In 1999 I was co-founder of one of the UK’s first multi-sport eCommerce websites – sweatband.com.
Back then the view of many in the sporting goods market was that consumers would not purchase their sports equipment online, particularly in sports where they had traditionally visited their local sports store to “check the weight of the bat” or “swing the racket”.
Today, nearly 15 years later, the growth of sports eCommerce and, in particular, specialist sports eCommerce has turned that preconception on its head.
The growth of sites such as tennisnuts, rugbystore, prodirectsoccer, activinstinct, sportsshoes and others is testament to the changing consumer purchasing patterns and the phenomenal growth rates of many of these sites looks set to continue.
All of these sites were spurned from bricks and mortar independent sports stores and many have already celebrated over ten years of trading online.
But is it too late to join them?
Can today’s independent sports shop with zero online presence in 2013 become a leading player in the next ten years and beyond?
Lets first look at the challenges they face. The first step is to build the website.
A good transactional website, using an off the shelf platform like shopify, can be purchased for as little as £20 per month.
However, its not a case of “build it and they will come” – once built your website must be, as a minimum, on the first page of google results. That means, in the early stages, a combination of using google adwords and a search engine optimisation strategy.
Expect to spend at least 15% of revenues on these and other marketing activities.
The consumer of today demands choice and service. Back in 1999 it was good enough to show a small product image and description and to offer 7-10 days delivery.
Nowadays we expect a raft of products images, videos, descriptions, size guides and information on each and every line. For this content to rank highly on google it needs to be unique and relevant – that’s a lot of time and effort just spent listing your item.
We expect our order to be with us the next day or, worst case scenario, within 48 hours and that means a large stock holding and a substantial cash investment in the stock as well as a slick pick,pack and despatch procedure and good commercial carrier rates.
We want to connect with our favourite eCommerce sites through other mediums such as social media or, perhaps, a mail order catalogue or both. These must all be part of your strategy to build the customer database and drive sales accordingly.
OK. So you have built the site, have stock, customer care, warehousing, pick and pack facilities and social media and google adwords activity.
But what about your competition? How is their price policy and what can you afford to give in terms of discount to compete? Of course, if they have been established for a period of time, their trading terms with their core suppliers are likely to be very good.
To compete you may have to take an aggressive view regarding your own pricing for a period of time until you can grow your business and negotiate improved terms with your own suppliers.
At this point you may be drawing the conclusion that it is indeed too late to launch an eCommerce site.
However there is hope.
The success of the local independent has always been based on links within the local community, service and product range.
Many continue to thrive on this basis and the addition of an eCommerce strategy can indeed compliment this approach.
Are you a teamwear supplier? If so then you will probably have long established links with local clubs and, perhaps, even a supply agreement or contract.
Instead of them coming into store and ordering their new kit why not offer them the opportunity to order online and collect in store.
This gives the advantage of getting payment up front, more time to add the embellishment (names, numbers etc) and still drive them into store to collect the goods and hopefully to sell them additional items.
The cost to build them a teamwear store is minimal, the number of items small and no additional spend is required on SEO, marketing or operational issues.
Finally you further secure your position as a great retail partner.
A small investment in team shops can lead to guaranteed long term support from your local partner rugby, football, hockey clubs etc and is not effected by aggressive discounting as the lines sold are bespoke and specific to that team.
Exactly the same principles can be applied to building an online shop for your local school.
Build a relationship, select a core range of schoolwear items that you can supply (ideally that you can back to back through one of the wholesalers) and create an online shop.
The online presence makes it easy for parents to purchase the products and , in store collection allows you to take advantage of additional sales and provides a appropriate window to get the stock in and embellish accordingly.
What about those end of line items that are always difficult to shift?
The opportunities through eBay are well documented and easy to set up, or you may like to consider a clever locally targeted campaign to bring even greater rewards.
If you have built a twitter and/or facebook following then you already have a local/customer database . How about creating a flash sale. Put up one item per week on your website and simply use social media and local advertising to push people to that item.
This will get the consumers talking about you, drive additional footfall, and enable you to move end of line items in a quick and targeted way.
Finally look at the niche areas of your business and see if there is an online opportunity. The niche specialist brands and retailers are seeing healthy growth at present and there are still areas within the sports trade that are untapped.
In conclusion the successful independent sports retailer of today, who is unable to invest heavily in a completely separate eCommerce business, can still take advantage of the opportunities that exist in the online world.
Look at the areas of the business where eCommerce can compliment there service levels and add value to their core customer relationships.
Investigate niche product areas, sports and suppliers and explore these areas.
Its not too late to join the eCommerce revolution you just need to be clever in the way that you join.