BOOSTING L&G SALES Walmart is capitalizing on football fever with a new tailgating department.

Just in time to capitalize on the traditional fall football frenzy, Walmart has transformed more than 1,700 of its Garden Centers into “Game Time Headquarters”—a department aimed at tailgating enthusiasts.

Beginning the last week in August and running through Sept. 30, select stores have customized their Garden Centers for fans of local college or professional football teams with items ranging from team merchandise and decor to game-time snacks and beverages.

The goal? To capitalize on the $20-billion-dollar tailgating industry.

Walmart Garden Centers will continue to sell an assortment of mums and other fall plants, as well as year-round items like bird seed, during this promotion.

“Since the Garden Centers have great space flexibility, we are able to include this merchandise along with the Game Time features,” said Shannon Frederick, Walmart’s senior communications manager. After Game Time, she added, the stores will begin preparing the Garden Centers for the holiday selling.

Among the Game Time products the Bentonville, Ark. -based retailer is merchandising are hats, T-shirts, charcoal grills and coolers, as well as food items like hot dogs, chicken breasts, chips, potato skins and soda. There are team logoed coffee mugs for $15, arm chairs for $20, jerseys for $30 and gazebos for $157.

“I think it’s a great idea, especially for a seasonal business,” said John Largent, who founded the American Tailgater’s Association in 2003. “The beginning of football season is a pivotal time for tailgaters to buy new grills, accessories and other items. It’s exciting to see Walmart recognize tailgating as an industry and a viable marketing opportunity.”

According to tailgating.com , 42 percent of tailgaters spend more than $500 each season on food and supplies. Walmart says it can provide a group of four with everything it needs to tailgate at six home games this season for about $66 per game—a savings of more than $100 for the season.

The 1,700 Game Time locations are distributed around the country in areas near large fan bases for college or professional sports teams.

“With 36 million tailgaters in the U.S., the kick-off to football season is now one of our favorite all-American pastimes,” said Janet Bareis, vp -corporate marketing for Walmart. “But we know our job on the team is to make sure tailgaters don’t spend a dime more than they need to—that’s why we’ve put together some winning prices all in one place in the store.”

According to Largent, Walmart won’t be facing too much competition in the marketplace. While there are Web sites that specialize in tailgating equipment and some sporting goods stores and supermarket s that devote space to it on a seasonal basis, Walmart is the first major retailer to target the industry, he said.

Keith DeWolf, manager of Home & Garden Showplace, the garden center division of True Value, declined to comment on Walmart’s announcement, but he did say there is a place for this type of creativity within the diverse garden center industry. “There are some garden centers that would definitely have the space for [a tailgating section],” he said. “If they’re in the right location, it might be a good side business.”

As part of the Walmart promotion, the company also launched a new product called the Game Time tailgate planner, a widget that allows users to download a team’s schedule and create and send e-mail invitations to friends for game day events and tailgating parties.

Walmart has also designated a Game Time page on its Web site with chicken wing and dip recipes and links to related categories at Walmart store, including cook ware, home entertainment furnishings, sports apparel, video games and hi-def televisions.

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