Tell us about your shop
Withers Sports is 75 years old next year. I started off as a sales assistant in 1982 when I was 17 and I took over the business about four years ago. The shop was set up by Albert Withers and then passed on to his son, my ex-business partner, Bob Withers. I’ve known the whole family since I was around 11 years old.
Do you specialise?
We specialise in racquet sports. I’ve always played tennis and badminton - I was county men’s singles badminton champion in Leicestershire for seven consecutive years and have twice won the men’s singles in tennis.
Our best-selling racquets include Babolat, Head, Wilson and Yonex, but we also stock Volkl, which is quite niche. Head has been our standout racquet brand this season, even though Babolat is probably our number one selling racquet brand - but Head are hard on their heels. All my staff either have an interest in sport or play it. I think it’s important that staff have a hands-on knowledge of the sports we promote. Customers need a specialist in a specialist store. We are now one of the largest racquet retailers in the UK.
How do you maintain your competitive edge?
Our main competition is from online retailers, as there aren’t many shops like ours left. We have an online presence, but it’s pretty faceless and hard to personalise, so our store is where most of our business happens. I still think people value a professional service and like to see who they are dealing with.
The internet is important, but if a shop like ours offers a good selection of products, expert advice, an all-round quality service and is competitive, there will always be a place for us. Business, though, is tough. People’s buying remit has changed for good, but I still think customers appreciate quality. It’s important not to devalue yourself - and this goes for brands too.
What marketing strategies do you use?
Our shop offers an in-store practice wall for racquet players to try before they buy. This unique facility is something that makes us different and encourages customers to visit, as they know that if we have the racquet they want they can give in a go in-store. Social media is also a great way to promote the business. We use Facebook, we tweet and we blog - it really gets results. We advise on new products and promote events and in-store offers.
What else do you do to promote yourself?
I have a pro-tennis shop at Leicestershire Lawn Tennis Club and have a few other small outlets at other tennis clubs around the county. These are run by the head tennis coaches of their respective clubs.
We also have a network of coaches and ambassadors who promote and sell our products on our behalf. I can’t get away from the shop as much as I would like to, so this helps to spread the word about Withers. The coaches are rewarded with coach contracts and I’ve also created a Coach of the Year award. Coaches earn points as they sell and at the end of the year we announce the winner during an in-store presentation, with a trophy and a little something extra from the coach’s contracted brand.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Making customers realise shops like ours are essential. If we go, all that will be left are faceless online shops that, however much they try, cannot match the advice, service and character of an actual shop.
Retailers cannot always be as cheap as online, but service counts and is worth something. I had a customer who tried to put a monetary value on our service the other week. At first I was offended. Personal, professional advice is priceless - making sure customers go out with the right racquet, the right string, the right string tension and the right shoes with the correct sole unit. You cannot always get this online, as physically talking is so different to keypad conversations.
What do you like most and least about your business?
What I like least about my shop are the quiet times. What I like most are the busy times.