Business remains good for most tennis retailers, and there are some strategies you can use to keep it going.
For tennis retailers today, it’s both the best of times and perhaps the worst of times. While the tennis business continues to grow, the overall economic climate means that the actual costs of running your business are increasing. How do you successfully navigate this potentially tricky environment?
“It all boils down to how are you going to find and keep loyal customers,” says Michael Levy, professor of marketing at Babson College and former editor of the Journal of Retailing. “And for specialty shops such as tennis retailers, the way to do this is through building community.”
Leaders in the tennis retail arena agree, noting that maintaining close ties with your market and building productive partnerships is the basis of success, regardless of the state of the greater economy. This is an approach that Tiffany Grayson of Coach Matt’s Tennis in Atlanta employs as the basis of her business strategy.
“We partner with local events and teams in a 5- to 7-mile radius of our stores,” she says. “For example, if a team makes the city or state playoffs, we have an in-store event for them. And we support grassroots programs in our backyard.”
“The retailers are the ones who are really interacting with the consumer and the more they can maintain the interest level and excitement of the people wanting to play more, you get more vested in the sport,” says Wilson General Manager Jon Muir.
Not only does this build and maintain customer loyalty, Levy says it gives retailers the chance to identify and target opinion leaders who set trends at the community level. Steve Vorhaus of Rocky Mountain Racquet Specialists in Boulder, Colo. agrees. “We always try to maintain a close relationship with local tennis pros who refer their clients to our business,” he says.
Once you have the customer in the store, then you have to know how best to serve them. For smaller stores, which typically cannot compete on price and selection, Levy says, “They must excel in customer service and product expertise.”
“As a specialty retailer,” says Vorhaus, “we stress all the things that differentiate us from the big boxes and internet merchants: demo programs, great selection of products, state-of-the art stringing and other services, and the opportunity to talk to our expert staff one on one, whether it’s about stringing, racquet choice or fit and fashion in apparel.”
And Grayson emphasizes the hospitality element. “We take a boutique approach and try to make our stores touchy-feely,” she says. “We want customers to feel they can come in, hang out and talk about their latest match or what’s happening in professional tennis while they’re shopping or getting their racquet restrung.”
Woody Schneider of Grand Central Racquets in New York City takes specialization to the extreme. Although he offers a respectable selection of racquets, shoes and accessories in his two small Manhattan stores (he also runs the shop at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, N.Y.), his business is built around offering tour-quality stringing service.
“I spend extra money to make sure all my machines are consistently calibrated and I make sure my staff is the best. We are, first and foremost, stringers,” Schneider says.
Muir supports this strategy. “For retailers, I would definitely focus on service. As new players come in and existing players rejoin, the better service the retailers can provide, through stringing, new product education — those are always going to be constants to support the retailer’s business and the industry.”
But even with the prospect of a prolonged economic slowdown, most tennis retailers are unfazed. “For us the economy is good and plenty of money is out there,” says Michael Lynne of Michael Lynne’s Tennis Shop in Minneapolis.
Chris Gadreau of Racquet Koop in New Haven, Conn., feels much the same way. “An economic downturn will not affect our business,” he says. “People will still play tennis and the demographic we target will be less affected by a slowdown.”
This sentiment appears to be broadly held. “With retailers, there’s a solid air of optimism,” says Kevin Kempin, vice president of sales and marketing for HEAD Penn. “I think the prevailing notion is that while tennis is not completely recession-proof, retailers feel really good about the equipment segment.”
And in some cases, recession can bring opportunity. Schneider has noticed that the weak dollar has resulted in an unexpected increase in business from foreign visitors to New York City.
“A lot of my racquet sales — it feels like it’s about half, though it probably isn’t — are to tourists, particularly South Americans, who are taking advantage of the relative strength of their currency against the dollar,” he says.
Creating stronger connections with your market improves the odds of your business growing — in good times and bad. Consider these tips for bonding with your customers.
- Advertise intelligently. Many retailers may find that conventional print ads may not be the most effective use of their money. Increasingly, consumers are using the internet to find what they’re looking for. Make sure you have a website and keep it updated. Also, major equipment manufacturers have store locators on their own websites. Be certain your establishment is listed and the information is correct.
- Make friends. Get to know the teaching pros, coaches, and top players in your area. These folks mold opinions and influence buying patterns. Partnering with them exposes your business to customers you may not reach otherwise. And don’t overlook junior players. Kids shape trends much more readily than adults. Be aware of their product affinities.
- Nurture new players. A steady stream of beginning players ensures that your tennis community will remain strong despite inevitable attrition. Sponsor junior programs at your local clubs and encourage your public parks department to get in on the action as well. Don’t forget seniors. Not only do they have the time and money needed to take up a new sport, they tend to be loyal and community-minded.
- Be an expert. Your biggest asset is a thorough knowledge of your products and services and your ability to relate this information to your customers. Stay on top of the latest developments in technology and the trends in the game, both at the recreational and professional levels. The more players learn to rely on you for expertise and guidance, the more indispensable you become.
See all articles by Tony Lance
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