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Business Spotlight | Cougarwear isn’t just for Cougs anymore

Posted on December 31st, 2023 By:

It’s reigning cats and Dawgs, and Ducks, Beavs and Broncos at Gig Harbor’s local sports team apparel and accessories store, Cougarwear.

The walls and shelves of this retail Coug shop may scream crimson, but Cougs aren’t the only sports fans shopping at Cougarwear. Located on Pioneer Way above the Dolly Mama Boutique, the store sells a colorful inventory of collegiate clothing and accessories representing Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, Boise State and Gonzaga.

Coug apparel is available for ages, infants to grandparents. Photo by Julie Warrick Ammann

And it’s not just for the college crowd, Seattle sports fans can find gear and goods to show their support for the Seattle Kraken, Mariners, Sounders and Seahawks.

Pullman Pride

Owner Tracy Hacklin Dennis initially launched the company as an online business in 2000. kicked off when there was “no competition,” she said.

Dennis also owns Harbor Embroidery and Anchor Bay Mortgage. Her passion for the Cougs and the lack of what she felt was a good supply of quality Cougar gear in Western Washington inspired Dennis to start her company.

The business complimented her existing Harbor Embroidery. She also saw traveling to WSU away games as a savvy business excursion, offering a beneficial tax break, all the while serving as an opportunity to spread “Pullman Pride to alumni and fans everywhere.”

Zoe Erkers shops at Cougarwear in Gig Harbor. The WSU marketing major will graduate in the spring of 2024. Photo by Julie Warrick Ammann

Brick and mortar

It wasn’t until the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis did Dennis decided to open her brick-and-mortar location in Gig Harbor.

The office space currently housing her Cougarwear retail store was once occupied by nine mortgage lenders, as part of her Anchor Bay Mortgage business. When the financial crisis hit, Dennis lost her mortgage lenders, leaving her not only with half-empty office space but a need “to stay financially afloat.” The downsizing of one business led to the rise of another.

With the construction of a wall separating the two spaces and companies, Cougarwear became a brick-and-mortar business.  Since launching the physical store, however, Dennis hasn’t been to a WSU away game. “That sorta backfired,” she said with a chuckle.

Cougarwear is located in the second floor above Dolly Mama Boutique on Pioneer Way. Photo by Julie Warrick Ammann

“The biggest blessing of my store is I get to meet people all day and that is how I get all my mortgages,” explains Dennis, who holds a business real-estate degree from WSU.

Diversifying the offerings

Cougarwear was originally just that: Cougar-branded clothing and accessories. About five years ago, Dennis diversified her inventory to include other teams’ branded merchandise.

It all began when a vendor offered her college-branded merchandise at a steep discount. Initially, she said no.  But when prices were “so ridiculously low,” Dennis decided it was too good of a deal to pass up.

Her hunch paid off. Zags, Ducks, Beavs and Husky fans began to show up for college merch. I have “been selling more UW stuff than I ever have,” Dennis says. Among the professional teams, the “Kraken is really big.”

It’s called Cougarwear, but plenty of merchandise and apparel for the Seattle Kraken, Seattle Mariners and other teams is also available. Photo by Julie Warrick Ammann

Cougarwear’s share of a global industry

The global licensed sports merchandise market was valued at $33.48 billion in 2022, according to Grand View Research. By 2030, it’s expected to reach $49 billion.

North America holds the largest market share, more than 52%. A growing population of sports enthusiasts, rising urbanization and the expansion of the online retail industry are key factors driving the market’s growth according to the study.

Despite the expanding billion-dollar sports merchandise market, Dennis has experienced a slowdown in her business. Before the holiday shopping season, Cougarwear sales had declined by 40%. Subsequently, after the holiday period, they nosedived to a staggering 60% below previous levels.

There could be a number of reasons for the declining business, Dennis speculates. It “seems like a business a month is closing down in downtown,” she says. Even though Cougarwear offers online shopping to their customers, Dennis acknowledges the shift in consumer behavior toward shopping big online retailers. “I think people got used to shopping Amazon during Covid.”

Giants taking their cut

Amazon’s third-quarter sales were $143.1 billion in 2023, an increase of 13%. And it was a record-breaking Black Friday and Cyber Monday Holiday Shopping season for the online giant. More than one billion items were purchased during an extended holiday shopping season, with customers enticed with 11 days of deals and 70% more savings than last year.

