New owner: Moe Sports Shop won't be changed after sale to Underground Printing of Ann Arbor
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
Bud VanDeWege Jr. looks forward to new career opportunities. His father, who started working at the store in 1964, bought it in 1971 and stopped by daily even after his son took over, is ready to finally retire.
And the buyers - University of Michigan fans and graduates who’ve built an $8.5 million retail business in 8 states - say they value the store’s tradition and don’t want to change it.
Moe’s, as it is more familiarly known to its customers, was sold in March to Underground Printing, which now has a long-term lease for the building, owned by the VanDeWege family. The shop has been located on North University Avenue at the edge of U-M’s Diag since 1915,
The move, VanDeWege says, adds Moe’s the list of what he calls “the dying breed of family owned stores with real connections to the community.”
But instead of closing or reshaping Moe’s, Underground Printing will carry on the store’s 95-year legacy and name in Ann Arbor, preserving the connections forged by two generations of VanDeWeges. That makes the sale of the campus-area institution - described as one of Ann Arbor’s original iconic retailers - a positive step for the long-time owners and buyers.
“What we’re so thrilled about is that we have local ownership. They were customers of ours,” VanDeWege said. “They grew up around the business, and they understand its value and name, and want to carry on the tradition.”
The deal originated in March when a vendor of both Moe’s and Underground Printing suggested that VanDeWege talk to Underground Printing owners Ryan Gregg and Rishi Narayan.
There were no plans to sell or find a buyer, VanDeWege said. But over the past four years, he’d been working as a sports equipment sales rep, a job that pulled him out of the store as he plugged into that role.
“I was not soliciting any interest in (selling) the business at all,” he said.
But on some level he knew that something had to change.
“It was becoming harder and harder to do the job that both of them required to the best of my ability,” he said. “The store was being sacrificed in that process.”
So the hunch of that vendor paid off, as Gregg and Narayan realized that the store would fit into their own expansion plans.
Underground Printing has grown into a 14-store business with a 35,000-square-foot warehouse in Scio Township and a recently expanded spirit wear store on South University.
Their business, born in the West Quad dormitory whey they were undergraduates, was founded out of their own excitement over U-M sports and their understanding of how to market products to students.One key to their success, Gregg said, is looking for the best locations, as close to a campus as possible.
They found that on South University. Now they’ve got it in the Moe’s store at the other end of the Diag. And Gregg insists that they serve two distinct - and robust - markets.
“We knew that State Street was a whole different area,” Gregg said. “No one outside of Ann Arbor would believe you, but they’re two separate worlds.”
In Moe’s, Gregg said, they found a business that fits theirs perfectly - but would be impossible to recreate.
“The question is,” Gregg said, “how do you move that forward?”
Long ago at Moe’s, Champion experimented with putting U-M’s brand on its basic athleticwear. Eventually the market for college logo merchandise exploded, and by 2011 it’s projected to become a $336 billion industry. Today, U-M merchandise can be found everywhere from discount stores to department stores, and in multiple storefronts near campus. The university reaps close to $5 million per year in royalties from those sales.
Under VanDeWege, the business stayed vital - and true to its tradition - despite massive changes in the fan apparel business. The market is saturated, VanDeWege said, while demand for U-M items has dropped due to subpar football and basketball seasons.
“We had to adjust to the needs and demands of the times and try to grow,” VanDeWege said.
Moe’s survives that climate by staying focused on its original goal of providing the best quality and by capitalizing on the loyalty it builds with students who turn into alumni.
Among those loyal students-turned alumni are the Underground Printing co-founders.
“Moe’s is one of the place when you were a student you’d say, ‘This is the best stuff out there,’” Gregg said. “ It had the best product, the most tradition, the local flavor. The things we really liked and respected and admired.”
Now, as the store’s owners, they plan to bring their own brand of the same tenets that guided Moe’s for years: Service and personal connections.
While insisting that the essence of Moe’s won’t change, Gregg already is looking for ways to improve it. His stores rotate displays on sidewalks, giving pedestrians a chance to discover the merchandise. Sale items will be “our best stuff,” he said, to build repeat customers. Shoppers will be able to find high-quality items, but also some popular trends.
The goal, he said, is to keep the store a shopping destination in a town that he describes as the “best collegiate market in the country.”
VanDeWege says the new energy coming into the store and Underground Printing’s momentum will help the store in the future.
“They’re not only in touch with what’s going on at Michigan’s campus, they’re able to respond to the market on college campuses everywhere,” he said.
Underground Printing hired all 10 of the Moe’s employees, and VanDeWege Sr., at 81, still stops by the store daily. The transition has been smooth, Gregg and VanDeWege agree.
“We are very much at peace with the decision we made,” VanDeWege said. “(Moe’s) needed some changes. The competitive environment is such that we were going to have to do some things.”
What he hopes shoppers see now at Moe’s is a store that still has a family feel, but “with their incredible energy and current ideas.”
Gregg, whose business has grown through establishing new stores, shares that vision.
“You can always make something new,” he said. “But some things you’ll never be able to recreate, so you’d better hold onto them.”