OCEAN CITY, Md. (AP) — It's not just another mall boutique. Behind the scenes, Hatland runs a thriving online business that sells tens of thousands of sports-themed hats each year.
The Internet has turned Hatland.com, headquartered at the Gold Coast Mall, into one of the top ballcap retailers in the United States. A single mention on a message board, or if a sports team goes on a hot streak, can boost sales of one particular team's hats overnight.
"Every day is a different day," said manager Andy Barth. "We could walk in, and for some reason, we sell 75 San Francisco Giants hats, just because somebody is blogging about looking for a hat on a Giants message board. Somebody might post a link. All of a sudden — wait a sec, what happened here? We'll never know."
Wall-to-wall hats line the 3,000-square-foot store, from floor to ceiling. But behind the counter, there's another 3,000 square feet of shelves that contain thousands more hats, waiting to get ordered by Internet customers.
Hatland is essentially running two separate businesses, one brick-and-mortar, one online.
"There's a bigger business going on, on the backside," Barth said. "This time of year, people walk in, and they'll wonder why we have six or seven people working when there's even six or seven people in the mall. And it's for that reason — they power the Internet."
Hatland has a full-time staff of about 10 people, many of whom are constantly answering customer emails and filling orders.
All those online orders also make Hatland the biggest customer of the Ocean City Post Office. Letter carriers typically stop by several times a day to pick up the hundreds of outgoing orders. Around the holiday season, the store moves about 500 orders each day.
The business was started in 2001 at a space in the old 94th Street shopping mall. Founder Jim Day called it Spot Sports, and sold a variety of sports team apparel. He eventually moved to the Gold Coast Mall with a concentration on hats. Hatland.com was launched in 1998, "and that's pretty much our bread and butter today," Barth said.
When the online business started, a banner day would be a dozen orders.
"Back then, nobody even knew what a dot-com was. Everything was dial-up," Barth said. "It got to be where it was a few orders, and then Christmas came, and I guess word of mouth just spread."
Webmaster Tim Heuring, on board since 1998, remains solely responsible for the content of the website he built. Heuring went to college to study computer science. When the Internet came along, it was "a natural fit," he said, for the hat business.
Barth said the business has an international reach, too.
International customers see Americans as Yankees, so Hatland ships a ton of New York Yankees hats overseas. It does business in 58 different countries, with a good share of business coming from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Norway, Sweden and Luxembourg.
"There's not really an offseason for us with the Internet. We go home, people in New Zealand waking up, placing orders. It's just a constant, 24 hours process. There's no closing time," he said.
Hatland carries an inventory of nearly 30,000 hats at its mall store. Among those are 200 varieties of Baltimore Orioles hats, and more than 500 different kids of New York Yankees hats.
Barth said you'd be hard-pressed to find another retailer in the business with a bigger overall selection.
"We try to catch the trends. It's all about what the kids want today. A couple years ago, snapbacks came back in, and we were one of the few companies in the country that had them. And we ran with it, and it kind of exploded the business," he said.
Retro designs and snapback-style hats — where the hat is fitted with a variable plastic piece in back, as opposed to a fitted cap — are hugely popular now, and Hatland has been able to profit from getting ahead of the trend.
Barth said in summer 2010, "we had kids constantly coming in here from Pennsylvania and N.Y. asking, you got snapbacks? We would get them in and sell them out.
"That went on and on," he added, "and before the competition caught up, we had a year and a half where it was just Hatland. We had guys in Australia paying full retail price to stock their stores."
As a result, Heuring said Hatland might be solely responsible for bringing back snapbacks.
"We jumped on it, and saw it growing, and just blew it up. Everyone sees what we're doing. ... We were the only ones with them. We invested millions of dollars that last spring into it, and six months later, everybody had snapbacks. So we always look for the latest trend. Sports styles do change, and they matter."