College merchandising is an American thing

By Amaya Garcia Martinez

When my friend Almudena Guerrero opens her closet to dress for class every morning, she can choose a grey or a red University of Richmond sweatshirt, long UR trousers or shorts, a green t-shirt that reads "UR in the world," a red one that advertises the Richmond soccer team, a classic grey one with the spider silhouette on it, or a more trendy blue one, which also proclaims "Richmond." If it rains, she may want to take her navy blue UR umbrella and, if it is cold, she can wear her red spider coat.

In a few days, Almudena will have to pack all her University of Richmond gear to travel back home to the Spanish city of Seville. "I don't know how I'm going to make it," she jokes. "I guess I'll need another bag, only for my Richmond stuff. And I hope they won't arrest me for smuggling UR products."

In her fall semester as an international exchange student at Richmond, Almudena Guerrero, a senior majoring in finance, estimates that she has spent no less than $ 250 in the bookstore. This number does not comprise textbooks or stationery, but just UR clothing and other merchandising.

This may not be surprising for many Richmond students, but it may be surprising for them to know that Almudena never bought any merchandising in her home university, Pablo de Olavide, in Seville, which she has attended for three years. And Almudena's case might be extreme, but her attitude is not uncommon among international students at the UR, most of whom experience a drastic change in their attitude toward college merchandising.

According to merchandising sellers, professors and students, this behavior is not an eccentricity, but rather a reflection of the different approaches to merchandising that American universities and those from other countries have, and also an expression of the values that predominate in different educational systems.

The easiest way to become integrated

I still remember my surprise when I realized that everyone at Richmond wears college apparel – not only when they go to games, but also in class – t-shirts, sweaters, pants, flip-flops, tote bags and so on. The overwhelming proliferation of college products is one of the first cultural shocks that international students at UR, or any other American university, have to face.

"Wearing stuff from your college is the thing to do," says Lauren Davis, a junior at the UR. "Everyone does it. It's interesting to think that it might not be like this everywhere."

Even if exchange students come from universities with little or no merchandising, they quickly realize that wearing college clothing is not only a convenient option, it is also the easiest way to become integrated. "I wear UR clothes because I like sports outfits, but also as a sign of identification," Almudena says.

Roger L. Brooks, general manager of Richmond's bookstore, thinks that both practical and emotional reasons explain the success of college merchandising, a nationwide growing tendency in the last decades. Richmond is a good example of this phenomenon, he says.

"We have been selling products of the university for a long time, but sales have exploded in the last 10 years," Brooks says. "This has happened because identification with colleges has become so big, and students have changed their clothing style, which has become more informal. They used to wear suits to class, nowadays for the most part they wear jeans, a t-shirt and a sweatshirt – boys as well as girls," he says.

Brooks thinks the reason clothing sells best is that it serves a double purpose. "It is practical, and it has Richmond imprinted on it, so other people can see what your college is when you are wearing it," he says.

His coworker Debbie Matze, general merchandise buyer, has also seen the consequences of the recent success of college clothing. "We have become some kind of department store," she says. In fact, Matze's job consists mainly of meeting with the salesmen and choosing among the samples of clothing, trying to get a selection that will be attractive for UR students.

The same shift that the bookstore has had is visible on its webpage, www.urspidershop.com, which has two main sections of equal importance – books and merchandising. But in the categories of "featured items" and "popular items," no books appear. Instead, there are Richmond stickers, hoodies and sweatpants. UR clothing is also available at www.collegear.com, and the official rings can be ordered at www.balfour.com.

"Although we cannot compare ourselves with Virginia Commonwealth University or Virginia Tech, which are huge, we do very well for our size," Brooks says. He estimates that UR merchandising will represent this year a benefit of $ 800,000 in sales.

A different lifestyle and concept of school

Richmond is a good example of the success of college merchandising all over the United States; has become bigger in the last decades. But this tendency has only barely started in other countries.

