Football Retail: Still Living In The Dark Ages

I’m… long pause… shuffle of feet… awkward silence… a Spurs fan. There I said it. But don’t worry if you’re a fan of any of the other 18 perfectly-respectable premiership clubs (or even Arsenal), this is a friendly, well-meaning blog post. I mean you no harm. Besides, we’re all in the same boat when it comes to being fans. We’re all walking wallets. Cash cows. Client reference numbers. We’re consumers of the official beer, the official ticket provider, the official online betting companies. But we’re never, ever, customers.

The word ‘customer’ suggests that we own our custom and that we have any choice where to bestow it. But, like a failed safe-cracker doing a duckfoot, we’re locked in for life. There is only one shirt we can buy (which, incidentally, is why us Spurs fans are a wee bit disgruntled that this one is besmirched with evil red). We don’t have the option of buying a Fulham shirt instead (we don’t want to be laughed at in public) – what they offer we buy. Because we have no choice.

But this is, let’s face it, a pretty ropy way to run a retail business. In fact, it’s got icky echos of “Spam, Spam, Spam, Egg and Spam”: the assumption that the customer will take what he’s given, he’ll like it and he’ll happily be back for more. The funny thing is, we kinda do, we kinda might and we kinda will.

Though not indefinitely, and I’m already beginning to notice the difference. When I started going to matches about 15 years ago, a good half of the fans sat around me wore official shirts, waved official scarves, consulted their official programmes and, in the winter, quietly froze to death in their (useless) official hats. These days, you’d be hard pressed to find even a tenth of fans wearing the latest schmutter or spending a penny more than they have to – which is hardly surprising seeing as how the seat alone costs 8,100 of those pennies (considerably more if you’re forced to pay inflated prices for returns via reselling agents such as StubHub), and you need a second mortgage just to afford a cup of tea.

To get around the problem, football clubs have expanded their catalogues. Okay, you might not want this year’s shirt but how about a West Ham David Gold bobblehead doll or a Wolverhampton Wanderers Santa Meerkat? Over at my club’s merch store, they’re flogging six kinds of garden gnomes, clothes pegs, ice scrapers and (for those who just can’t wait to get divorced) Spurs bras, suspenders and garter belts. RRrrrRRrrrRrrR!

The strategy behind this? Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves. Sell lots of little things, accrue many pittances and it’ll all add up in the end. But the real aphorism at play here? Penny wise, pound foolish. By digging in the gutter for loose change, my club, your club, every club is missing the big picture. And they’re frankly miles behind the rest of retail in the 21st century.

What football clubs have – but amazingly manage to squander – is a direct line to the passion points of their audiences. Asda don’t have that. M&S don’t have that. Even Apple don’t have that. But they’ve created it by considering the experience of retail, the aspiration behind that experience and the shareability that experience engenders. You don’t just buy an iPad, you think about it, talk about it, relish it. You record yourself unboxing it, you join communities to talk about it. You live that retail moment and you bring your peers along for the ride.

Yeah, but that’s iPads. People love iPads.

And people don’t love Manchester United?!

What football is absolutely overlooking is the built-in virility its retail experience could – could! – enjoy, if only the customer were given a reason to share with his or her friends. I’m not going to tell my friends I’ve bought the new shirt, in the same places, at the same price that they have. But I would tell them if, by joining together in something like a Co-buy, we could all earn exclusive pricing. I’d definitely bring the club more custom if we could earn bigger and better bundles of products as more of us committed to buy. I’d be the first person taking to Facebook to shout about it if the person who makes the most noise actually got rewarded, perhaps by getting their product for free. I’d be all over it if me and my friends could actually have a say in which products go on sale, if we could help select the deals, the exclusives, the ranges, rather than simply having them foisted upon us by a commercial team with a tick-list and crossed fingers.

I’d even buy products from the club’s partners if I genuinely felt that, as a fan, I was getting closer to those brands and enjoying an experience above and beyond every other punter on the high street. Chelsea’s fans don’t get to enjoy the new Samsung mobile ahead of its general release – but, if these partnerships are to mean anything beyond the transfer of marketing budgets, then they really, really should. More than that, though, Juan Mata should be taking to Twitter to ask fans which colour adidas Predators he should wear at the weekend, and offering 1,000 of them the chance to Co-buy a pair with the most vocal advocate getting theirs signed and for free. Petr Cech should be roadtesting his new safety mask by offering fans the chance to kick balls directly at his face for 30 minutes each Friday night. Okay, maybe not that one. But you get the point.

Retail in the 21st Century is all about passion points. Access. Exclusivity. Interaction. Both in what gets sold and in how it gets sold. The days of a club shop and a logo on your credit card are over. The days of social commerce are still to come.