How the online retailer is bringing a modern twist to a shop local experience
Across the country, communities have seen a resurgence in the ideals of shopping local, supporting businesses in your neighborhood and those you walk by on a daily basis. But what if the small shops you want to support are nestled in a small town where you only spent four years? For those who attended Ohio University or have some other connection to Athens, the entrepreneurs at Shop Athens have built an answer: an online retailer that takes apparel and merchandise from around the town and university to anywhere its alumni might be.
“Shop Athens is a website that specifically sells merchandise for basically all things Athens, Ohio,” said owner and OU graduate John Sammon. “We partner with just about everyone in Athens, to some extent, including businesses, the university and students. The site highlights everything related to the Athens downtown experience. We sell everything from shirts and glasses to mugs and hats. We pay organizations a royalty for everything we sell related to their business, and we try to make it as locally oriented as possible.”
Shop Athens originally launched under different ownership in 2014, and Sammon took over in 2020 amid the pandemic. He had originally thought of Shop Athens as a side hustle along with his Cleveland marketing and advertising company called Sixth City Marketing. Instead, Shop Athens caught on. Sammon said their revenue grew threefold last year, which led to a partnership with the Ohio University Innovation Center, where they’re the new anchor tenant, a role he’s proud of.
“I’ve always valued the work that they do,” he said. “This was just another step in building that relationship with them. We continue to have an ongoing discussion about opportunities, and this one made a lot of sense to have that presence in Athens while we improve our affiliation with the university. There’s so much that the Innovation Center offers, that when we wanted to take the next step forward and build our presence in Athens, it was a no-brainer.”
Ultimately, Shop Athens is all about the businesses it connects. And from Jackie O’s to Big Mamma’s Burritos and Bagel Street Deli to The Union, all of the Athens favorites are represented.
“In partnering with the business community in Athens as well as the university and the students, I think there’s a responsibility to represent the town and the school, and that’s something we’ve really taken seriously,” Sammon said. “When we improve our presence, people are seeing more of every component of Athens, and we see that as a responsibility. If people are looking for something related to the town or Ohio University, they can buy it anywhere. But they can see that there’s a local connection here, and we try to keep the dollars flowing into Athens as much as we can, and I’m a graduate of OU, so there’s a connection there.”
But Shop Athens isn’t just about branded gear and local stores. As its exposure has increased, the site and its sister site at ThisOneTimeInCollege.com have gotten into the business of monetizing student athletes’ names, images and likeness rights. Those NIL rights are a burgeoning market since a 2021 ruling made it legal for student athletes to profit from them. Sammon sees it as an important part of the future.
“Student athletes have really valued being able to partner with us,” he said. “Between our two sites, we’ve partnered with more than 150 student athletes, which is a whole different level of exposure for their brand. It’s the first time that they’ve had a brand and have been able to sell themselves to try and get some compensation. Eventually, we want to try to spin that out and bring it to other universities. We’ve taken on a lot of student athletes, and we’re looking to expand throughout Ohio and beyond.”
Sammon splits his time between Cleveland and Athens, but holds a special place for the southeast Ohio outcove. With Shop Athens, he hopes that he can help share some of the amazing memories he made while attending OU, and can help boost the businesses that meant a lot to him.
“During one of the most formative times in my life, I found myself going to school in Athens, Ohio, and I had such a great experience at the school and with the town,” he said. “It’s a place that really made a wonderful impression on me, and that’s my excuse to come back to the area frequently. I take my wife and daughters there frequently, and the whole family enjoys it. It made a lot of sense to be in business there, and I couldn’t be happier to represent Athens with this site.”