Racquets: Hitting Winners
Selling tennis racquets may not be rocket science, but these four stores each seem to have found a formula that takes sales to new heights.
By Kent Oswald
Sturtevants, Bellevue, Wash.
Like others explaining their good fortune in these tough economic times, John Gorman, head of tennis at Sturtevants in Bellevue, Wash., makes the path to success sound simple: “Start with good ingredients.” He praises his fairly affluent suburban Seattle community for it numerous leagues (many indoor, so there is tennis year-round) and support for play at all levels. “Tennis is hot here,” he says. “All we have to do is not screw it up.”
Of course, not screwing it up — doubling sales of tennis gear to more than $1 million in about five years and growing a seasonal shop into a main-floor mainstay all year long — doesn’t happen unless you are connecting with customers. Greeting walk-ins is the 50-foot wall of racquets representing six lines, with three stringing machines in use on the floor (instead of one in the back room, which they had years ago). All of it is beautifully framed by a newly redesigned Nordic-themed, dramatically lit, exposed cedar interior.
Mostly though, it doesn’t happen without passion. Gorman is enthusiastic about the overall management, commitment and financial support he gets from Sturtevant’s (the Ski Magazine 2009 National Shop of the Year) top tier. He also has only kind things to say about the partnerships he has established with manufacturers. However, the highest praise is reserved for his staff. “I’ve got the best crew,” he says. “Guys who work here are constantly switching racquets. We’re just psyched about [selling the game].”
There is also attention to every customer. “When you walk into John’s, it’s like walking into your local corner bar, like ‘Cheers,’” says Babolat sales rep Rose Jones. “Everyone in the store knows you and you know them.”
Sturtevants has numerous programs reaching out to the community, whether it is product support for local tennis-related charities, or making sure to be seen at local events, or checking in with local coaches at least once a season. It’s all part of what Gorman claims is the “wow” factor upon which the business model rests, because, he says, “If you give people the ‘wow’ factor, they don’t mind spending the money.”
Tennis Plaza, Florida
It may be counterintuitive, but in retail, complacency, not failure, is the opposite of success. That is the lesson to draw from the continuing growth of sales at Florida’s Tennis Plaza, which was called “Racquet World” in 2005 when the retail store was named the RSI Pro/Specialty Retailer of the Year.
What was once one Miami-area store — whose business began to boom with a move closer to a major highway and the addition of about 50 percent more square footage and 30 percent more merchandise — is less than a decade later three stores in Miami and one in Orlando (the most recent to open is a 5,000-square-foot tennis destination), as well as a burgeoning website. It’s all in keeping with owner Leon Echevarria’s business philosophy to, “Go and see where there is opportunity. …[If I] don’t see big competition, then I just go for it.”
One area in which he has “gone for it” is in reaching out by partnering with the local Sony Ericsson Open and via the website, both of which are major draws to the stores’ growing South American clientele.
Ironically, given the upward trend of his internet business, one of master stringer Echevarria’s business maxims is, “Don’t give people an excuse to shop online.” He keeps up to four demo frames of new racquets in stock and makes sure he has a large offering of all racquet brands, as well as grip sizes and accessories. Most important, he balances good customer service, full inventory and competitive pricing with keeping the staff very familiar with the latest USRSA information.
As Steve Huber, South Central regional manager for Wilson, explains, “The entire staff at Tennis Plaza fully immerses themselves into the marketing strategy from each company so they can explain to the consumer what the manufacturer’s story line is for that particular season. Tennis Plaza also is committed to telling that story on the wall.”
Carrying eight lines of racquets and 12 lines of strings, Echevarria has an overriding goal of providing “big-box” opportunities, but with a specialty shop feel. “To tell the truth,” he says, “[doing a good business] is very simple. I don’t see myself as anything special.” Cash register receipts, however, offer a very different narrative.
Do It Tennis, Oceanside, Calif.
Take even a quick look at DoItTennis.com and you’ll see a retailer implementing a “knowledge is power” mantra as the foundation for its continuing success. There are instructional videos, product reviews, blogs and posts with the latest news manufacturers are sharing about their gear — all of it offering knowledge to customers, or anyone else who happens to visit the site. Start clicking through all that might be relevant to your game and soon, you’ll forget that you were actually there to shop.
“The key is not necessarily to sell [customers],” says owner Hans Paino, “but to give them information, to give them the tools to decide what works for them.” It’s the same for visitors to the 1,600-square-foot Oceanside, Calif., mother ship north of San Diego that has been open in an industrial/manufacturing/retail office park since 2005. “Everyone who works here plays tennis,” Paino continues. “When you are speaking with someone on our staff, you are speaking with someone who is knowledgeable about the game of tennis.”
According to Paino, the key to the steady, upward growth during these past years has been the combination of having multiple channels to sell racquets — the store carries about 100 different models representing nine manufacturers — as well as a soft-sell to consumers who have been empowered with Do It Tennis-provided knowledge. “We try to give people the best experience online” and in person, he says.
The store is highly invested in its local clientele, even making “club calls” to service ball machines or other equipment. But eyes are on the horizon as local competitors have folded. Growth has and will likely continue to come from outside the San Diego north area, drawn by members of the staff who specialize in improving the website and the business’s social media postings, in addition to the unique selling proposition Paino explains as, “The more knowledge people have about product and tennis and what’s out there, the better off they are and the more information we have. The more we offer them, the more we’ll benefit from it.”
Tim’s Racquet, Jenkintown, Pa.
It’s not that time stands still at Tim’s Racquet of Jenkintown, Pa., which has been in business for 22 years. It’s just that, as owner Tim Stumpf says, “There is no lunchtime here. We eat when there is an opening since the customer is so much more important than mere food.” Nor is it a mistake that the website has no email address, but that the phone number is in headline type on each page. “I want people to call and talk to somebody, not just type back and forth.”
The store’s success is built from nothing flashy, just business basics of service and inventory. “When someone comes here, we are giving them the experience of having almost anything they could possibly need.” With over 1,000 new racquets and more than 250 racquets ready to demo (after being playtested and sometimes “tweaked”) in the 2,600-square-foot store located in a suburban Philadelphia shopping center, Stumpf wants to be sure the perfect match for each customer is readily at hand. He believes many people are “fooled by the convenience” of website shopping, explaining, “You can order almost anything online, but you really need to be fitted sometime. To me, service is everything to the customer.”
Among others, Jeff Lininger, Prince territory manager, has been impressed by that focus, describing a “dedication to customer service” as a “key element that provides continued customer satisfaction and results in trust and loyalty.”
“Service” does not mean or require numbers of staff, just knowledgeable and focused personnel. The store has only one other full-time employee, some longtime part-timers and a revolving crew of tennis junkie local kids. This frugality continues in the extreme care Stumpf takes regarding opportunities to expand, as local competitors have closed. Stumpf has taken over only two pro shops at local clubs, and his website is much more an online brochure than cyber-revenue stream.
He also pays attention to MAP pricing, and if there is a rebate he can offer a customer, it is theirs. Additionally, each sale includes the oft-ignored detail that the frame is not the game. “It’s so important,” says the 40-year stringing veteran, “that once we sell someone the racquet, we talk about the tension and the string.” It’s just one more key to a business plan built on service: “You’re never going to see the stringer again if you buy online.”
Stumpf’s motto is, “Make consumers happy and [they will] want to come back to you. You have to find ways to make people feel they not only are getting a good deal, but a great deal.”
See all articles by Kent Oswald
About the Author
Kent Oswald is a contributor to TennisNow.com, producer at the JockBookReview.com and a former editor of Tennis Week magazine.