Shoppers can find plenty of Seahawks items at Gig Harbor’s Cougarwear store, too. Photo by Julie Warrick Ammann

The economy is a potential factor too, Dennis figures. She understands her customers are likely “tightening their belts” to offset inflation. According to the federal Small Business Administration, historically high inflation is also impacting small businesses as they struggle to keep up with rising prices.

Only 30% of small businesses say their local economy is in good health, down eight percentage points since last quarter. That’s according to the US Chamber of Commerce. Despite this data, it hasn’t deterred new businesses from opening up. Based on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce report, there was a surge of 11.9% more business applications filed in Washington state in 2023 compared to 2022.

Pac-12’s demise

Changes in social media algorithms have also impacted her once inexpensive targeted Facebook ads. No longer is she able to target ads directed at WSU fans.

Could the elephant in the room be the cougar? The Cougs had a challenging year.  Along with the Oregon State Beavers, they are all that remain of the Pac 12. Ten Pac-12 member schools will join a different conference in 2024, effectively dissolving a conference that has existed since 1915.

Whether these uncertain times contribute to the football team’s success is up for debate. What is clear, the plummeting performance by WSU resulted in a losing season for Cougar football; 2-7 in the conference and 5-7 overall.

“I don’t think that affects my business. We’re just proud of our school,” says Dennis. “I love the Cougs through and through. Once you go to WSU, you bleed crimson — all the cliches are 100% true.”

Cougarwear name won’t change

What about the name? Asked by so many, Dennis is often questioned why she doesn’t change her company name to reflect her diversified merchandise. Without hesitation, her emphatic reply isn’t open for discussion.

“It will never change,” she says. “I’m a Coug through and through.” Her affection for the Cougar family and customers is unmistakable. “It’s hard to put into words, how Cougs bond with other Cougs.”

Zoe Erkers, a marketing major and senior at WSU, browses the store alongside her mom, Andria Erkers. Together, they sift through a sea of red shirts and branded accessories. Andria says the family has been shopping at Cougarwear for about 5-6 years now. Her son recently graduated from WSU with a degree in mechanical engineering.

Andria Erkers shopping for Cougwear with her daughter, Zoe Erkers, a senior at WSU. The Erkers have been shopping at Cougarwear for about 5-6 years. Erkers’ son graduated from WSU this month with a degree in electrical engineering. Andria says she likes to shop local, adding with a chuckle, you come in and “look at all these things that you need that you don’t need.” Photo by Julie Warrick Ammann

Every inch of space at Cougarwear is crammed with apparel and merchandise. In addition to team apparel, there are stickers, ponchos, license plate frame covers, painted wood signs, LED signs, wallets, hitch covers, flannel shirts, pajamas, home accessories, key chains, toys, coffee mugs, car flags, and so much more. It’s easy to feel overstimulated, overwhelmed, and happily entertained at Cougarwear. There’s even the world-famous Cougar Gold cheese available for purchase, with seven flavors to choose from.

“You look at all these things you need that you don’t need,” Andria laughs. She appreciates what Dennis brings to the community, describing her as “super community-oriented”.

Huskies and Zags apparel for sale at Gig Harbor’s Cougarwear store. Photo by Julie Warrick Ammann

Crimson, purple, green and more

Dennis hopes to see more shoppers like Zoe and Andria, supporting local businesses. “Every single week, we’re donating back to schools” and auctions, explains Dennis.“None of us will be around if none of us are supporting (local businesses), or shopping small.”

Cougarwear is open 7 days a week, closed only on Christmas. There is “always an opportunity” to shop for your favorite team at Cougarwear, she says. While the crimson blood runs deep at Cougarwear, Husky purple, and Oregon green provide locals with ways to cheer on the Dawgs and Ducks to victory in their bowl games.

School rivalries always endure. Cougarwear is there to serve as a hub in Gig Harbor where rivals can come together to celebrate their shared school spirit — a win for both Dennis and the devoted fans dedicated to their teams.



New Year’s Day Hours: Open noon to 5 p.m.

Hours: Open 7 days a week. For updated hours, please check the Cougarwear Facebook page

Address: 7700 Pioneer Way, Suite No. 202, Gig Harbor

Phone: (253) 224-1408

Email: [email protected]