"This is a trend that's being imported to Europe," says Hendrik Hilgert, an exchange student from Germany at the UR. "I've seen some examples in Germany. But there's a time gap between the U.S. and Europe in the way society is developed."

What are the factors that explain the lack of merchandising in European universities? The University of Deusto is similar to Richmond yet its approach to merchandising could not be more different.

Both Richmond and Deusto are private, selective and small colleges of 3,000 students that are well-known for their business schools, but also for their arts and sciences departments. In both cases, undergraduate students predominate. Deusto and the UR are seen as colleges for serious and hard-working students, but also for rich kids. There are even physical similarities between the two universities. Their campuses are praised for their beauty and, in spite of being close to town, they are quiet enclaves.

But there are no college products in the bookstore at Deusto, only textbooks and office supplies. Even the stationary is plain – no logos or mascots.

"The one thing I noticed at Deusto that did have the name of the school on it was the bag that students carried their laptops in," says Molly Bechert, a senior at the University of Richmond who spent a semester there as an exchange student. "I did wish that I could have bought a shirt or a sweatshirt from Deusto, especially as a foreign student."

In fact, computer bags and backpacks with the college logo on them are offered by Deusto to freshmen when they buy their laptops through the university, which has an economic agreement with the technology company Dell. The only other products with the Deusto logo imprinted are the official ties that students wear for special events, such as the National Debate League, and the pens that are offered to prospective students at educational fairs.

All of these products are offered free.

"I'm not sure why Deusto students aren't interested in buying products from the university," Molly says. "For me, it seemed like college was a smaller part of their lives there than it is here. Deusto students have €˜fuller' lives outside school. College isn't as much a part of their daily lives, so maybe they don't feel the desire to proclaim their membership."

The role of athletics and industrial production

The fact that Deusto is not residential can explain a lack of involvement with the academic institution in the part of students. In Spain, most students live at their parents' house or rent an off-campus apartment with their classmates, unlike what happens in the countries with an Anglo-Saxon academic tradition, where most students live on campus.

But there are other countries in which residential colleges predominate, and yet college merchandising is not as widely spread as it is in the United States.

This is the case in South Africa, where Emily Jenchura, a senior at Richmond, studied at Cape Town. Her first impulse was to buy as much merchandising from her new university as possible. She still remembers her surprise when she realized that things were different from her American college. "Even if the student body was huge, something like 22,000 people, you realized that they had very few college products and nobody wore them," she says.

Jeffrey Hass, associate professor of sociology at Richmond, thinks that there are deeply rooted social characteristics that explain why college merchandising is such a big tendency in the United States, but not in other countries. The importance of college athletics and the power of the American industry are, in his opinion, the two most relevant.

"Sports are a great part of college life. People go to college to learn, to party and to see football games," Hass says. "People have always bought football merchandising, and college athletics in general are much more important in the United States than they are in other countries. Intercollegiate sports do not even exist in Europe."

At the UR bookstore, Brooks confirms this. "Our sales of clothing increase when Richmond teams are doing well," he says. "Virginia Tech does not only have such a huge merchandising because of its size, but also because it has good teams." But Hass says that a developed industrial system is also essential in order to produce and commercialize the merchandising. "This is the country of mass production, unlike Europe, where crafts are still a synonym of luxury," he says.

As a consequence, a more uniform style of dressing exists in America. "Jeans and t-shirts, that's the American uniform," says Rafael Huaman, an international student from Peru. "Here nobody wants to be original with their outfit, so it's not surprising that American students like to wear college clothes, just the same as their classmates."

Lauren Davis has a similar view. "There's an obsession with t-shirts in America," she says. "I think it has something to do with the fact that we don't have a sense of fashion."

Haas says: "There is a great consumer society in America. This is a capitalist country. Everything can be produced in great numbers, and people have the money to buy it. But, when people buy college merchandising, they are not only acquiring material objects, they are also consuming meaning and identity. College products are a symbol of status and competition. People want to wear their university's t-shirt to show off against other schools."

