What’s the story behind Thames Valley Sports?
I’ve always been very sporty - and still am. I play hockey for Wales in the masters league and also at a club level. I play squash too. When my children were younger they played hockey, so I became a coach. My wife, Ila, used to play netball.
13 years ago I was made redundant from my job as a sales director in the telecoms industry. At that time there were no sports shops at all in Maidenhead, so we could see there was a market for one. Ila ran the shop by herself to start with, while I continued working in telecoms consultancy. As we started to grow, I decided to come on board. Setting up a new business was a big challenge.
What do you stock?
We opened the shop in August 2003 and began with hockey to match the season. As we went into summer, we started cricket. More and more people kept coming into the shop asking for things we didn’t have, so we started to invest in netball, rugby and racquet sports. We recently introduced bowls, as we had many bowls players asking us to stock equipment. We are a real sports shop.
How is business?
Business was good until the recession when sales dropped, but things are starting to pick up again now. It’s a very positive trend. We rode the recession out by buying wisely and in smaller quantities to keep our cash flow moving. We looked online to ensure our prices were competitive, but the key to our business success is providing quality service and products.
Who are your competitors? How do you compete?
The internet is our biggest competitor. Occasionally people come into the shop and then go and buy online, but not many. Others try to get us to match online prices, but the internet is rarely cheaper once all the costs are taken into account - and we point that out. The majority of people understand that if they don’t use us, they will lose us. For example, hockey players want to feel the bend, balance and length of a hockey stick, while cricketers want to pick up a bat and get a sense of its profile and they always appreciate good advice. We do have an online arm, but the majority of our sales come through our shop.
How do you market the business?
Right from the beginning we found the best way to attract customers was to leaflet the relevant sports clubs. It really worked. We still do it, but now Google is really useful. We make sure our name comes up first in an online search. We also have a Facebook page, but we don’t use a lot of social media - though my daughter is bringing us up to speed. Word of mouth and recommendation play vital roles for us, which is why providing quality service and advice is so important.
Are you a member of any buying groups?
We’re members of STAG, which is very useful and we love the family atmosphere that it provides. We deal with some of the bigger brands outside of it, because we have a large enough turnover, but STAG gives us access to many brands. Meeting up with other retailers to swap information is really handy too.
What do you like most and least about your business?
I like the interaction with the customers and the feedback. People come in who we provided for as children and are now adults who’ve gone away to university and made their own lives. It’s incredibly sociable and we meet a wide variety of people. We cater for all - from beginners to elite athletes. One day Australian cricketer Brad Haddin emailed us wanting some ASICS shoes. I told him we didn’t ship to Australia, but he said us he was in the UK touring, so we sent shoes to him and teammate Michael Clarke.
The worst bit of the job is having to be open six days a week, but compared to telecoms I work a lot less hours and I’m doing something I’m passionate about. Really, there isn’t any bit of it I don’t like.