Assistant Editor at SAIS Washington
American universities are known for promoting school spirit. It’s a sense of belonging to the institution, expressed through logos, flags, sports teams and even hymns.
Being a graduate institution in DC, SAIS’ school spirit is relatively modest. You won’t see the SAIS logo nearly as much as you would at the Baltimore undergraduate campus.
That may be changing. Director of Operations Debbie Walls and her team have revamped the SAIS gear store.
It was a trial and error process that started two years ago. The store used to be in-house only, located in the basement close to the telephones. There were about three student workers per semester who manned the place for a couple of hours every week. They also set up tables at events such as happy hours commencement ceremonies, or “every once in a while just for no reason,” said Walls. Then, about two years ago, they removed the physical presence and moved sales online.
That turned out to be a mistake. Students and staff wanted to touch and feel the merchandise. Alumni wanted to be able to quickly get a mug when they visited for a happy hour. Sales were going down and people were beginning to complain.
“We went too far in the online direction,” Walls said.
Conditions aligned for a comeback this semester. Savannah Altvater had just started work as administrative secretary and took on the project together with student worker Christina Garafola. They came up with a hybrid format combining the online store with a physical one. The goal was to build a lean operation with smart social media outreach.
The store is now in the BOB building’s Learning Commons, on the third floor and is open between 1 and 3 p.m. on Wednesdays. The limited hours keep costs down and allows the staff to be flexible.
“People have no problem calling, emailing, facebooking or tweeting at us with a ‘hey, can I come by?’ and we’re more than happy to accomodate them,” said Altvater.
SAIS students and alumni with international itineraries will find this useful. One alum on his way back to India coordinated with Garafola to drop by on short notice.
Supplying the store is a balancing act. Walls and Altvater cringed when they recall the SAIS-logoed baby bibs they ordered on a single person’s request a few years ago. It turned out there was very little demand to adorn toddlers with the logo. Needless to say, they no longer place orders unless they are sure there is demand.
Quality is another issue. Amber Blake, a second-year student, said she would buy SAIS t-shirts if they weren’t “that soft stuff.”
However, students also want to buy more for less. “Three for 10 bucks, those cheap shirts that you wash them once, and then you need to throw them away? They [students] said we’d buy that all day long before we buy that $42 underarmour thing,” she said.
Starting in mid-November, all merchandise will carry the SAIS logo introduced last year. The store is trying to get rid of the old logo, so those looking for good deals should follow the store on social media in the next few weeks.
Students and staff are adjusting to the new format of the store. On the store’s first day, Altvater and Garafola were overrun by students wanting free computer cleaners. Many stayed to buy other merchandise, including at least one person who bought a SAIS logo baby bib.
Sales are up by 48% over the same time last year, and Altvater said she is expecting that number to increase.
The store’s online presence will also continue to be key. Tom Proctor, a second-year student, said that he bought a SAIS t-shirt through the online store for his morning runs. He got it in blue, he said, “because it makes me feel like I’m cheating less on my undergrad,” the blue and gold of UCLA.