Pizza, T-shirts and hoops, oh my: Online sales of college apparel, food jump during March Madness

March 20, 2015 05:17 PM

Upset victories by a pair of underdogs in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on Thursday made for a busy Friday for sports apparel e-retailer Fanatics Inc.

In the 24 hours since University of Alabama at Birmingham, a 14 seed, upset 3-seed Iowa State, and 14-seed Georgia State knocked off 3-seed Baylor, Fanatics reports a 2,000% increase in sales of the two schools’ gear.

While that kind of an increase in orders could be daunting for some companies, a Fanatics spokesman tells Internet Retailer the company is built for times like March Madness, when teams that aren’t generally as popular in the mainstream—like Georgia State—could see a sudden surge in popularity.

“We see these orders coming in and we can produce and make these shirts right as the orders are coming in, so we have the ability to adjust on the fly,” he says.

The spokesman for Fanatics, No. 42 in the Internet Retailer 2014 Top 500 Guide, wouldn’t say how much the retailer does in sales during the NCAA Tournament, only that it is one of the retailer’s busier seasons. It’s not just underdog teams seeing a spike in merchandise sales either. Sales of merchandise for No. 1 seeds Villanova and Wisconsin are up 550% and 425%, respectively, since March 15, better known in the sports world as Selection Sunday. Meanwhile sales of University of North Florida gear, a school that made its first NCAA Tournament appearance this year, are up more than 1,000% since the 15th.

“We see spikes in sales across the board from big schools to small schools,” the spokesman says.

The unpredictability of it all is what keeps the company on its toes throughout the tournament. One wrinkle they did expect heading into this year’s tournament was an increase in mobile traffic. Fanatics says mobile traffic accounted for 70% of its overall traffic on college merchandise alone, up nearly 15% from last year.

 “This tournament is so mobile focused,” the spokesman says. “You’re watching the tournament on laptops, on mobile phones. We’ve invested heavily in (mobile) recently. We’re looking to grow in that area as mobile and tablets become such a huge thing and a part of digital commerce in general.”

Fanatics is far from the only business seeing a spike in online sales this time of year. Online ticket marketplaces have reported a surge in interest thanks in large part to the success of the University of Kentucky, which entered this year’s tournament undefeated.

At web-only sports and entertainment decal retailer Fathead LLC, says the company experiences  a 30% spike in orders of its college sports products during March Madness, says Michael Layne, director of Internet marketing. The most popular offering doesn’t bear the logo of any one school, however. Layne says the best-selling product with a March Madness focus is a 4’x3’ tournament bracket decal that affixes to any wall and allows people to write their picks on it. Fathead is No. 356 in the Internet Retailer 2014 Top 500 Guide.

Layne says Fathead had products for 66 of the 68 teams in this year’s tournament when it tipped off, but Fathead doesn’t see an immediate spike from upsets of bigger-name opponents.

“It sometimes takes a couple of wins for momentum to build,” he says. “For example, we saw a big spike for Butler when they went all the way to the National Championship game two years in a row.”

With many sports fans looking to watch the game from the comfort of their homes, Domino’s Pizza saw an e-commerce opportunity.

The pizza chain has offered 50% off all orders placed online during the first week of the tournament. The offer ends Sunday.

Domino’s orders increase during the NCAA Tournament, a spokeswoman tells Internet Retailer, but she did not give an exact figure in terms of revenue or traffic to the chain’s website.

“The nice thing about March Madness for our stores and our digital demand is that the excitement is spread out over a few days and weeks and doesn’t come all at once, like it does with Super Bowl,” she says. “Our stores are staffed up and ready for this time of year, it’s usually a pretty busy season for them.”




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