Nike's employee store: Food for the sole

Updated: September 27, 2005, 11:11 AM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

BEAVERTON, Ore. -- The greatest sports store you'll never set foot in is officially open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, or, if you're Michael "The Franchise" Jordan, from whatever time His Airness wants to shop until he drops.

As buildings go, the Nike Employee Store, which is located not far from the company's drop-dead gorgeous world headquarters, has all the warmth of a warehouse. Actually, it is a converted warehouse featuring stark concrete floors, steel rafters and the kind of halogen lighting you see in medium-security prisons. But good luck finding a parking spot, especially during the two busiest shopping times of the year: pre-Christmas and pre-back to school. That's when the aisles suffer from cart gridlock and the 10 cash registers are pleading for mercy.

Hey, there's Hall of Famer Eddie Sutton, who is in town for a Nike clinic. The Oklahoma State coach is pushing a black shopping cart filled with enough merchandise to clothe the greater Stillwater area. Sutton, an Employee Store veteran, has been here awhile.

"I remember when they didn't have an employee store," Sutton says. "[Nike chairman and co-founder] Phil Knight sent me and [former Georgetown coach] John Thompson over to the warehouse to do some shopping. I filled two shopping carts. John filled eight."

It happens. Michigan State's Tom Izzo spent a couple hours here the other day and filled a personal-record five carts. His credit card is now in therapy.

"An incredible place, isn't it?," he says. "I get a kick out of seeing pro athletes in there, guys making millions, and the most important thing is shopping at the store. For me, I think it's Christmas. ... I think it brings out the kid in all of us."

It is very overwhelming for our customers or their guests, if they haven't been here before.
Jennifer Kenney, assistant manager, Nike employee store

You can't help yourself here. Your only two thoughts as you survey the vast array of merchandise are: "Can I get a small equity loan to pay for it?" and, "How will I get it all home?"

"It is very overwhelming for our customers or their guests, if they haven't been here before," says assistant manager Jennifer Kenney, whose own jaw had to be re-attached when she first saw the place a year ago. "We encourage them to walk around a couple of times before they start to make their purchases. You have to really walk around four or five times before you can see half of what we have."

Before you can walk around, you have to get in. And the only way you can get in is to be a Nike employee, a member of an employee's immediate family (nieces and nephews are out of luck), a Nike vendor, a Nike endorser (M.J., Sutton, Izzo, etc.), a Nike contributor (such as professional musicians who work with the company -- Nike won't provide names), a recipient of a Nike guest pass (employees get five each for the year), or a Nike suck-up (Knight himself approved my chaperoned visit for this column). Otherwise, welcome to the world of full retail pricing.

Employees are required to show their company IDs when they enter the store and the information is checked again at checkout. There are security cameras throughout the store and security personnel at the exits. And the store, itself, is designed to discourage gawking from the outside world. All you can see from the front windows is the security counter and a series of walls that shield the inside of the store.

Of course, none of this stops non-Nike-ites from trying to sneak in. Fake and student IDs are a favorite ploy. Others try the side door.

"It's very entertaining," Kenney says.

Groveling and begging for entry also are popular tactics.

"We do get that all the time," she says.

None of it works, not even the 'ol "my-mom-is-hooked-up-to-a-dialysis-machine-and-her-lone-wish-is-to-shop-for-a-pair-of-Zoom LeBron II SVSMs-before-she-spins-in" plea. That's because the store is a Nike perk for its employees and a safe haven for its visiting sports dignitaries.

King James has been here. He even autographed the wall-sized photo that features him sitting on his throne. In fact, hardly a day goes by when Kenney doesn't see a sports celeb in the aisles. In the 90 minutes I was there, it was Sutton and Tai Streets of Michigan and NFL fame.

"They're one of us when they're in the store," Kenney says.

The unwritten rule at Nike is that visiting athletes and coaches are not to be disturbed. Tiger Woods can stroll the corporate campus (and the building that bears his name) and Employee Store and not once be asked for his autograph, or hear someone yell, "You da man!"

Check that. Just outside the Tiger Woods Center is a replica of the No. 18 tee box at Pebble Beach, the same course where El Tigre lapped the 2000 U.S. Open field (the replica includes the tee box yardage marker from that Open). During a visit to the campus, Woods launched a 300-plus-yard drive from the marker, over the adjoining two Ronaldo soccer fields and a sidewalk and onto a small putting and chipping green next to the glass-encased Lance Armstrong Center. Here's guessing someone broke Nike cheering etiquette that day.

Otherwise, nobody says much to the celebs. And picture-taking is an absolute no-no. As for special requests, the Employee Store will open early or remain open late for the MJs (by the way, his nickname of choice, according to Nike types, is "The Black Cat"), LeBrons, Tigers, Lances and other biggies, if so required.

You name it, it's in the Employee Store. I saw a man in golf shorts trying on a knee-high Cole Haan cashmere-blend coat (Nike owns Cole Haan). I saw a cap display that featured the Boston Red Sox, Arsenal and Oregon State Beavers. I saw grown men in awed bliss as they walked past aisle after aisle of footwear.

Of course, peace doesn't always reign. During the holiday season, the Employee Store's massive inventory takes a hit. So does civility.

"My favorite experience was when two people were fighting over the last of our [University of] Oregon jackets -- and neither was their size," Kenney says.

My shopping cart looks malnourished compared to the others I see being steered toward the checkout lines. That's when I spot Sutton again. He has the sheepish smile of a shopping addict.

"We're still here," he says.

And then he disappears toward the Jordan merchandise display, I think. I've never seen him happier.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

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