PITTSBURGH -- Commerce knows no team loyalty.
Despite its heritage as a pillar of the Pittsburgh community and a booster of the National Football League's Steelers, Giant Eagle is going all out in its recently acquired Cleveland-area stores to support the Browns -- and sell lots of Browns-labeled merchandise. Cleveland's NFL expansion team played its first game against the Steelers this month. The two cities have one of the most celebrated professional-football rivalries in the nation.
While nearly every store in the Cleveland area is featuring Browns merchandise, including Tops Family Markets, the Buffalo, N.Y.-based division of the Dutch company, Ahold, Giant Eagle and its executives have long been closely linked to Pittsburgh sports teams.
When contacted, Giant Eagle executives declined comment about the chain's shifting allegiances. However, a story in a Pittsburgh newspaper quoted Joe Faccenda, Giant Eagle's senior vice president of marketing and merchandising for Giant Eagle, as acknowledging, "I get a lot of ribbing about it." In the story, Faccenda went on to say he would root for the Steelers on game day: "I'm a Pittsburgh Steelers guy." Giant Eagle is now Cleveland's biggest supermarket chain, he said, and "business is business."
A Pittsburgh-area competitor was sympathetic, according to the report. "We've been in the same boat," said Jim Green, regional director of advertising and communications for Supervalu, Eden Prairie, Minn., which operates Shop 'n Save stores in the area and supplies many independents. "Most customers, I believe, would not look at this as Giant Eagle being a traitor in Pittsburgh," he said.
But from a visit to Giant Eagle's new 102,000-square-foot store in North Olmsted, Ohio, which opened last month, it would appear that the retailer has a unmistakable allegiance to the Browns. The entire front entryway is themed around the team, with large banners, ceiling hangers and a massive display, including a mannequin wearing Browns apparel. Products sold there include a Browns cooler for $29.99, plastic cutlery, plates and cups, and snack items like Oreos in packs labeled "Cleveland Browns Welcome Home." A large Pepsi display nearby is similarly themed around the Browns.
Inside the store, Browns merchandise is sold from multiple positions, the largest being a 400-square-foot area in the store's seasonal promotional aisle. On either side, a 16-foot gondola runs featured merchandise like sweatshirts for $17.99 and $24.99, T-shirts for $9.99 and 17.99, polo shirts for $26.99, long-sleeved denim shirts for $29.99, hats for $9.99, NFL bobbing-head dolls for $10.99, mugs for $5.99 and plush toys for $3.99 and $5.99.
Four feet on each side was devoted to Dawg Pound licensed food products. (The Dawg Pound is an area in the Browns stadium.) Among the items: 10-ounce kettle-style potato chips for $1.99, 18-ounce barbecue sauce for $1.89, 12-ounce spicy brown mustard for $1.39 and 14-ounce Dawg Pound Crunch Cereal for $3.29 in a "limited collector's box," with profits going to a Cleveland-area inner-city private school. The line is from PLB Sports, Pittsburgh, in an exclusive to Giant Eagle, according to PLB's Web site.
Island displays included more Browns-branded merchandise, such as Browns footballs for $19.99, key holders for $1.99, blanket throws for $29.99, children's shirts for $17.99 and children's caps for $12.99. A second island display was devoted to Pepsi 24-packs for $6.79.
Signs hanging from the ceiling proclaimed: "Giant Eagle: Official supermarket of the Cleveland Browns" and "Giant Eagle, Cleveland Browns, a winning team." Other prominent Browns decorative displays were seen in the bakery and meat departments. The Iggle's Nest children's play area had its own Browns promotion. Cleveland Indians merchandise was displayed in another part of the store.
Displayed in multiple locations around the store, including the entry, the seasonal aisle, the magazine section and the checkouts, were shippers of a special Sports Illustrated "Return of the Browns" issue, priced at $6.29, and a "Cleveland Browns 1999 Yearbook," priced at $8.99. Also, on several counters, including the main service counter, the video counter, the photo-processing counter and some checkouts, were counter-top displays of collectible coins priced at $1.99.