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MTA Gift Shop Puts Web Surfers in the Driver's Seat

L.A. agency markets kitschy merchandise in appeal to transit geeks and trendsetters alike.

July 02, 2005|Jessica Gresko | Times Staff Writer

Transit authorities from London to Chicago are driving off with big profits from their own merchandise lines. Now Los Angeles is looking to create some hype -- and cash. But can transit be trendy in a city where residents have a steady relationship with their cars?

London's circle-and-bar logo and Underground map memorabilia make the system about $1 million a year. New York's transit system takes in $1.5 million with items such as token cufflinks and baseballs bearing the subway map. Chicago and Washington, D.C., each make $40,000 annually, including sales online.

Los Angeles' Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its predecessors have sold merchandise since at least the 1980s, at one point from a lunch-cart truck that visited departments in its old Rapid Transit Department headquarters.

But in April, it launched its store online. It has handled about 70 orders and done $1,500 in business so far, store manager Danielle Boutier said.

In June, posters for the store went up in buses and light-rail cars, and on Friday an expanded website debuted at www.mta.net/riding_metro/store_online/store_online.htm.

The most popular item so far is a black T-shirt with the Metro's stylized "M" on the front and "Metro Los Angeles" on the back, Boutier said. And orders are not limited to the Los Angeles area.

Frank Loetterle, a transit planner in Minnesota, bought a system map mug online. He said it expands his collection of transit mugs from London, Paris and New York. "There's a surprising number of transit geeks out there that like this stuff," he said.

Spencer Kassimir, a senior at USC, bought one of the best-selling black "M" shirts. Kassimir said he grew up riding the New York City subway.

Now, even though he owns a car in Los Angeles, Kassimir says he often takes the Gold and Red lines because he doesn't like sitting in traffic. He bought the Metro T-shirt because transit is a hobby but also because the logo was "cool looking," he said.

There was a hint of rebellion to his purchase too. Wearing a Los Angeles Metro T-shirt is "completely counterculture," Kassimir said. "Because L.A. is car culture."

And, therein may lie the problem with mass marketing Los Angeles Metro merchandise. According to the American Public Transportation Assn., Los Angeles ranks third in the country in yearly boardings of buses, trains and subways -- behind New York and Chicago. But Los Angeles transit officials acknowledge that the systems in Chicago and on the East Coast have a different status.

"Transit there is more integrated into the fabric of how they live their lives," MTA spokesman Ed Scannell said. "It's not here. But it's becoming more so."

Los Angeles' system also confronts the hurdle of its history.

Enthusiasts say part of what makes transit systems interesting in London, Berlin, Paris and New York -- and why people want to buy merchandise from those places -- is that they were marvels of their time when they were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"Lincoln was giving his Gettysburg Address when we had the Underground in London," said David Ellis, who coordinates branding for the London Underground. He said Los Angeles' system "hasn't got the same soul" as other, older systems.

He pointed out that artists such as Man Ray, David Hockney and Paul Nash have produced works for London's transit agency and that Paris can glorify its stations' Art Nouveau entrances.

Ellis said those systems, even showing the dirt and grime of years, "still conjure up this wonderful romanticism and nostalgia."

Transportation officials in London and New York hope to continue to use that history and nostalgia to sell merchandise. New York officials say they still have some antique maps of the line that they would like to work into products, and items involving subway tile work are selling well.

London officials recently launched a line of home furnishing products based on Underground style, including a coffee table topped with the subway's map, and are exploring a fashion line targeted at 16- to 25-year-olds -- "think Diesel and Miss Sixty," Ellis said.

Boutier said that that kind of vision is a long way off in Los Angeles. And revenue in the millions?

"If we get a fraction of that, I'll be happy," she said.

The Los Angeles store's inventory is still small, but the agency's online store has received a considerable amount of traffic -- even without advertising.

The store's 44-item inventory includes T-shirts ($12 to $25), bags ($13 to $48), Metro pins ($3.50 to $4), stationery ($6 to $8), squeezable Metro "stress buses" ($4.50) and items with the Metro system map, such as an umbrella ($25) and mug ($12.50). The store began selling Metro posters Friday.

According to Clio Williams, who coordinates merchandise for the New York MTA, interest in transit products has taken off since she began her job in 1998.

When she started, the MTA's museum stores in Brooklyn and Grand Central Terminal carried about 1,000 different items, she said. Seven years later, they carry 5,000. The city started selling online in 2002 and published a 22-page transit merchandise catalog in 2004.

T-shirts, subway note cards and token jewelry are among the most popular items, she said. And novelties such as a $30 subway map shower curtain are also a draw. "We can't keep them in," she said.

Williams said MTA merchandise has "become a brand" akin to Guess or Levi's. "I watch MTV and the guys are wearing our T-shirts," she said.

Gabrielle Shubert, director of the New York Transit Museum, thinks she understands the appeal of transit merchandise. "The city services become icons for what the city is about."

But some credit goes to the transit agency's marketing.

"We've made it a hip thing," Shubert said.

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