Kicking it up!
These three retailers know how to keep their numbers up in apparel and footwear.
Serious Tennis, Atlanta, Ga.
“Atlanta’s Friendliest Shops.” This short and sweet advertising slogan created by Serious Tennis, a retail powerhouse with four locations in the Atlanta, Ga., area, may sound simple. But it’s anything but lip service. According to several industry insiders, Serious Tennis founder/partner Deana Mitchell personifies the phrase — and then some.
Mitchell embraces a visible, hands-on style of retail management that keeps her customers coming back for more, says David Lockhart, an independent sales rep for Tail and K-Swiss in the Atlanta area.”A lot of times you have owner/managers that stay out of sight in the back office,” says Lockhart, “but she’s out there working the floor all the time, and the customers seem to have a real affection for her.”
But according to Mitchell herself, the exuberance for her work goes much deeper than simple enthusiasm.
“This store is my life,” she says, taking a break from the madness of overseeing one of Serious Tennis’ hugely popular semi-annual sales. “This is just as much a part of me as my kids are, because I built it. The store is a reflection of who I am, and the success is a reflection of how hard I work and what I put into it.”
With almost 20 years of tennis retail on her résumé, Mitchell’s road to the top has been a long and winding one. She’s been a ubiquitous retail presence in the Roswell, Ga., area since 1985, working for eight of those years as a Serious Tennis employee before launching into a dynamic partnership with Scott Jones, formerly of Atlanta Tennis Company, to take over the shops in 2001. “It’s evolved into something that’s bigger than both of us,” says Mitchell.
While Mitchell’s focus remains the 2,000-square-foot flagship store in Roswell, she’s slowly but surely putting her unique stamp on the other locations, focusing squarely on her commitment to superior customer service.
“Everybody can buy the same product,” says Mitchell, “but it’s really about presentation and who’s working behind the counter. If you make a personal connection with the customer, they’re going to come back to you. We don’t have high school kids working the shop by themselves; we always have a very competent employee here to answer a customer’s questions.”
That technical expertise is another staple of Serious Tennis, along with establishing a computerized database for each customer, a trend that’s becoming more and more common among leading specialty shops.
“Avid tennis players have become more and more particular about their products,” says Sam Cook, general manager of Völkl Tennis USA, “and they’ve capitalized on that by capturing each customer’s history, so it’s a real plus for their business.”
Another plus is a highly aesthetic, free-flowing but highly organized floor presentation, not to mention one of the largest inventories of soft goods in the metro Atlanta area, according to Lockhart.
“Deana has one of the best selections in tennis footwear and apparel in the Atlanta market,” says Lockhart. “They’re very comprehensive in men’s, women’s and children’s categories from top to bottom.”
“Deana has a very strong eye for retail, and the way she merchandises the store is extremely effective,” says Cook. “They carry all the leading brands, but they bring in new collections on a monthly basis, so the stores always look very fresh. They really plan their buys extremely well.” But overall retail and business savvy aside, the ultimate secret weapon for Serious Tennis is also its simplest: Mitchell’s unwavering dedication to her chosen profession.
“From the beginning, I knew this was what I was going to do forever,” says Mitchell, before returning to her beloved turf — the sales floor and her customers — and the semi-annual sale. “It’s exceeded all of my expectations.”
Deana Mitchell’s Tips for Success
- Attitude is Everything: Attitude trickles down from the top, so an inspiring, enthusiastic owner/manager can dictate the entire mood of a shop, rubbing off on customers and staff alike. “An upbeat, educated staff warrants great customer loyalty, and that leads to very strong repeat business,” says Deana Mitchell.
- Connect With Your Customers: When you make a connection on a personal level, says Mitchell, customers will rely on you and keep coming back.
- Establish a Community Presence: Providing a retail presence outside of your traditional shop real estate can give you extra exposure in your community. Serious Tennis supplies local schools with team uniforms and has set up mini-shops at pro tournaments in the area.
— Mitch Rustad
Van Der Meer Shipyard Tennis Resort, Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Every retail operation faces its own unique mix of opportunities and challenges, but only a lucky few are plunked right in the middle of a steady stream of upscale, tennis-mad consumers who eat, drink and sleep the game.
