2004 Pro/specialty retailer of the year: Players Choice Tennis
By Mitch Rustad
When it comes to unlikely career paths, it’s hard to match Bob Patterson. Ask him how he cultivated his current status as one of Alabama’s top specialty retailers — he and wife Pam have owned Players Choice Tennis in his native Birmingham since 1993 — and you’ll discover his “training” included 15 years as a police officer. But one of Patterson’s biggest retailing skills did come in handy while wearing a badge.
“You had to be people-oriented as a police officer,” says Patterson, “and my retail philosophy is all about customer service. But the tennis business is a lot less volatile than my previous career.” Though some struggling retailers might disagree with that assessment, Patterson’s statement makes perfect sense. When you keep your customers as happy as he does, business is bound to be booming.
“They have established a level of customer service that’s beyond excellent,” says Jim Haneklau, Alabama territory manager for Wilson Racquets Sports. “They’ve put expectations on themselves that even the customer couldn’t imagine. They do all the things a good retailer does in terms of great merchandising and product selection, but they’re very demanding when it comes to customer service, on themselves and the manufacturers.”
It’s this kind of excellence — not to mention a sparkling reputation in the industry — that had made Players Choice Tennis RSI’s Pro/Specialty Retailer of the Year. But for Patterson, focusing on his customers is all about keeping a pulse on the current state of tennis retailing.
“There are plenty of places people can go to buy tennis product,” says Patterson, “but going that extra mile, like getting a certain color or shoe size, or getting that product shipped to you overnight, even if it costs more money, is our retailing philosophy. It’s a whole lot easier to keep a customer than it is to gain new ones.”
That’s not to say Patterson doesn’t know a thing or two about merchandising. He has a proactive yet sensible buying approach that’s extremely effective, says Roy Podolin, Southeast sales representative for Yonex and Bälle de Mätch.
“These guys don’t just wait for the orders to come in,” says Podolin. “They anticipate the hot-selling items and keep them in stock. Bob also knows it’s not necessary to buy everything out there. He’s careful to pick and choose his inventory.” Players Choice Tennis also does a huge stringing business — Patterson has been stringing frames since 1975 and was one of the U.S. Racquet Stringers Association’s early pioneers. “I started out stringing tennis racquets in my home,” says Patterson, a recreational player since his days at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. “The job fit my hours around school.” Today, Patterson leads a top-notch team of Master Racquet Technicians whose work is showcased in the shop’s Racquet Service Center, which encompasses 700 square feet (the shop has a total of 5,000 square feet) right in the middle of the retail floor, with room for five stringing machines. “It’s like a store within a store,” says Patterson, “Nobody puts as much emphasis on racquet service as we do.”
Players Choice Tennis also uses a boutique-style throughout the store for apparel, modeled on a large department store. There’s also a specialized shoe court area for footwear, where shoppers can leisurely try on shoes in a tennis court-style atmosphere. The shop also utilizes its own Racquet Diagnostics Center, so every racquet on the wall comes with its own set of specs. “Avid customers love it,” says Patterson, “and it sets us apart from the rest. They know we’re cutting edge as far as stringing, so it’s just another thing that’s expected of us.”
Looking back, Patterson says he has only one small regret on his unique path to retailing success: “I could have started my tennis business a lot sooner,” he says, “There was obviously a niche that needed to be filled, but it was hard to leave that guaranteed salary and pension.”
It’s safe to say that many of Alabama’s tennis enthusiasts are very glad he did.
Players Choice’s Tips for Success
- The customer is No. 1. “My staff knows that whenever a customer walks in, they get top priority,” says Bob Patterson.
- Polybag it! At Players Choice, every restrung racquet goes back to the customer wrapped in a polybag decorated with the store logo.
- Send out a newsletter four to six times a year to your customer database, which should include every customer who’s made a purchase over the last 18 months. Patterson includes articles about local players, stringing features, “how to” tips from his teaching pros, and ads from manufacturers.
See all articles by Mitch Rustad
About the Author
Mitch Rustad has been a long-time freelance writer based in New York City.