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Sep 7, 2015

How independent sports retailers can maintain their competitive edge

By Paul Clapham


This month, I’m starting with my favourite retail gag.

The owner of a minimart meets an old business acquaintance, who says: “Boy, you’re in trouble - Tesco are opening next door to you.”

He replies: “I’ll be fine. I’ve got a plan.”

Next time they meet, the minimart owner is getting out of a new Jaguar looking very prosperous. His friend compliments him and says: “So, Tesco no problem, then?”

“No, I told you I had a plan,” the minimart owner replies.

“What did you do?”

“I changed the name of the shop.”

“To what?”

“Entrance.”

Serious side
Okay, that’s a joke, but it has a serious side. What looks like a threat can be turned into an advantage. I recently spoke to a couple of health store owners in east London who had been jittery about a new Sainsbury’s coming to their patch. In the event, they gained lots of new customers because there was free parking nearby and the Sainsbury’s store didn’t stock much of a health food range.

Either the joke retailer or the real-life ones could have missed the trick and I doubt there is a business in the world that doesn’t do that occasionally. We stick to our knitting and there’s nothing wrong with that principle. But in the process we miss opportunities that could make a business fly.

In the time I’ve been writing for Sports Insight, I have seen lots of cases, both in this and other retail sectors. I recognise that getting a retail range right is as much an art form as a science; balancing premium quality and sharp pricing is genuinely difficult. But previous success can make us lazy. As a case, women are an increasingly important part of the sports market. Do you know how important in your area? Do your suppliers offer the information? If not, demand it or get a new supplier.

Here’s a specific case. Women’s cricket is growing fast in this country. But if you still only offer heavyweight bats, you aren’t going to sell many to women, who favour lightweight versions. In truth, that version often better suits most male club cricketers, too, when they try it.

You’re an expert
What’s the key thing that differentiates the independent from the multiple? It’s got to be expertise. You know next to everything about a few sports and a lot about all of them that you feature. The big boys can’t get close to that.

Add to that you’re an enthusiast - just like your customers, you love sport. I don’t sense that attitude in the multiple retailers I’ve been to.

But do you tell people? Does your store, website and advertising bang home those two key selling virtues? I doubt it, because I rarely see it. I have seen them featured, but they should be top of the bill. Saying publicly: ‘We’re experts’ is uncomfortable for plenty of us understated Brits, but, come on, this is marketing. The website statement: ‘Come in and experience the enthusiasm we share with you’ must surely be easy.

I guarantee all your customers, however occasional or regular, are fans of some team or player. Being a fan is part of sport. Do you apply it to your business? You should aim to have fans of Smith’s Sports.

Asking every customer to be on your database, so that you can send them information about any new products you have and sales you are running, is a good start. But you should also be looking at having a loyalty card. I have referred to this before and it remains a good idea to pursue.

The Clubcard was key to making Tesco Britain’s biggest retailer. It might have screwed up afterwards, but loyalty cards work. Moreover, they are now operable and affordable for the single site retailer. There’s plenty of choice of providers or if you’re good with technology, you can do it yourself. It has the key advantage of being a daily advert in the customer’s wallet.

Get out and about
All the most impressive independent retailers across a range of specialisations I’ve spoken to over the years have a few things in common. First, they are difficult to get hold of by phone. There are two reasons for this. When they’re in the store, they’re busy selling to customers - or at least talking to them. But very often they are out and about meeting new contacts. A typical comment is: “You can’t find or develop new opportunities sitting next to the till.” So plan to get out and about.

Next up is enthusiasm. All the best phone interviews I’ve done with retailers feature that word. “We love what we do,” comes up fairly often, too. Staff should be encouraged to show it. The good stores do that - it’s passed on as a retailing baton. “I’d rather staff showed too much keenness than not enough,” was another telling comment.

In my view, a good sports shop has a lot in common with a good pub. It’s a fun, gregarious place to be. The customers share common interests, but are very varied. It’s a part of the community.

Good pubs are rarely the cheapest; the same should go for sports shops. Good pubs have good staff - knowledgeable, smart in both senses and nice to be with. Ditto, good sports shops. They’re not just men only; women like the environment and service, too.

Savvy sales technique
Tricks are missed by poor sales and marketing techniques and plenty of that can be solved for free. The big mistake is not asking enough questions - a classic failing in British sales technique overall.

Here’s an example: a customer walks in wanting some tennis balls and picks up the product he knows. If you just do the bag and till routine, consider what you’ve potentially missed without a conversation.

Are they a member of a club? Would they like to try the latest racquets? Do they have children, because we have child-sized racquets? From just those three questions you could get details of useful contacts at a local tennis club, upsell the customer to a premium product and sell two child racquets. The customer might also be a big fan of British-made products, but unaware the option is available in tennis balls. As ever,  if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

I would stress the point about club membership. Recruiting customers in their dozens or hundreds is clearly more profitable than one by one. If existing customers will give you the name of the secretary of their clubs, you have a good access point to those hundreds.

Clubs vary dramatically and not just in size. They can be run by ball-of-fire individuals or a small group that’s next to comatose. You won’t know which they are until you contact them. I’d suggest you consider some form of offer for the clubs themselves to enable you to reach their members. Again, there will be a variety of routes to the members.

This will take a fair amount of effort, but you only want one football club, a cricket club and a tennis club, which could feed you regular customers for years.

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Leone 1947

Leone 1947

, Midlothian-Edinburghshire

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