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The Tampa Bay Lightning will open a store in International Plaza

Eric Blankenship is the VP of marketing for the team.
Eric Blankenship is the VP of marketing for the team.
Published Nov. 21, 2016

The Tampa Bay Lightning is getting into the mall business on the Stanley Cup Championship game day for retail: Black Friday.

The Lightning is opening a store inside International Plaza at 9 a.m. Friday, just in time for Black Friday shoppers and the busy holiday shopping season. The Tampa Bay Sports store, as it will be called, will sell Tampa Bay Lightning merchandise, as well as jerseys, hats and other goods related to other Florida sports teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tampa Bay Storm, the Florida Gators and the Florida State Seminoles.

The 1,500-square-foot store will open in the former Aerosoles space on the first floor of the mall near Dillard's and next to Vans.

The Lightning have operated kiosks in the past, but not in many years, said Eric Blankenship, vice president of marketing for the Lightning. This is the second store the Lightning will operate with Delaware North, a hospitality management company that also operates the Lightning's flagship retail store inside Amalie Arena.

"There are certain licenses that teams must have with the NHL (or other sport governing bodies) to sell merchandise, which makes opening a store difficult," Blankenship said. "But we've had a licensed online store for years with Delaware North, where we offer much more than just Lightning gear. This is a natural next step."

The Tampa Bay Times talked to Blankenship about the new store a week before it is set to open.

Why would the Tampa Bay Lightning want to open a retail store, especially at a time when fewer people are shopping in malls and doing so more online?

The mall makes a lot of marketing sense. International Plaza draws 18 million people a year. It's ahead of the curve in terms of retail operations. It's different than other malls in that it is a destination. Other malls tend to be very locally focused, very neighborhood-type centers. Like, if you live in Brandon you go to Westfield Brandon. International Plaza was designed to be a destination. With all the nightlife options on Bay Street and the types of stores they have inside, it draws people from all over. That mall matters and that's why we're there.

What else matters is that the Lightning brand is the strongest it's ever been, even though we still have plenty of room to grow. This store gives us an opportunity to reach fans outside of the arena and beyond our online store. We're not relying on this new store to be the foundation of our retail success, but it's part of the process. Our flagship store is in our arena. But this is just another destination for fans in the Tampa Bay area.

How do you plan to use the store to promote the Lightning beyond selling T-shirts and hats?

The goal is to keep the Lightning on the mind of our fans. We've had a partnership with International Plaza since 2014 where we've wrapped the elevators in the mall with the Lightning brand, hung flags and banners. I think years ago we used to have a kiosk where we sold tickets. But this marketing partnership has been very beneficial for us, and this is an extension of that.

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It allows us to activate at that mall. We can bring in ThunderBug, or the Lightning girls or the players for events where we haven't been able to have that kind of experience before. I think the mall sees us as a very different type of retail partner. We're not just a corporate store, we're invested in this community. There's a lot of opportunity there.

Why is now a good time to open a store?

The Lightning brand is so strong. We see banners and car magnets and flags all around Tampa Bay. But the reality is, we're still a growing brand and we're looking for opportunities to continue to strengthen it. Having a presence in International Plaza will help us do that, I think. Right now the store is made up of 750 square feet of sales space and 750 square feet of storage space. We have the flexibility to increase the sales space as we go and plan to do so. We put TVs in the store so that ESPN is running all day.

Honestly, economies of scale come into play. We sell the vast majority of our merchandise on game day in the arena. But now we have a location where foot traffic exists year round, so we can grow that.

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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