If you have walked inside the Mariners Team Store at any point in the last 18 years you are familiar with the work of Julie McGillivray. If you have purchased women’s apparel at any point in the last 18 years, you are a grateful fan of her work without even realizing it.
When McGillivray began working for the team in 2000, the women’s apparel section could be described as minimal, if we’re being charitable. She immediately knew she wanted to expand that area. Noticing how well a pink kids’ jersey sold in larger sizes, indicating women were buying them, she contacted Nike about producing a pink Mariners hat. At that time, the only Major League team selling a pink hat, a hat made specifically for women, was the Yankees. Nike was initially resistant but McGillivray talked them into it and had an instant best seller flying out the doors of the team store.
I can hear half the women reading this groaning at this talk of pink merchandise. I know, I had the same reaction. I also know that the pink hats and jerseys were and remain popular, and as I talked with McGillivray and learned the backstory and behind-the-scenes details of how the merchandising works I began to understand them.
McGillivray came to the Mariners not as a rabid baseball fan intent on dangling tempting apparel in front of us in a ploy to separate us from our money, but as someone with experience in nearly all aspects of the retail industry intent on dangling tempting apparel in front of us in a ploy to separate us from our money. She played softball growing up in Tacoma and knew baseball, but didn’t consider herself a fan.
Her path towards the Mariners began in middle school as a sales associate. She worked in retail in high school and through college at Peoples Department Store, a now defunct chain originally based in Tacoma. Upon graduation from the University of Washington with a degree in Speech and Hearing Sciences and minor in Marketing, she worked at Peoples in their merchandising training program. That led to a job with the Bon Marche.
At the Bon, she worked her way up through the ranks to become a buyer. In 11 years there she saw all aspects of the retail business from the sales floor to choosing what to stock, something she credits as helping her in her current job. That experience also helped her land the job with the Mariners. She took time off to raise her two kids. When she was ready to jump back into the retail world a friend who worked for the Mariners told her of an opening in the merchandising department. She was brought on as a buyer in 2000 with the objective of enhancing sales.
The year 2000 was a pretty good year to be hired if your job was to increase sales. The 2000 Mariners were a somewhat surprising team that performed above expectation after losing Ken Griffey Jr. McGillivray was brought on as a buyer for every department and added an incredible amount of merchandise right away. She talked about how crazy those first couple years were, specifically mentioning the 2001 All-Star Game hosted at Safeco Field and needing to buy more and more jerseys as more and more Mariners were added to the team. She told me about having nightmares that there wasn’t enough product and store shelves were bare. The buying frenzy was real in 2000 and 2001. A vendor told her, “It’ll never be like this again.” She seems to have taken that as a personal challenge. In those early years the team store did the most revenue it has ever done.
Predictably, sales dropped when the team’s performance dropped. Yet, the Mariners are the only team to be named Retailer of the Year twice by MLB (The award has been given out since 2005; the Mariners won in 2005 and 2014). They are always in the top 10 in sales among MLB teams, most often in the top 5.
The success of the Mariner’s merchandising department is a clear result of McGillivray’s work. She talked about her job glowingly and it’s no surprise that she’s good at it; the passion and enthusiasm behind her words could be a motivational speech about doing work you love. (Despite having no eye for fashion trends myself, I was convinced by her enthusiasm that I must find a job in MLB merchandising immediately.)
So, what makes her job so great? It’s incredibly creative. She and her team must be on top of wider fashion trends, but also follow player trends. Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano are obvious players to stock jerseys for, but what about Mitch Haniger? What the players wear is always the best selling merchandise. However, when she came on she was interested in creating apparel beyond what would be worn to the ballpark. At that time, there was almost no women’s apparel being sold and the team did very little sales with the college demographic. She wanted people to wear their product everywhere.
She talks about how everything in the store used to be navy and silver. It was a dark sales floor and felt less than inspiring. Then, teal worked its way back into our lives, for better or worse, and brought color and inspiration to the store. She pointed out the Cooperstown Collection which is all of the amazing throwback logos and colors. This was how they reached that elusive college demographic. With less money to spend than other groups, something has to really catch their eye for them to part with their cash.
The job is also ever changing. Trends change quickly and they pick out the products long before they hit store shelves and racks. To get an idea of what will sell the merchandising team pays close attention to what people are wearing to the ballpark. They shop in the Northwest to get an idea of which wider fashion trends take hold here. Every November, MLB has a fashion summit they attend to see what is trending among baseball teams as a whole. They will travel to meet with hat vendors and see their latest designs, and vendors will come right to the ballpark to show off their ideas.
