From functional shops to swanky boutiques, sports stores have come a long way, says SHALINI UMACHANDRAN
Pic. by R.Ragu
SPORTS STORES have morphed from dingy godown-like repositories of assorted shoes and swimming goggles into air-conditioned, glass-fronted boutiques that sell everything from aesthetically curved (and of course branded) shoehorns to the latest tennis racquets on the circuit. The walls that used to be lined with cricket bats and swimming floats now have posters of Carlos Moya and Anna Kournikova stylishly diving to tackle particularly easy shots. While it’s easy to talk about the evolution of the sports store and say that the godown guys have been caught and bowled by the ritzy retailers, the truth is the sports store marathon has just begun.
“The Chennai market is maturing. There’s a great deal of opportunity here,” says Altaf M. Vahanvaty, managing director, Sportiff (India), which owns and manages Sports-locker. Sports-locker is among the newest and arguably, the swankiest sports stores in the city and the orange lettering on its glass is still welcoming Carlos Moya, who inaugurated the store in January.
“It is an experimental store, but we wanted to provide customers big brands in the right ambience. I’ve been visiting Chennai for the past 20 years to meet dealers. The existing dealer network is not sufficient to meet the kind of market that Chennai is growing into,” he says. Which is why Sportiff, until recently manufacturers and distributors of sports apparel, decided to open its own sports store, focussing on tennis, cricket and fitness apparel and equipment.
Chandra Kumar Chopda, managing partner of The Pavilion on Wallajah Road, says the marketing blitzkrieg has boosted business. “Over the last 15 years, the equipment has not changed much. What has changed is the kind of media attention sports gets,” he says. “That means more people want their children to take to sports. There’s also the fitness factor corporates buy a lot of equipment to keep their employees in shape.”
However, Dhiraj S. Walia of Pioneer Sports, which has been around since 1932, says there has been a drop in interest in sports over the last decade bad news for the growth of sports goods trading houses.
But most of the sports-store owners are upbeat about their chances in this game. Bernard, who runs Royal Sporting House, part of the Singapore-based sports products retail chain, says their two-month-old 200 sq. ft. store in Spencer Plaza is just an experiment to assess the market. They plan to expand into a 3,000 sq. ft. store within the next year to cash in on Chennai-ites’ growing interest in tennis and golf. “At present, there’s a high turnover in casual wear and work-out clothes, but there is a need for a specialised format store that focusses on particular sports,” he says.
That’s what Chopda of The Pavilion also says. His store’s focus is cricket “Cricket gear comprises 70 per cent of the sales. I also stock all kinds of tennis and swimming gear these are popular sports but each store has its own strength. Mine is cricket.” The Pavilion opened 24 years ago as a 100 sq. ft. store called Bombay Sports Emporium. In 1988, it moved to its present 1,000 sq. ft. premises on Wallajah Road. “Five years ago we re-modelled the store and got it air-conditioned. We thought people might be put off by the new upmarket look, but our sales improved after the redecoration,” he says. “We keep changing the look of our store. Ambience is important to the customer.”
Altaf Vahanvaty of Sports-locker agrees that the right pitch conditions are needed to make a successful sale. “We wanted to give customers an international experience. Though some are hesitant to come as we are in a rather expensive Khader Nawaz Khan Road area, many customers have told us they’re pleasantly surprised with our very reasonable prices and of course, that they love our store’s look.”
Shiny Babolat racquets line one wall of the 3,000 sq ft store and cricket helmets gleam from another corner, while T-shirts in all sizes dangle from polished hangers. The store got inputs about layout and product placement from Aasics and Babolat to get their strategy right. Tennis is their focus, with cricket coming a close second and fitness, third.
Chennai’s sporty types though are into cricket, tennis and general fitness which means working out in a gym or going to aerobics class, say the store people. Dhiraj Walia of Pioneer Sports says shuttle is also a favourite, though more as a pastime than as a serious sport. Sanjana, who runs the Nike franchisee in Spencer Plaza – Phase III, says she sees a higher turnover in basketball-related goods. Most of her buyers are young people looking to make branded fashion statements. “A majority of my customers are doing lifestyle-oriented buying but Chennai is slowly working up to fitness and sport,” she explains.
The other storeowners though are pretty clear about whom they are selling to. “We are a sports store not an offshoot of a branded store,” says Altaf of Sports-locker. “There is no lifestyle orientation, in terms of products.” Dhiraj Walia of Pioneer Sports describes his store as “a super sports department store, where you can get any product at any price point.” There is a trace of disdain for the stores that are pushing Nikes and Reeboks as must-haves in the sportily stylish wardrobe. As Chopda of the Pavilion puts it, “Brand consciousness does not affect real sports lovers.”
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