And while that’s technically the case for the pro shops at the Van Der Meer Shipyard Tennis Resort on Hilton Head Island, S.C., that doesn’t mean shop manager Kim Lutian can just sit casually back and enjoy the cha-ching! of the cash register.
Like so many tennis retailers, Lutian faces the constant challenge of creating an attractive retail environment suited to the specific tastes and budgets of her customers. To accomplish that often daunting task, Lutian has taken the road less traveled through a minimal number of retail partnerships designed to satisfy her upscale clientele.
“We need other people to help provide our customers with an all-around retail experience,” says Lutian, who maintains exclusive retail partnerships with companies such as Kaelin Sportswear, Head and Adidas to inventory the shops at Shipyard and the nearby Van Der Meer Tennis Center, which houses the Junior Tennis Academy.
“Retail is tough,” says Lutian, “so it’s really important for us to develop relationships with our sponsors and vendors. Our customers expect us to be the best, in everything from the teaching aids we use to our retail shop, so we need to partner with leaders in the industry.”
Kaelin’s highly fashionable but increasingly performance-driven designs are showcased by Van Der Meer’s resort staff and on the retail floor, a promotional double whammy that’s proved to be mutually successful.
“Their pros, teaching staff and facilities are all top-notch, and that is their shining star,” says Diane Bladecki, director of marketing and promotions for Kaelin Sportswear. “This adds legitimacy and credibility to anything on their retail floor, because they are highly professional in everything they do. That, for us, is huge.”
Adds Bladecki: “We get people from all over the world exposed to our brand, and that’s exposure you just can’t buy.”
Though retail partnerships on this scale remain relatively rare in the industry, Lutian says they’re especially effective and satisfying in a unique resort environment such as Van Der Meer’s. “We’re in business together and we have a huge commitment to them, and them to us,” she says. “They don’t just dump the clothes on us and leave.”
The shop’s unique partnership with Head — linked directly to the company’s longstanding commitment to Van Der Meer’s Professional Tennis Registry — gives the racquet manufacturer the rare chance to display virtually its entire line of top-notch frames. “It’s obviously unique,” says John Tranfaglia, eastern regional sales manager for Head, “but it’s a nice marriage and combination of businesses. It helps us across the board because we have every racquet that means anything to us on their wall.”
According to Bladecki, large-scale retail partnerships also allow a manufacturer to introduce new product and/or reinvent a company’s image. “We’ve been known for fashion-driven tennis apparel,” says Bladecki, “so what we’ve driven home with Van Der Meer is that we’re not only stylish, but we’re also very functional and performance driven. We prove that you can look good and also have a garment perform. We’re not just pretty.”
But no matter how strong the partnerships, a general love of retail is still a must when it comes to establishing a successful shop, says Lutian.
“I’ve always enjoyed shopping and clothes and the whole aspect of retail,” says Lutian, who started her tennis career as a Van Der Meer teaching pro before transitioning into retail. “I believe you really have to like it to succeed in retail.”
Lutian’s Tips for Success
- Be Open to Partnerships: “If you’re doing a lot of business with an individual vendor,” says Kim Lutian, ” negotiating a sponsorship and becoming a partner could make sense for some retailers.”
- Actively Seek Out Partnerships: Many manufacturers are in the mood to consider a variety of partnerships in today’s competitive retail environment, says Lutian. “I think they’re willing to listen right now to a retailer who wants to promote some new ideas,” she says.
- Use Staff to Add Credibility to the Merchandise: Competent staff dressed in the clothing you sell in the shop goes a long way toward convincing consumers to buy at your shop.
— Mitch Rustad
Indianapolis Racquet Club, Indianapolis, Ind.
When Jeff Rodefeld joined the Indianapolis Racquet Club eight years ago, the sparsely stocked pro shop in the facility’s main building was largely operating as a convenience to its members. Two expansions later, it has become a hugely successful business drawing customers well beyond the club’s 3,000 members.
“I cover eight states in the Midwest, and without a doubt there isn’t another [pro shop] like it,” says Steve Rothstein, tennis specialist for K-Swiss and Midwest regional manager for Gamma Racquet Sports (which distributes Fischer racquets). “He understands that in order to get business, you have to have inventory. He stocks so many shoes — he must have 15 selections of size 9 wide — that if someone isn’t going to buy from him, they won’t buy anything.