Because of the success McGillivray and her team have had, MLB will show them new lines before they are rolled out and take their notes and advice on changes to make. Her team also has input on designs from their other vendors. McGillivray emphasizes several times that they want to make sure the store has something for everyone, whether you just want a jersey or want something more fashion forward. They also want to turn over their product quickly and bring in new designs frequently. “We don’t want season ticket holders seeing the same thing every game,” she explains.
Fashion is also cyclical, as anyone who made fun of their parents’ pictures in bell bottoms only to find themselves sporting flare jeans knows. Pink was hugely popular in 2000 then slowly faded away. They had reached a point where the store had almost no pink and now it’s making a comeback. Shirts that used to feature full embroidery faded away to ink, then distressed ink, then flat ink, and now back to embroidery. Knowing what trends will sell is a big part of the job, especially when it comes to hats. McGillivray shows me a small section of hats specifically for women featuring a few shades of pink, but also a popular floral patterns and tiny logo patterns. Lest you think the floral trend is only for women, she points out a floral brimmed men’s hat that is selling well. She shows a hat with rose gold metal on it, rose gold being another current trend.
Then she shows me an ensemble I would never think would sell: a shiny gold jacket with coordinating tank tops and pants that are selling well among women and men alike. “I was walking around the ballpark wearing this and people kept asking where to get it,” she says, “It’s very flashy!”
The merchandising side also gets a little bit of input on jersey redesigns. It’s mainly handled by the baseball operations and marketing teams, but there’s some input on what fans like and whether they think a jersey will sell. The jersey the merchandising team had the most input on was the cream Sunday alternates. “It’s fun to say you had a part in that,” McGillivray tells me, also noting that was the first jersey that many in the college demographic bought.
McGillivray’s job isn’t just the fun side of telling vendors what to make and pouring over fashion trends and deciding how to implement them. She is also in charge of the store operations. I talked to her in the store as she showed me around. While there she straightened racks and helped style some of the displays. A problem with a promo code popped up that she immediately contacted someone to fix, and she assured the cashiers that more bags were on the way. Her job encompasses literally everything that makes the stores run.
She speaks glowingly of the team she’s assembled to help with the huge job she has. Her days are split between the stores and merchandising. She meets with vendors and oversees buyers. She makes sure all the operating bills are paid and deals with the HR side of hiring and keeping her many employees happy. She mentions again that she worked her way up to her position from a sales associate to a buyer to where she is now. She understands what all the jobs along the way are like.
Since the stores are dependent on stocking things people want to buy, the merchandising department handles its own social media messaging and listens to the feedback they get. She also notes that they have meetings with all the team store managers and try to understand what fans are asking for. So, if you want that Guillermo Heredia shirsey, ask away!
I have to ask McGillivray if she has become a baseball fan since working for the Mariners. She responds with an enthusiastic, “Yes! A huge fan!” It would be impossible not to. She describes working for the Mariners as being in “merchandising fairy land” and that “it’s the best place to be a buyer…it’s rewarding to make a difference and work in a beautiful place.” She described her first day on the job and coworkers laughing happily and having beers together at the game. She mentions how cool it is to work in a baseball stadium. She talks again about making a difference. Her efforts to bring diverse products into the store are clear.
This brings us back to pink hats and the dissatisfaction many women feel with sports merchandising for women. After spending time in the store and talking to McGillivray and remembering how amazing the Mariners Team Stores are at convincing you to part with your money, I took a stroll through other shops offering sports apparel. There was some good stuff and some not so good stuff, but it immediately stood out to me how limited the selections are for women at other stores. I think that, along with the derisive term “Pink Hat”, is what leads some of us to have a reaction against women’s clothing that can read as excessively girly. Not all women have that reaction to pink hats and expressively feminine sports clothing, and McGillivray tapped into that want of different types of sports apparel and created an unapologetically feminine space among the sea of men’s options.
It became clear to me that McGillivray’s greatest contribution to women sports fans isn’t just a wide variety of apparel. It has been approaching the Mariner’s merchandising for everyone--men, women, and children--from the perspective that the Mariners are fun and clothes are fun, so why not have those two be fun together? Female sports fans talk constantly about wanting to be treated like a normal fan, not a special subset of the population. McGillivray does that, and likewise so do the Mariners Team Stores. We are lucky to have her.