How We Created The Illini Store at The Lab in 24 Hours

You may recall that in March we opened a first-of-it’s kind pop-up NIL Store in Chicago during March Madness. The purpose of the NIL pop-up store was to create an in-person retail experience for Illini fans in the Chicago area with a focus on NIL and player-specific merch. The NIL store was able to generate money for the student-athletes and connect members of Illini nation to current players.

Fast forward to May and we’re back at it again. We created the Illini Store at The Lab in about 24 hours and hosted members of the basketball team for a Post-Season Meet & Greet. Here’s the how and why of The Illini Store at The Lab:

What is The Lab Usually?

Okay, so we’re starting off with a bit of a loaded question. What is The Lab? Well, it’s a lot of things. It’s an order pick-up location, it’s a student workplace, it was even a coffee shop at one point. It’s located on campus, just a block south of the heart of Green Street, The Lab is a multi-faceted space that has seen many iterations in it’s relatively short existence. At Campus Ink, we focus primarily on online retail, however, there are times when having a traditional brick-and-mortar is beneficial. Because of The Lab’s versatility, we can use it as retail space when we need to and in the down time it can be whatever else it needs to be.

Bringing the Illini Store to Champaign

As we mentioned, Chicago recently saw its own version of the Illini Store on North Halsted during March Madness. When the idea came up to bring something similar to Champaign, The Lab was an obvious choice for us. That being said, getting The Lab retail ready was no walk in the park. As I’m sure you gathered from the previous paragraph, The Lab isn’t a permanent retail space. It has all of the tools needed to be one (POS system, clothing racks, etc.), but it isn’t a full-time store.

So, how do you take a space and turn it into an interactive shopping experience in 24 hours? First things first, The Lab needed a good ol’ fashioned cleaning. Now, we’re not saying that the space had fallen into total despair, but a mop and some disinfecting wipes go a long way. Next, we needed to get merchandise over to The Lab so that we actually had something to sell (that’s sort of important in retail). Most of what we took was merchandise left over from the recent basketball season that would likely have just sat on our shelves otherwise. We ended up taking something like 20 boxes of merchandise over to The Lab. We also set up a heat press which allowed us to do on-site jersey, t-shirt and hoodie printing in real-time. Then, we finalized schedules with the players for meet and greets. Part of the appeal of this store was the meet and greet component. We wanted to give fans an opportunity to meet and interact with players. And finally we were ready to do some marketing. Our approach was really just to blast it out as much as possible across all of our channels. The marketing focus was primarily digital - through social media and emails. We also did a little artwork on the windows with window paint - never underestimate the power of foot traffic and visibility.

Why Now?

At this point, some of you are probably thinking, “okay, this is cool and all, but why would you spend all this time and effort to create a basketball-centered retail store now? The season ended weeks ago.” And if you happen to be having that exact thought process, you’re not wrong. However, there are a couple different reasons why creating The Illini Store in Champaign right now made a whole lot of sense.

Our biggest focus was to create one more chance for the players to profit from their NIL (name, image, likeness) before the school year was over. Our approach to the NIL is to help create an environment where players are in charge of their own destinies. We create the opportunities for them and help facilitate merchandise sales, but at the end of the day their participation and commitment level is totally up to them. By the start of May, most students (even athletes) have just a few short weeks left in Champaign. We wanted to create one final opportunity for players to sell merch, interact with fans and sign autographs. We were fortunate to have participation throughout the week from three players: Coleman Hawkins, Dain Dainja and Alfonso Plummer.

In addition to supporting the players, we had a decent amount of basketball-themed merchandise left that we wanted to get in the hands of customers. This is pretty typical in merchandise sales. It’s always sort of a guessing game as to what will sell and what won’t. There is no magic formula for getting it right every time. Creating the Illini Store at The Lab gave us the opportunity to sell merchandise that might have just sat on shelves at our production facility otherwise.

How Did this Event Benefit the Players?

Coleman has quickly become a fan favorite and had a great night at The Lab. We were able to produce on-site, with our heat press, his latest drop - the 90’s Tee. We even had fans messaging us online after seeing a social media post and asking for the tee to be added in orange to the online store. Dain, who is new to UIUC and the Fighting Illini basketball program, was able to use this as an introduction to the community and fans. We had a number of people tell us that they were excited to meet him and be one of the first to have his autograph. And finally, Alfonso Plummer, who has declared for the NBA draft, used this as an opportunity to say farewell to Illini fans of all ages. Plummer fans, many of which donned his iconic headband, showed up to see him one last time before he leaves Champaign.

We also had the ability to heat press jerseys for all three of these players. Any player-specific merchandise (jerseys, memorabilia or NIL merch) automatically attributes a portion of profits to the players. In addition, all other merch (generic hoodies, tees, etc.) can also have profits attributed to specific players. All sales made at the Illini Store at The Lab give money to the players.

Wins & Challenges

Overall our experiment with the Illini Store at The Lab was very positive. The players were able to interact with fans and make a little bit more money before the end of the school year. Throughout the week we were able to generate over $7,000 in sales with a large percentage of that going directly back to the players. At a certain point during the week, we even had to bring over additional merchandise from our production facility in Urbana.

That being said, we would be lying if we told you that the whole week was rainbows and butterflies. As with any event their were challenges along the way. One of the biggest challenges that we faced was coordinating player schedules for the meet and greet component. These individuals are students first and athletes second. Everything else comes after those two things. Even in the off-season they are busy with school, workouts, training and preparation for next year. On top of all that, our week-long event took place during the start of their finals week - remember that whole thing about them being students? Even after we thought things were confirmed and had posted the schedule to social media, things changed. Timing truly is everything. And being respectful of the athletes’ time and schedules is something that we always have to be conscious of.

Another challenge that we faced during the week was a learning curve with our student workers. Since The Lab isn’t normally a retail space, we had to do some impromptu, on site training for the point of sale system and how to sell merchandise. On a regular basis, students aren’t retail workers when they are at The Lab so we were asking (and trusting) them to step into a whole new world. They all did a fantastic job (regardless of a jersey getting stuck to the heat press) and we are grateful to have such smart, adaptable students as part of the Campus Ink family.

When it was all said and done, we were very pleased with how the week turned out. Seeing fans interact with their favorite players is something that never gets old for us. Stay tuned for the next Illini Store pop-up!

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