Footwear: The In-Store Advantage
For players, buying shoes in a brick-and-mortar shop will provide advantages over Internet and big-box retailers.
By Kent Oswald
With the possible exception of restringing, shoe sales are the greatest opportunity for tennis specialists to outmaneuver both the Internet and big-box retailers.
The easy part of the transaction, according to Steve Vorhaus, owner of Rocky Mountain Racquet Specialists in Boulder, Colo., is that, “People shop for shoes when they need them, and most don’t do it soon enough.” The benefit of that consumer behavior is that players do not want to wait on shoes by mail that may not even fit, particularly when price differences are minimized.
Additionally, and contrary to situations involving other merchandise, internet surfing may even be helpful to the brick-and-mortar retailer by priming the sale with scads of online information and opinion on a line or particular shoe’s features and benefits.
More complex for the sales equation is matching highly individual tastes with the right features, style and fit — particularly the sometimes impossibly hard to delineate “feel” a customer wants. The player who arrives at a store looking for new shoes is not window-shopping; he or she is a sale waiting to be made. At this point, according to Kay Barney, Head Penn Racquet Sports district sales manager, “The most important thing in-store is really having the right selection of shoes, and then having [and sharing] the knowledge about those shoes.”
A key component to smart buying is having a plan. To get the selection right, Barney recommends a [mostly] data-driven approach. Nobody can afford to be over-inventoried in sizes or models. Take advantage of the manufacturer’s information, but rely on the store’s own sell-through data and historical trends. Upon that foundation gain knowledge and feed the gut instinct you sometimes have to follow by listening to the most trusted floor staff for customer feedback, and constantly keeping abreast throughout the industry and within your own sales niche of what is turning in terms of sizes and styles.
With the shoes and customer in the store, it then comes down to execution. Sales staff have to be attentive and knowledgeable and the store as a whole has to offer a good shopping experience, so tend to the basics. Even if it is the middle of a swamped Saturday, says Barney, “If the shoe wall looks discombobulated from customers, make sure to clear it up!”
Even looking their most attractive, shoes do not sell themselves. Sales are closed and customers satisfied when specialists apply their essential attributes of knowledge, time, and care. For Vorhaus, a trained staff tries on the different shoes themselves and discusses the differences in features and fit before attempting to sell customers.
Having employees who play the game in the shoes they are selling is important, as is teaching them how to interview customers to be able to understand what is wanted in terms of brand, looks, durability and weight, and also how to explain the differences in technology and features among a final round of carefully considered options.
Regrettably, part of the cost of doing business this way is that sometimes all that energy and attention is something a store owner has to amortize into the cost of building long-term relationships rather than an immediate sale. “People don’t wait for the shoe” once you’ve sold them on it, says Vorhaus. It is frustrating to put in the work and then not have the right shoe in inventory, because, “If you don’t have it you [could] see it on their feet the next time they come in the store. You’ll have made the sale for someone else.”
While the majority of the sale depends on both inventory and the effectiveness of the sales associate, there are tactics to employ that will encourage customers to think about shoes more often and open them up to possibilities once they get in the store. Sales associates can cultivate relationships with current customers by giving them a heads-up when the newest model of their shoes arrive; the store’s social media accounts should always feature images or videos when announcing shoe information
Tennis industry veteran Wally Craig, national sales manager for SP Tennis LLC representing Asics Tennis, suggests that even as every square foot of selling and display space has to be used efficiently, there are still ways to get some pop from in-store displays. Use mannequins for cross-merchandising; display single shoes on top of clothing rounders; highlight a particular shoe away from the shoe wall to enhance its story; and experiment with displays and then keep an eye out to see how to influence store traffic to the shoe sales area.
The advice about using in-store space efficiently is echoed by Karen Moriarty, co-owner of The Tennis Professionals and Sportech in Westchester County, N.Y. A rotation strategy has been developed whereby new models go on the slat-wall shelves, sometimes in multiple colors at different angles, and then as inventory dwindles the shoes are moved closer at hand to the floor, which makes them easier to grab and works as a reminder to bring them to customers’ attention while the window of interest in that style is still open.
To get prospects into the store when new models arrive, Moriarty’s sales staff will call certain customers, while others are notified through email blasts. To keep customers coming back, the stores offer flexibility for those players who want to take two pairs home and “demo” them (in the house, not on the court) before returning the one they don’t like quite as much for a full refund.
Retailers and reps alike say there is no secret to selling tennis shoes, but it turns out there is. The secret is that by the very nature of a transaction that often relies on so many intangibles, a small store has the advantage over the Goliaths. As Barney puts it, “You can try to display in different ways to see what is best for your shop, but it all comes down to earning business from consumers by ensuring a fair price and that they will get the size, model, expertise and time that they want.”
And that, of course, is where the specialists excel.
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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