Tennis Industry magazine

 

Footwear: Kicking It Up

Shoes are the ‘journeymen’ of tennis equipment. But sooner or later, every player will need a new pair.

By Kent Oswald

Compared to tennis racquets, which many consider to be the stars of the inventory, shoes are much more the solid journeymen of tennis sales. They are low markup, with a lifetime measured from months for serious juniors to a year, maybe two, when donned by casual-playing seniors. Everybody who walks into your store either will need a new pair of kicks now, or very soon.

Describing the opportunity, Adidas America tennis category manager David Malinowski advises, “You can display eight to 10 shoes in the space it takes to display one shirt. Footwear can be the milk in your store pulling customers all the way into the back, or it can be the window dressing. It can go behind the counter or above the apparel.”

Wherever you place footwear in your store, however, they will rarely be a sexy or easy sale. Unlike racquets, there are few internet forums arguing the virtues of tennis shoes. There are no demo programs to excite customers.

Even as shoe prices rise due to increases in material and manufacturing costs, overall retail unit sales are flat. The latest figures by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association are that overall athletic footwear shoe sales in the U.S. treaded water — from $12.952 billion (with tennis shoes making up $157 million of that) in 2007 to $12.608 million in 2010 (with tennis shoes again adding $157 million).

Bottom line: Selling shoes in this marketplace essentially is a zero-sum game, with one store or pro shop’s hit indicating another’s shot off the frame.

Building Repeat Business

But store owners and shoe manufacturers are doing what they can to move footwear, keeping in mind that — since shoes will wear out — a good relationship with your customer will mean repeat sales.

In addition to having prominent, clean-looking shoe displays, MP Tennis owner Mike Pratt says store staff needs to be ever attentive. One tactic is to encourage staff to see what model customers are wearing when they walk in and ask if they would consider the latest version. Most of all, he says, “Don’t let customers serve themselves, [and] once they find their size, just keep the styles coming.”

Pratt, whose 1,000-plus square-foot store in a Tampa, Fla., strip mall has a wide-ranging clientele, is adamant that competition is everywhere. “If people perceive you to be more than Internet, you won’t be successful,” he says. Stringing is the higher-margin money-maker for his store and he uses visits to his two busy stringers to draw customers toward the shoes. He also has televisions tuned to tennis and rugs in that part of the store to make the area as comfortable for those waiting as for the person trying on the newest models. Additionally, he features a program offering 10 percent off shoe and 20 percent off clothing with a racquet restringing.

Another possibility for increasing sales is to take every advantage of point-of-purchase promotions. Mickey Maule, Babolat’s national sales manager, cites the company’s “Giant Shoe” as the most efficient in-store promotion he has seen. The company includes pictures of the latest shoes within the shrink wrap on racquet handles; in the past has offered a racquet/shoe discounted purchase; and this coming season highlights a reusable bag as a gift with shoe purchase. However, even as the company amps up its social media strategy to drive players into stores, a seductive temptation for putting players in the shoe-sale frame of mind will likely continue to be the size 22 Babolat shoe display that draws some people into stores just to take a picture.

Getting the Right Fit

For Adidas’s Malinowski, the favorite promotion was that of a teaching pro (admittedly, Adidas-sponsored) new to an area who offered a free lesson for anyone who purchased a pair of Barricades or adiZeros from a particular shop. “The word spread,” says Malinowski, “and the pro had to offer several one-hour clinics to cover all of the people that came in and bought shoes. The shop didn’t lose any margin and the pro got to show off his teaching skills, which turned into many returning customer for both the shop and the teaching pro.” Despite the success, Malinowski acknowledges, “Promotions on footwear are difficult, as the most important thing is to get the right-fitting shoe.”

And getting players into the right-fitting shoes almost always takes an educated staff. Richard Flores, owner of First Serve, a 4,200-square-foot store open since 1989 in San Antonio, encourages his employees to quiz each other about product features and even “sell” each other during slow times. He also stresses the importance of asking customers questions and listening to their answers to figure out what they are really looking for in a shoe.

Flores teaches that, “People want to be engaged … [shoe] customers are not driven by the technology story. They are driven by other things, but technology helps justify the price. [In fact,] shoes aren’t sold just because they are on sale, they have to address specific needs. Needs trump a markdown.”

According to Prince VP of sales—footwear Kevin Adametz, the basic “needs” for tennis are, “fit, fit, durability, and then looks.” The challenge, he says, is for manufacturers and retailers to find the right balance for each player between a shoe’s durability and its weight, which once again calls to the fore the importance of having a knowledgeable staff to guide players through the shoe-buying process.

Comparing a racquet purchase to a shoe sale, Adametz compares selecting a new stick for most consumers to buying a car, where they do their homework and shop dealers and prices. On the other hand, a shoe is not something a player throws in his/her bag and keeps once the replacement is in hand, and so the mentality is very different. “A shoe wears out and you know it will wear out,” he says. (As an additional note in considering what to stock and sell, keep in mind that the lifetime of a tennis shoe is shorter for juniors, who often ride their shoes harder even as they grow out of them sooner.)

The Fashion Angle

But even before a player’s newest shoes will wear out, there are fashion concerns that consumers are keeping in mind. Currently, shoe manufacturers are adding many more splashes of colors — particularly among junior styles. Also, there are some primarily black footwear as a contrast to the traditional and much more prevalent basic white.

The trend of the last few years suggests increasing consumer acceptance of greater color. “People are always looking for the next hot style and brand,” says Head/Penn’s Northern regional sales manager, John Tranfaglia. “We are seeing bold colors and designs in the marketplace. Taking risk in design and color to stand out ‘on the wall’ is seen now in every season.”

The problem, of course, is that to the extent that fashion comes into play, selecting “the wrong” colors does leave a shop open to problems with inventory … and there are far fewer offers by manufacturers of minimum advertised price reductions for shoes than racquets and many fewer overall than in the past to rely on. The standard advice is to order conservatively regarding sizes and fashion, as you can always special-order if you sell aggressively.

Ultimately, shoes are a necessary backbone of a store’s inventory, but it is a foundation offering that does not come cheap. They may be low margin and somewhat utilitarian, but selling them will never be boring.

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About the Author

Kent Oswald  is a contributor to TennisNow.com, producer at the JockBookReview.com and a former editor of Tennis Week magazine.

 

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