Riding the Wave
These tennis e-tailers weathered uncertain times, and learned some lessons along the way.
By Liza Horan
Each of us has probably faced some hesitation about joining the line for an amusement-park roller-coaster ride. But then, you probably convinced yourself of certain facts: That heavy feeling you have in your stomach is more about the excitement of the ride than the anxiety; once you’re strapped in, no matter how treacherous or exhilarating the ride might be, you’ll be free and on solid ground in a couple of minutes; and the most you may end up losing is your lunch.
Well, that’s not true of the roller-coaster ride the internet has taken in the last five years. Many investors lost a lifetime of lunches. But many marketers have learned how to handle the sudden jerks and twists of this ride. They are still around and business is flourishing.
RSI talked to a few business owners in the tennis arena, and we put together this list of lessons from their experiences.
- 1. Use the Web for Inexpensive Marketing
- “I use it as an advertising and promotional vehicle to get people into my store,” says Mark Mason of Mason’s Tennis Mart in New York City. Mason quit the Yellow Pages because it was getting too expensive and there was lots of competition between the directories, and he found that more and more people were going online for information anyway.
- While Mason’s website (www.masonstennis.com) sells some T-shirts online, the purpose of the site is to introduce shoppers to the high-end apparel and equipment he carries. Large photos, a list of manufacturers and sale notices appear on the site.
- Other than offering a small collection of T-shirts on the site, Mason has resisted selling online. “We don’t want to compete on that level,” says Mason of the large e-tailers on the web. Instead, he positions his 28-year-old specialty shop as several “boutiques within a boutique. It really is a wonderful way to get the word out about who you are.”
- 2. Use the Web to Access Current and Future Customers
- Holabird Sports was one of the first merchants on Prodigy in the late 1980s. Owner David Hirshfeld recalls when the online service trumpeted that it had 1 million members. Those were the early days of e-commerce and Hirshfeld decided to take his mail order and retail business online. While his online shop (www.holabirdsports.com) has grown, Hirshfeld considers it just one more method for consumers to reach him.
- “People do research online, sometimes call the manufacturers, find out who sells it where and call us to order online,” he says. “Going on the internet helped us reach the next generation of customers.”
- 3. Use the Web for Customer Service
- Hirshfeld had no qualms about going high-tech, but to a point: “You will always get a live person on the phone,’ he says. ‘We are fully automated online and fully personal off-line.”
- It’s imperative to offer help through your website. In addition to basic information such as your address and perhaps “frequently asked questions” about your tennis business or facility, be sure to clearly list your phone number, e-mail address and, if possible, live customer support online (www.liveperson.com).
- Amy Rosa, who owns TennisHut (www.TennisHut.com), agrees: “Customer service cannot be understated. Caring about somebody’s issue means so much.”
- 4. Use the Web to Find a Niche, Then Cater to It
- Rosa, who was a web designer and decided to marry that with her passion for tennis, designed TennisHut mainly for women’s apparel. Soon she discovered that there were not many suppliers of tennis team apparel, and she jumped right in. She started promoting team apparel on her site and around town. The response was fantastic: Teams from local leagues, the USTA, the YMCA, high schools and colleges ordered outfits. With the addition of this niche, she added a quarterly opt-in newsletter geared for tennis teams.
- “You have to be pro-active and think like the players,’ says Rosa, who plays on a 3.5 NTRP league team in a Pittsburgh suburb. ‘It’s just common sense.”
- 5. Use the Web for Incentives and Rewards
While many consumers trawl the internet for the lowest price points, customer service, reputation and product availability are at least equally important to people.
- “We’re trying to reward our customer base for their loyalty and business,” says Rosa, who offers free shipping on orders over $100, team discounts and still more discounts to newsletter subscribers. “We reward them with special offers.”
- There are many creative ways to turn a first-time buyer into a repeat buyer.
The Internet is constantly evolving as new technologies emerge for finding information, shopping and communicating online.
As a business owner who’s got the online, mail-order and brick-and-mortar bases covered, Hirshfeld remains open to change: “The question for everybody is: How far will the internet go? Will it replace retail? I guess there will always be a base of people who don’t buy on the internet, but how many?”
What’s certain is that the online population is growing and everyone in the business or services sector can use it to spread their word.
TennisHut’s Reverse Journey
Over the last five years most brick-and-mortar tennis businesses were faced with jumping on the internet bandwagon. For one webhead, though, the transformation was just the opposite: She took her online business and added a brick-and-mortar operation.
Amy Rosa, owner of TennisHut.com, was a web designer who was introduced to tennis by her husband. Rosa spent her time building sites for other companies, but wondered how she could get into the action of selling on the internet. Then, “I just kind of married my two passions,” she says.
After coming home from her day job, Rosa would work at home until midnight on her apparel site. The costs of site construction and marketing were minimized because she handled them herself.
TennisHut.com launched in November 2002, designed to provide a pleasant, colorful and fun shopping experience for women players.
Business was so good that Rosa was forced to find office space outside of the house and to hire two employees. She found a place with a storefront and, in addition to her online business, she decided to sell out of the store. Most Pittsburgh-area shops carry tennis and ski gear, but Rosa’s is strictly tennis year-round. And while the store’s additional 20 percent in sales would not be enough to sustain just the brick-and-mortar shop, it’s a great addition to the online revenue.
There have been challenges along the way, but they seem like history now. “Some suppliers won’t sell to internet-only shops,” Rosa explains. “It’s been a long time coming for us to be taken as a serious business.”
Besides the optimization of the site for searching on the web and classified advertising in magazines, Rosa admits some business has come from the three tennis clubs where she plays. “Basically I am a walking advertisement,” she says. “One of my resolutions for the New Year is to add another day of tennis each week — to play two days a week,” explains a wistful Rosa. From the sound of it, though, work will keep her busy.
See all articles by Liza Horan
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