Footwear: Polish Up Your Shoe Sales
Provide customers with the models, prices, and especially service, and they’ll beat a path to your door.
By Kent Oswald
Just as in tennis itself, fortune in tennis shoe sales usually favors those who are aggressive within their comfort zone. In other words, key to the surprisingly upbeat news in the category from pro and specialty shops around the country is that there are opportunities in shoe sales to create traffic and loyalty. Inventory control, carefully questioning and listening to customers, as well as being aware of trends in the local and internet markets has created a category with an upside in sales even as top-of-the-line shoes keep nudging upward in price.
“We tell everyone, if you put a shoe on and it’s not comfortable, take it right off,” says Carolyn Lewis, owner of Total Tennis in Sarasota, Fla. The aim is to make sure every customer becomes a repeat customer, and the primary tactic is to listen to the customer describe “what their foot problems are.” Serving as an anchor in a good-sized strip mall, with exposure to an audience much broader than the space on a resort island they recently left behind, the 2,000-square-foot store is almost all selling space and devoted to a year-round clientele that ranges widely from kids to frequent players to snowbird seniors.
Lewis highlights what many (albeit not every) stores are experiencing as a positive trend: “People are not reluctant now to spend $130, $140 on a pair of shoes; not like a few years ago when you couldn’t crack $100. Players are willing to pay for a quality pair of shoes.”
Feeling the Fit
Even if they are not aware of it, the greater acceptance of MAP pricing has also made customers less likely to forego the experience of actually being fit for their shoes.
“Even in a recession, our shoe business has boomed,” says Jeff Eaton, pro shop manager and teaching pro at the Carmel (Ind.) Racquet Club. The 800-square-foot in-house pro shop carries 53 SKUs, many with a full inventory of sizes. “As the clothing industry has become more marginalized, we decided to make a greater investment in shoes. Shoes, like racquets, are things people want to try on.”
At Carmel, the price barrier is set about $120, but Eaton finds that below that, as long as he is competitive with internet pricing and reminds members of what is new in styles they’ve previously appreciated, he can reliably turn the inventory. When something doesn’t work — maybe a shoe with a color splash that just did not hit — he aggressively marks it down to maintain the cash flow. He also admits to being helped by his clientele’s interest in paddle tennis and a thriving junior program, both of which can tear up outsoles and make the six-month durability guarantee a key selling point for more shoes with higher technology and price points.
Taking that idea one step further, Joe Habenschuss, district sales manager for Head/Penn in Florida, suggests to his accounts that part of the inquiry leading up to a sales presentation should be inquiring about what surface a customer usually plays, as well as how frequently they play, whether they are looking for more support or comfort and how happy are they with the width of their shoes — all of which might come up with one query: “What do you like and dislike about your current pair?”
The sweetspot for Les Moise, a snowboard, ski and tennis specialty shop in Milwaukee, Wis., are shoes priced $80 to $130. Again, with the higher end kicks, the six-month warranty is a key for the store that makes special outreach efforts to the seven high schools and five colleges nearby whose players are grinding touchline to touchline on hard courts. “Despite the resistance, some customers find that $140-plus can be worth the price if you think you are going to get two shoes out of it using the warranty,” says Manager Joe Tim.
“[Our] best selling point,” Tim explains, “is looking at the shoes on a customer’s feet. Use their shoe to show them what they need.” Which, of course, depends on a well-trained staff. At Les Moise, salespeople receive hands-on training, including explanations of all shoe strengths as well as a comparison of benefits within the category; the experience of trying on all the models; and an assessment to make sure they understand how to use fitting aids. They also get trained on the technical features such as how to make sure an insole can improve fit and performance, as well as the interplay of width, heel and toe comfort, support and stability.
“Customer service is our key, hand’s down,” says Tim. “The one thing you can’t get on the internet is service.”
The main point of any interaction between staff and customer is to build a relationship, says Babolat’s Midwest territory representative, Joe Kanarek. He believes shoe sales are all about, “asking the correct questions and listening to customer feedback. [A salesperson’s job] is to create trust between him or her and the customer that will help to choose a few types of shoes for them to try.”
“Instead of training people to sell ‘product,’” echoes Mike Palmer, manager of the Tour Tennis shop in Charleston, S.C. (which has a sister location in Charlotte, N.C.), “we try to train our people how to give good information, correct information, and to be more helpful and informative than just salesmen trying to push people into certain models.”
Palmer added that while respecting manufacturer sales data and interested in the shoes that will be heavily promoted, his mantra is to listen to customers more than shoe companies about his own inventory. “We know what is good for certain foot types,” he says, but for inventory maintenance and sales, “[you have to] ask customers what they want and what their experience is.”
Once you have knowledge from the customer, with the right choices for inventory (always “the meat sizes” of the lines you carry at the price points that work for your clientele and the extensions as far as budget allows) the rest is just patience with maybe some patter. “People don’t know exactly which shoe they want until you get it on their feet,” says Wilson territory manager Evan Garfinkle.
That shoes don’t receive the floor space of other categories should not be a barrier to putting them in front of customers throughout the store. The possibility for connection and an immediate or future shoe sale occurs every time a customer walks in: Sales staff should be on alert to what model customers wear when they enter the store and what shape those shoe are in. Both are potential starting points for conversations about newer versions of the brand, recent magazine or website reviews, or even just visually apparent wear.
Even as promotional capacity is limited on the wall or selling floor, eye candy can be created by displaying two or three matching shoes and outfits around the store. Similarly, a hangtag of label with review highlights or using a flag rather than a banner gets in the eye and mind of a customer with minimal use of space.
Just never forget about either the product or the customer, and shoe sales can continue to provide a boost to business. As Paul Davis of the Baltimore, Md., retailer Princeton Sports, emphasizes, “You have to be competitive in price and value for what you are selling, but, ultimately, repeat business is driven by a clean store where it is fun to shop and have a pleasant experience — and service, service, service.”
Tips for Selling More Tennis Shoes
- Use a database of brand and date customers bought shoes to notify them of relevant news and promotional opportunities.
- Highlight in your store what top players are wearing and which shoes have recently received positive press.
- Don’t match all local and web pricing, but stay competitive.
- Teach sales staff to pay attention to what customers have on their feet during all sales and be aware of opportunities to supply appropriate information about new or upcoming models.
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.
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