By Sara Hodon

College students and alumni are always happy to show off their school spirit, and one easy, prominent way to do this is to wear a T-shirt bearing the school’s name—also known as a “name-dropped” T-shirt. College stores may be facing tougher competition from online retailers for textbook sales, but most remain the preferred retailer for college-branded apparel and managers say that their logoed T-shirts are among their biggest sellers. “I think T-shirts are a quick sale,” said Deborah Stack, associate director of the CMU Bookstore at Central Michigan University in Point Pleasant, Mich. “Visitors to campus often like to take a souvenir home with them and many of them opt for a T-shirt. T-shirts are great because we get visitors from all over and when they go home and wear the T-shirt they bought from our store, they are promoting CMU.” 

Name-dropped shirts at the University of Alabama. The name-dropped T-shirts are a natural extension of a store’s T-shirt inventory and an easy way to demonstrate school pride.

Fortunately, T-shirts are one of those items that just about everyone wears, so they are a good way to boost overall apparel sales. Mandy Markham Johnson, associate director, Licensed Products and Web Venue at University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., said that revenue is essential for colleges that run their own bookstores—they’re not just educational institutions; they’re businesses. “As a University owned and operated store, it’s always important and profitable for us to promote the University brand to students and fans,” she explained.  The name-dropped T-shirts are simply a natural extension of a store’s T-shirt inventory and an easy way to demonstrate school pride. Different styles appeal to different customer demographics. College students may want the trendier, fitted styles that not only include the school’s name but a brand name; their parents or longtime alumni might prefer a comfortable fit with a basic logo over something more trendy. One key to selling more name-dropped T-shirts is to make the shopping experience easy on the customer by keeping in-store displays neat, clean, and, most importantly, organized and consistent. “Some of our tips would be to merchandise shirts together by style (i.e. sleeve length, look – vintage, classic, etc.), create concept ‘shops’, even if the shop is just one or two fixtures, all shirts—and even other merchandise—from the same vendor merchandised together, ensure visual standards are maintained, such as perfect folds, size stickers, dressed and accessorized bust forms, show shirts together with items with similar theme (i.e. all Mom / Dad tees, caps, and gifts together; all alumni tees, accessories, etc. together; sport tees and caps together),” Johnson said. “Group together [on the website in the] same way – ensure that descriptions contain keywords that customers will search for online.” Stack suggested merchandising all of the T-shirt inventory and organizing it neatly by size. “You can’t sell if your inventory is in the back room,” she said. 

Mandy Markham Johnson, associate director, Licensed Products and Web Venue at University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala. “As a University owned and operated store, it’s always important and profitable for us to promote the University brand to students and fans,” she said.

It’s also essential to keep the store’s website organized and updated because a large portion of a college store’s business is done online, said Mary Sivertson, Clothing and Novelties Buyer for the NDSU Bookstore at North Dakota State University in Fargo, N.D. “Make sure that you have every style of T-shirt on your website, and promote your website to maximize sell through,” she advised. 

While stocking a mix of trendy and tried-and-true pieces usually works for most apparel retailers, for college stores, keeping current with trends is essential when choosing inventory. “We buy new styles for each season, primarily in school colors.  We do carry some vintage looks which have been trending well the last few years.  We reorder our best-sellers as needed.  It is important to bring in a few new styles each season and promote them online and on social media,” said Sivertson. Luckily, college store managers have the advantage of being part of a youthful community, which makes it a bit easier to stay on trend. Vendors are also excellent resources. “We keep an eye on trends on campus and look for shirts that are unique and reflect students’ lifestyles,” Johnson said. “We look for designs that can be exclusive to our store. We have vendors who will offer us the opportunity to be the sole merchant of certain designs. Vendors also give us ideas of what is selling on other campuses.” Stack relies primarily on stocking trendy designs, but says she also relies on a few basics, so there is a good mix of styles in regular rotation. “The state graphics have been on trend for some time now and the state of Michigan has a unique design which leads well to being used on T-shirts,” she said. Managers said that student employees’ input on styles and designs can be invaluable and they often seek out their suggestions.

A view of the sales floor at the University of Alabama. One key to selling more name-dropped T-shirts is to make the shopping experience easy on the customer by keeping in-store displays neat, clean, and, most importantly, organized and consistent, according to a store official.

Current students may not frequent the bookstore regularly, but it’s a must-stop for alumni when they return to campus for homecoming or other special events. College store operators admit that it can be challenging to get students through their doors and say it’s important to maintain a visible presence on campus during the regular semester when current students are primarily on campus. They do this in a number of different ways. Stack says their store features an Item of the Week—a very reasonably-priced item that the store will use to entice customers into the store or shop online. “We have many customers that will check in with us every week to see what the Item of the Week is,” she explained. “This keeps traffic coming back into our store week after week. They will often buy other items during their visit.” Sivertson said they regularly hold in-store events and website promotions. “Also, feature your new arrivals on social media with a website link if possible for the convenience of your customers.” Johnson uses a few promotional methods for their store, such as utilizing social media to advertise new products and designs (Instagram is especially useful for this) and encouraging store staff to wear the name-dropped merchandise.  She also suggested developing strong relationships with other college departments and thinking of ways to get students into the store. She cites freshman orientation as one excellent opportunity. “Work with your school’s orientation team to get students and parents into the store—for example, new students pick up their ID in our store during orientation,” she said. “Other tips would be to get involved with your school’s Director of Licensing so you know about new lines/licensees. He or she can help you get more involved with campus events, and try to get more involved with your school’s athletic events. For instance, we sponsor a softball game every year by giving a free T-shirt to every attendee.” Display is also critical. The tableaus should be arranged to catch the attention of college students, a generation driven largely by visuals. “Use mannequins and good signs to add to your display,” Sivertson suggested. And display the shirts so customers can see the entire garment, Stack said, noting that special care should be taken with shirts that are a bit unique, such as those with a smaller graphic on  the front heart and a larger image on the back, or just a graphic on the back. “They must be hung so the customer knows that the T-shirt has a graphic on the back. These T-shirts can’t be displayed in cubes or on shelves unless a sample is properly displayed to show the graphic on the back,” she pointed out.

Women posing in name-dropped shirts from the North Dakota State University Bookstore. The store features a reasonably-priced Item of the Week that entices shoppers to make both in-store and online purchases.

Since T-shirts are so diverse and there is a wide range of styles that can suit the taste of just about every type of customer, keep that in mind when buying, stocking, and displaying the merchandise. “Make sure you offer a ‘good, better, and best’ selection of T-shirts,” Johnson said. “For example, stock some of the $9.99 basic T-shirts, mid-tier price point T-shirts like Comfort Colors, and nationally recognized brands like Nike and Ralph Lauren. This gives your customer options no matter what their budget may be.”