“Jeff is always looking to expand and improve, and that’s what separates him from most businesses,” Rothstein adds. “He sees the big picture and goes after it.”
Rodefeld acknowledges he is perfectly suited to his role as director of retail operations, with eight years of retail experience in New York City and a lifelong love of tennis. The 43-year-old also has a deep connection to the Indianapolis Racquet Club, having played there since he was in high school.
“After I worked here for about a year, I was asked if I had any interest in trying to resurrect the retail business,” Rodefeld recalls. “It was definitely a challenge.”
Until its expansions in 1998 and 2001, the pro shop was just 750 square feet — about one-third its current size. However, foot traffic was never a problem, according to Rodefeld, with an average of 600 people visiting the club each day. And since he took over, he has made sure customers have plenty of reasons to stop in.
The biggest changes, according to Rodefeld, were investing $250,000 in inventory to match the larger physical space, and implementing inventory management software to track retail trends and analyze gross margin percentage by vendor. To create an “emotional shopping experience,” two full-time stringers were stationed on the sales floor, while television monitors were installed throughout the store to broadcast tennis matches and instructional segments.
From the beginning, he says, he also focused on dispelling two damaging myths: the pro shop is only open to members, and its prices are inflated. To combat those objections, according to Rodefeld, banners were installed on major roadways near the club, pro shop coupons were distributed at local tournaments, and costs were adjusted (from $3.50 to $2.86 for a can of tennis balls, for example) to reflect fair pricing. Those efforts continue, Rodefeld said, with pro shop incentives inserted in members’ monthly bills (at no additional postage fee).
“My philosophy is we want to be the best,” Rodefeld says. “There shouldn’t be a reason for anyone to go elsewhere.”
That commitment is evident in the 75 SKUs of shoes and 40-foot wall covered with nine brands of racquets. The store also differentiates itself from its competition with plentiful apparel lines from well-known manufacturers like Tail, Lily’s of Beverly Hills, Lejay and Jamie Sadock, as well as up-and-comers Tennis Animal, Jerdog and Latitudes. To keep the store looking fresh, Rodefeld says, apparel is rotated regularly and marked down after just one month on the floor.
“Activity creates activity,” says Rodefeld, noting the pro shop’s gross margin has gained 13 points over the last eight years. “And we plan on staying busy.”
Part of the pro shop’s current growth can be attributed to the quick turn-around inherent in its team business, led by director of team sales Kathy Johnson. Of 260 high school teams in Indiana, Rodefeld says, the Indianapolis Racquet Club outfits more than 100 at a cost between $700 and $5,000 per team, and the club is expanding its team sales of tennis balls, shoes and court equipment.
Rodefeld also credits the development of strong partnerships with vendors for his consistent sales pace. “I will fully represent their lines, but in return I want them to be as interested in our success as they are in taking our order,” says Rodefeld, noting that some manufacturers take back products that aren’t selling well or conduct demo days to promote sales. “It’s just like our relationship with customers. Anybody can have the products and price; it’s the service that counts.”
In his continuous effort to grow the business bigger and better, Rodefeld says he is planning to computerize racquet stringing history and add to the 300 SKUs of tennis-related gifts that have proven so popular. His most sensitive performance barometer, however, remains his customers.
“I react to what customers say,” he says. “In the end, that’s the only way you’re going to get to the next level.”
Rodefeld’s Tips for Success
- Options Mean Repeat Business: If a dozen choices are available, Jeff Rodefeld says, sell them all and make sure the staff is knowledgeable about each one.
- Full Service Means Full Effort: Do anything necessary to satisfy a customer, advises Rodefeld. At the Indianapolis Racquet Club, for example, special orders are taken without a deposit. And if the customer doesn’t like the product, she doesn’t have to buy it.
- People Love Coupons: “What you miss on margin,” Rodefeld says, “you’ll make up for in volume.” When offered 10 percent to 15 percent off a total purchase, customers at the Indianapolis Racquet Club produce average sales checks four times higher than normal.
— Cynthia Cantrell