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Why Sporting Goods Retailers are Bucking the Big Box Trend…

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One of the more interesting articles I came across this week was on the stock analysis site, YCharts.com; “Dick’s Isn’t Getting Dicked by Amazon: Here’s Why.” All juvenile humor aside, it’s true… Dick’s Sporting Goods seems immune to the impact of e-commerce. The article points out the financial metrics that all the Wall Streeters love to see and builds a compelling case for the chain being a profit machine. What is interesting though is that the article does not go into much detail as to why it is that Dick’s is beating the trend—or more precisely (as per the focus of this article), Amazon. But it does mention a couple of possible reasons…

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First, it points out that of Dick’s 190 top selling products,only 12 of those were sold and shipped by Amazon itself. And of those 190 products, 55 didn’t appear on Amazon at all—even as items for sale by outside vendors. Secondly, it points out that the ace up Dick’s sleeve may be that it can sell firearms and that this is where Amazon simply cannot compete.

The article is correct on both counts, although I could think of a few other arguments that are also true. In fact, while some would argue that guns and ammo sales have made sporting goods chains bulletproof, I think that their fortunes actually have been boosted much more by the sale of relatively innocuous golf equipment and gear. The fact is that though golf supplies are readily available online, golf enthusiasts for the most part still prefer to buy their equipment in person at bricks and mortar locations. A less strong case could also be made for athletic shoes—though e-tailers like Zappos have certainly taken a bite out of footwear sales. However, much of their traction has been with female consumers, who have been much quicker to embrace the internet for buying shoes than have men. But ultimately, it may be that sporting goods is where retailers should look for some of the best examples of “experiential retail.” This, of course, is one the new buzzwords(along with “omni-channel retailing”), that we are hearing as the two primary new strategies for retailers to embrace when trying to compete with online sales. Yet, it remains ill-defined for many in the marketplace.

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The basis of “experiential retail” is exactly what it sounds like; creating an experience for shoppers in bricks and mortar stores that they simply cannot get from shopping online. And this is where sporting goods retailers have excelled. Nike Town was arguably one of the first and most successful experiential retailers, building stores with fantastic displays, frequent events and other promotions geared towards building an emotional connection between shoppers and their brands. In fact, I have heard more than one retail insider opine that Nike Town “didn’t care if you bought the shoes there—Nike Town was about promoting the brand so that even if you didn’t make a purchase there,you would buy Nike shoes somewhere.” That might be stretching it, but I don’t think it is too far from the truth.

Certainly, when it comes to fantastic interactive displays, no one can touch the sporting goods sector. This is true whether citing old Nike Town locations or the original L.L.Bean store in Freeport, Maine as original inspirations. The fact is that mega-sporting goods stores by Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops and others have upped the ante on in-store displays to new levels and are continuing to grow with footprints of 80,000 square feet or more at a time when nearly every other single category big box chain is shrinking.

From the real estate perspective, big box space use is generally in decline from every single retail category with just one exception… sporting goods. Certainly there are exceptions to this and there are a few chains out there looking for opportunistic plays with vacant second-generation big box space. And one could also argue that fitness clubs are an expanding big box user because they have been fairly active in taking down vacant mid-box space. However, I am leaving them out simply because they are not traditional retailers selling hard goods. The fact of the matter is that when it comes to hard goods, the overall trend has been one of store closures and smaller footprints. The trend is even more pronounced when you just look at single category big box retailers; book stores, consumer electronics stores, office supply stores are all drastically shrinking. Meanwhile, though we do anticipate a housing-related uptick soon from furniture stores and the Do-It-Yourself home improvement giants, this really has not happened yet.Toy stores, arts/crafts/hobby stores and home goods stores are generally in flat to extremely conservative growth mode—though each category may have an exception (Hobby Lobby, for example, in the arts/crafts/hobbies category), the overriding trend has been flat. Which leaves us with sporting goods chains… the one single category box user where we are seeing not only strong, but accelerating, growth.

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In fact, this might be the real story that was missed in the YCharts article. Dick’s Sporting Goods may be on a tear, but most of the big players active in this category are also expanding. And they are doing so largely because of the unique quirks listed above (guns/ammo and golf serving as a major boost) and the fact that the most successful chains have embraced both experiential and omni-channel retailing strategies.

Dick’s is planning on at least 40 new stores this year in the 50,000 to 80,000 square foot range, even while launching a new hunting concept (Field & Stream) and building their golf concepts. Cabela’s wants to open as many as 160 new stores over the next few years. Current plans for Bass Pro Shops are for at least nine new stores in 2013. Academy Sports wants to open about 12 new stores each year (at about 70,000 square feet each). Gander Mountain should close the year with at least five new stores (all in the 65,000 to 85,000 square foot range). And there are other, smaller players also in growth mode like Golfsmith—which has plans for at least ten 40,000 square foot locations this year while PGA Superstores wants to open at least 15 new units over the next few months. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that many of these chains are now able to find great deals on second generation space as many other former big box users look to consolidate.

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Speaking of retailer growth plans, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the new report just put out by my friends, Rich Moore and Wes Golladay at the Royal Bank of Canada. Their June report on Retailer Demand can be found here. They do a very good job of tracking the marketplace. Though their methodology is a little bit different than what we employ with our own annual Retailer and Restaurant Expansion Guide, their data is solid and their analysis ispretty dead on.

Thanks and have a great week!

–Garrick H. Brown

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