The night before the Games opened, Bonnie Brooks hosted at reception for the families of Canadian athletes at the Bay's flagship Vancouver store.
Customers were already lining up to get into the Bay's 20,000 square foot Olympic Superstore, but the Bay's CEO still felt a need to plug product. She held up her own red-mittened hands and urged everyone in a VIP crowd of 300 to drop $10 on the iconic mitts, as the money raised supports athletes.
Ms. Brooks may have been a little too effective in her pitch.
Vancouver crowds have embraced the Games, and Olympic merchandise, with a passion that borders on frenzy.
Shoppers are lining up at 5:30 in the morning to get into an Olympic superstore that doesn't open until 9. During the day, they wait up to 90 minutes to get in. The retailer expected 10,000 customers a day in the downtown Vancouver store. Late last week, under sunny skies, up to 50,000 shoppers went through the doors.
Half way through the Games, Hudson's Bay Co. is selling Olympic-themed merchandise at three times the expected rate. More than 20,000 transactions a day are being run through its tills. Executives at this private equity-owned retailer have said they plan an initial public offering early in 2011, and the positive buzz from the Games can only enchance the Bay's IPO pitch.
The top selling item is the red mitts that Ms. Brooks is pitching: The Bay has moved 3 million pairs, with 100,000 a day selling since the Games began. The chain will soon run out of inventory, as only 3.5 million mitts were knitted, and the retailer has decided that it's too late to make more. The No. 2 seller is Olympic hoodies, with 2 million sold at $50 each, followed by lumberjack-style rally scarves, a $20 purchase.
To keep up with demand in downtown Vancouver, the Bay is stripping Olympic inventory from warehouses and storerooms of its 91 other stores across the country, sending boxes of mitts, sweaters and T-shirts to B.C. on flat-bed trucks and planes. Ms. Brooks and her team drew the line at taking items off shelves in other outlets to keep the Vancouver superstore stocked, but elsewhere in Canada, when the last Olympic item is gone, there's nothing left out back.
Extra trucks full of Olympic merchandise are also rolling this weekend out of warehouses at Elevate Sport Inc, the clothing company that is providing more than 1 million blue, green and white jackets, shirts, hats and sweaters to VANOC - the nickname of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
Elevate Sport is stepping its efforts to re-supply retailers with VANOC, after high sales in the first week of the Games left shelves depleted. With the Games at their have way point, VANOC executives say they have exceed their goal on revenues from merchandise sales.
"We have done plenty of events, but we never appreciated the demand that comes when you've got travelers from all over the world, who are at the Olympics for two weeks," said Will Andrew, founder and president of Elevate Sport. "People have all sorts of free time between events to shop, and when you've spent a great deal on airfare and hotels, it's easy to justify spending on clothing and gear."
Vancouver's notoriously fickle weather has played into the hands of retailers.
"In the first few days of the Games, when it rained, we were selling all sorts of toques and fleece, when the sun came out, we sold long-sleeved T-shirts and ball caps," said Elevate Sport's Mr. Andrew. He said: "Weather has become our ally when it comes to inventory control."
"The fear going into the Games was that the American and other foreign fans simply wouldn't come, due to the recession," said Mr. Andrew. "Now the Games are on, it's obvious the world travelers did show up, and they are all shopping."
It's too late now to re-start assembly lines and crank off more goods, according to Bay executives. The Games would be long over before anything a clothing supplier suppliers manufacture could get to store shelves.
In the face of surging customer demand at its flagship store in Vancouver, the Bay is ramping up operations in an effort to improve the shopping experience.
In recent weeks, the Olympic superstore hired extra staff to cope with the rush. There are now 400 employees in the Superstore space - a roped-off section of the outlet's first floor - as the retailer tries to keep the ratio of sales staff-to-customers at 1-to-10.
On Saturday, the downtown Bay store didn't close, with staff keep the doors open day and night. The same 24-hour shopping schedule is planned for the final weekend of the Games,.
If the Bay's design team has it right, surging patriotism is at the root of this craze. In a recent interview with a fashion magazine, Bay fashion director Suzanne Timmins said: "We started with the idea of Canada, exploring what Canadian style really looks like."
"It's not fashion for fashion's sake, said Ms. Timmins, creative director for the Olympic collection. "The iconic pieces, at their core, come from some sort of functionality: the parka, the toque, the sweaters that Grandma used to knit."
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