The manifestation of wealth and nationalism

Archana Bhatt, professor of culture and communication at Richmond, agrees with Hass that college merchandising is a demonstration of status. "Part of it is related to how we perform class identity and wealth," she says. "This performance is less conspicuous in Europe." This is, in Bhatt's opinion, a consequence of the fact that American wealth is "new money."

"We understand universities as a representation of class identity," Bhatt says. "People do not feel attracted to community colleges or state universities, and, therefore, they are generally less enthusiastic about their merchandising, because these institutions do not carry the same social connotations as elite colleges."

The latter is the case of most European universities, given that even private colleges have easily affordable tuition fees compared to the United States. For instance, at Deusto, one of the leading colleges for business studies, my friends in business school paid $ 8,000 a year.

"Here, access to higher education is lived as an acquired right, because it's not an expensive thing," says Nerea Azurmendi, professor of marketing at Deusto. "But in the United States, students perceive that they need to put more effort into it."

In Europe as well as in America, higher education has become a massive reality, and it is now accessible for the middle class. But this happened earlier in the United States and, therefore, a more competitive educational system has been developed. Universities had to fight to achieve social prestige, and at the same time students had to fight to get into prestigious institutions.

For Bhatt, the access of the middle classes to higher education is a reason for American pride and, therefore, it is somehow a manifestation of nationalism. "Being an American is going to Harvard or Berkeley. You are proclaiming your Americanism when you wear their clothes.

"The power of the name is a huge thing," Bhatt says. In her opinion, the relation between prestige and branding is a circular one. Prestige is the cause of branding, but it is also reinforced by branding. "One could not exist without the other," she says.

Reflecting on prestige, Miguel Ayerbe, a sociology professor at Deusto, says: "The phenomenon of merchandising is related to the recognition of American universities. In that country, attending a prestigious college gives a social credit that students want to make visible. But in general, institutions of all sorts – universities, political parties, police forces, the Church, etc. – don't have a priori a good reputation in European societies."

The more practical functions of merchandising

Hilgert agrees with Ayerbe in that college gear demonstrates American students' willingness to belong to their universities. "They show a corporative identity that is not so strong in other countries, although it is probably growing," he says. "This kind of collectivistic ideas may sound strange in a country such as the United States, that's supposed to be very individualistic, but in fact Americans usually identify themselves more with the corporations they're part of. The American society is more divorced, so they need to look for identification points."

Nevertheless, Hilgert refuses to reduce American student's involvement in their universities to its mere psychological dimension. "This notion that alumni should offer jobs to graduates from their universities not because of their qualifications, but just because they belong to the same group, this doesn't exist in Europe," Hilgert says. "And the idea that alumni should contribute to financing their former colleges is also nonexistent in Europe, where all universities receive public funding."

Azurmendi also believes in the importance of economic factors. "Given that public investments are scarce in the United States, even in state institutions, they need to maintain a high level of self-funding," she says. "The contribution of merchandising to the whole might be insignificant, but merchandising has a double purpose, as it is also an element of cohesion and support in a very competitive environment."

Hass says: "Wearing a t-shirt from my university is fun, but when you think about business, it's different. Of course that the role of alumni and financers does not exist in European universities, because they have a welfare state that gives all the money they need to colleges, and this reduces the need for universities to instill in their students a sense of attachment and responsibility toward the institution."

Azurmendi highlights the following differences: "The different shopping habits and the view of the university as a more prestigious institution in the United States and, of course, a wider offer that is possible thanks to a stronger industrial system; as well as the values of effort, commitment, compromise and pride that exists in American universities."

At the UR bookstore, Matze summarizes this entire complex phenomenon in one sentence. "It's all a question of school spirit," she says.

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1 Response to College merchandising is an American thing

  1. Julia says:

    I found this article very interesting. I have for a while now been looking for sweatshirts from both La Sorbonne and L’Universite Libre de Bruxelles online and have been unable to find anything. After reading this I understand why my lack of success.

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