NASCAR and Fanatics still searching for proper fit with fans –, Edition: Global

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. dropped the news that souvenir trailers would be back at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, it was just the first look at how the at-track merchandise landscape was changing.

Earnhardt sells more hats and T-shirts than any other driver in the garage. So it was only appropriate for him to herald the return of the haulers. To his credit, Earnhardt clearly understands the pulse of his constituents. The majority of that traditional NASCAR fan base never embraced the big white Fanatics tent that debuted at Pocono Raceway last summer and traveled from track-to-track. 

Some found the fan-vendor experience a bit sterile. Others felt the removal of the trailers diminished the midway feel fans had come to enjoy. Since the haulers reappeared at Charlotte seven races ago, the tent has been in storage. 

“I think we need to give it a little more time and see how the fans react,” Earnhardt said on Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “I think they love the haulers and they missed the haulers. A lot of the fans knew the vendors by name, and that was something lost on the tent experience. 

“For me, I was a big fan of the haulers, and I’m glad to see them back. That personal one-on-one interaction the buyer has with the seller — it was the same people working the haulers year after year after year. So, you got to know the people and had a relationship with them.

Tent didn’t work out

“Seems like the fans didn’t really like the tent. I really wouldn’t have either. When you have haulers scattered about, it creates a little more festive atmosphere, like a fairgrounds kind of atmosphere.”

Fanatics did its best to encourage fan interaction in the tent. Drivers were scheduled for question-and-answer sessions with the fans. Some signed autographs. Given its success in other sports, the company was open to considering options when the initial connection didn’t develop in NASCAR.

“It’s a continued evolution in what Fanatics is trying to do,” says Blake Davidson, NASCAR’s Vice President, Licensing & Consumer Products. “When they started out with us back in ’15, when we started out with the whole industry, their feeling was they wanted to try something new in the sport, bring something new here that hadn’t been done before. But they weren’t quite sure how it would work.

“One of the things they reiterated time and time again was they were going to continue testing to try and find the right model for NASCAR which ultimately could be the tent, it could be the haulers, it could be some hybrid or it could be something else entirely. I think what you’re seeing is part of that process.”

While Davidson says the tent was received with mixed reactions, NASCAR’s younger demographic gravitated to the concept.

“Some of the hardcore, avid fans that have been around the sport for a long time, really have a lot of nostalgia for the haulers,” Davidson said. “The younger fan coming out that is newer to the sport really enjoyed the shopping experience in the tent. We’re trying to find the sweet spot between all of that.” 

Keeping up with the consumers

Davidson says that NASCAR and Fanatics are still reviewing numerous merchandise models moving forward. Versions of the haulers and kiosks will still have a presence around the tracks.  

But compounding the challenge are the changing habits of the consumer, particularly since the sanctioning body introduced stage-racing this season. Sales have picked up on the concourses inside of the tracks between the segments. 

“It’s a little more akin to a hockey game or a baseball game,” Davidson said. “Ross Tannenbaum, President of Fanatics, has used this analogy before. During the course of a baseball or hockey game, there are various stops in the action where you have time to go and shop. Maybe not as much during a football game — except for half-time. 

“Now, with the stages, you have an opportunity to take a break, catch your breath, go do some shopping and not miss a lot of the action. Fanatics have actually seen a spike in their sales inside of the concourses. The haulers being out there work, but they’re looking at different models going forward that would potentially cater to that fan.”

Another development changing the traditional purchase habits of fans is the renovation of race tracks. With the stadium feeling at Daytona International Speedway, Phoenix Raceway and Richmond Raceway, could fans see more of the brick and mortar style of shopping that exists at baseball and football stadiums or hockey arenas?

“I think that’s definitely being explored — at least really enhancing the concourse shopping experience,” Davidson said. “I don’t think they’re looking to abandon what happens outside, in the midway, if you will. That event experience is part of the NASCAR culture, and I don’t think that’s going to go away. There’s an entertainment factor that’s attached to that — whether it’s drivers coming out to sign autographs, make appearances. I think that’s an important component. 

“But I do think they want to enhance what’s been happening inside the track. Outside of Daytona, there hasn’t been a lot of investment in those areas, but I think with the re-models on the ISC (International Speedway Corp.) end, and as other tracks look at that, it does present an opportunity to come at it from a different perspective.”

Having Fanatics as a partner

Davidson is encouraged with Fanatics’s reach and the ability the retailer has to enhance the point of sale and create a more positive exchange for the race fans. 

“The beauty of having Fanatics as a partner — and really the largest on-line sports retailer in the world — they come out at it from a technology-perspective,” Davidson said. “They’re able to look at a lot of different things that they’re doing in other sports and how those might apply to NASCAR.

“One of the programs that they have allows fans to — even before they get to the event — do some shopping and when they get out of the event, they can pick up their merchandise there. We are exploring with them more things that can be done from your seat while you’re at the event  

“So there are a lot of things that having a partner like Fanatics allows us to explore. I think it’s going to continue to evolve so whether that’s the physical shopping experience that we talked about — tents or haulers or more permanent stores inside of venues — or the use of technology impacting your shopping experience — all of that will remain front of mind for us and for Fanatics.”

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