game. How is the team able to roll out such specific, special merchandise in the matter of a day?
"It’s magic," Aronoff quipped, then paused for dramatic effect.
"MLB calls those types of items ‘hot market’ items," she continued. "Say we need to get t-shirts in for (Yovani) Galllardo having a no-hitter the next day, and MLB works with Majestic and the team to have those T-shirts printed and shipped overnight. When it comes to the postseason, many times there comes a point where you ask for the items beforehand so you can have the T-shirts and caps right then and there.
"We put orders in well before – we call them ‘win orders’ – and as soon the team wins Majestic locally has a printer who is printing out the T-shirts and getting it to us in time."
Despite the ingrained advantages the organization has in selling merchandise, the club realizes fans can purchase official team gear at any number of online or brick and mortar outlets across the state – so there is a bit of competition, too.
"The way that we compete with that is number one, we are the official store of the Milwaukee Brewers," Aronoff said. "In buying from us you are buying directly from the team and you’re supporting keeping the players on the field. We offer many promotions, gift with purchases, tickets, certain things throughout the season and throughout the year and we have the widest variety of Brewers gear anywhere in the nation, anywhere in the world, and we have a lot of exclusive items."
Exclusivity and uniqueness are an important part of the retail experience for many, and the Brewers players are no different.
John Axford leaned over his chair and flipped through the variety of T-shirts hung neatly in his locker, highlighting a couple of his favorites. Among his team-issued work gear, there were items from 108stitches Baseball Apparel and from Milwaukee’s own Wiskullsin.
For players, the official team uniforms and workout clothes are just that – clothes to work in – while fans purchase the same items to show support.
So finding something a little different, a little off-beat, is important. It’s why Axford took a liking to the unique stylings of the Wiskullsin line.
"I just happened to see that had their own Packers gear, their own Brewers gear and stuff like that and I thought it was really cool so I reached out to them to try and get some T-shirts and some bullpen T-shirts made," he said. "I’ll try and do that again this year. It’s good to try and help the local guys too that have such a passion for just sport, for the Brewers and for the city."
That passion for sports teams and community-building is what has made unique sports apparel a burgeoning business in Milwaukee.
Several local business owners are fans – and see that people want to support the teams – but don’t necessarily want to wear a jersey or a team or league-sponsored logo.
Fred Gillich is one of those people.
"I love the team but for me, as a different kind of baseball fan, I’m really not that interested in what they offer," said Gillich, the owner of Too Much Metal For One Hand. "It’s a little bit too, I don’t know, status quo. That’s why I keep on doing these (shirts) – for all the people like me and other people not just like me who want something that’s a little less ‘Brewersy’ a little less collegiate, a little less athletic but has a little bit of fun, spontaneity and goofiness to it."
Gillich began making unique rock and Milwaukee shirts in 2000 and introduced his sports-themed lines for people to support the Brewers, Packers and Bucks in 2004.
"I’m just really trying to speak to people who don’t really fit in that pigeon hole of what it is to be a fan," he said. "To me, it’s not anything other than a simple, personal celebration of the city and the way we react to sport and the way friends are made and communities are built. I think if sport’s done right, that’s a pretty good accomplishment."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.