Traditionally, how a cricket bat feels has been a crucial part of a decision to buy, but as the online cricket market continues to grow, this appears to no longer be true. So how does the high street retailer compete? Louise Ramsay reports
As with almost any element of retail, there are a myriad of cricket bat manufacturers and retailers selling online. Indeed, some are purely online-only brands. So does it no longer matter if a bat feels right, even if it costs a fortune? And how can a retailer compete against online prices, particularly when it comes to big name brands?
JS Sports in Stoke-on-Trent has been selling its own Shark cricket brand for the last three years. “We used to sell Gunn & Moore and Puma, but having our own cricket brand means we can offer a unique product at a more competitive price,” Joanne Menzies, who runs the shop with her husband James, says. “Our bats are made in the UK using English willow and are doing well. Some people like to come in and buy face-to-face, particularly younger players, but to be honest I think the idea of people having to feel and see a bat is a bit out of date. Our online cricket business is really successful.”
Shark retails three bats – the Great White, Tiger, and Hammerhead. “Obviously bigger brands such as Gunn & Moore have a bigger range, but we offer a similar quality at a more affordable price,” Joanne says. “Our products are also unique – no one can go and buy the same thing elsewhere. We do our own range of softs too, also at really competitive prices. Our pads are the same quality as Hunts County Bats, but are almost half the price.”
Online customers find out about Shark from adverts placed in All Out Cricket, where its bats have also undergone blind tests by ex-England players. “We were highly rated, which gives us a lot of gravitas,” Joanne says. “It’s certainly ensured they’re able to compete with the hundreds of other online cricket retailers, including boutique cricket brands, which have mushroomed in the past few years.”
She adds: “It’s very easy for people to set themselves up as a cricket brand,” says Joanne. “They don’t even need a website, as they can just sell through Facebook and Twitter. But our trade hasn’t been impacted by so many new businesses. Cricket is such a huge market and we’ve found a niche to work within it. Fortunately, bats just don’t last that long, particularly for youngsters.”
Shark bats are manufactured by B3 Cricket, a brand set up in 2012 that offers a custom, machine-made cricket bat manufacturing service and sells not just online directly to the public, but also through retailers. One of the unique aspects of B3 Cricket is that customers can preview what their bat will look like before they commit to buy – and the company is keen to get its brand into retailers, working on a commission basis.
“We’re only in a few retailers so far,” B3 Cricket’s production director David Bacon, who was previously factory manager and designer at Gunn & Moore, says. “It’s hard getting our foot in the door, but once they hear what we’ve got to say, they’re very receptive.
“Our prices compare incredibly well to major brands. A top of the range Gray-Nichols bat retails for £700, but we can supply a fully bespoke bat for £340.”
There are a number of cricket brands offering custom-made services. “None, though, are quite like us,” Bacon explains. “Only a handful of custom brands are manufacturing bats in England. The majority are buying them in from India or Pakistan. Those that are manufactured here are often made by hand, which is nice, but it doesn’t offer the same consistency as machine made bats.
“In comparison to other online custom sites, we can also offer an incredible number of design permutations. There are 144 different combinations of profile, edge and spine designs, and once things like grips and colours are added in, there are over 600,000 different mixes of design.
“We think retailers would do well to also stock a few major brand products, because there will always be customers who only want to buy from bigger names, and to also stock around 10 of our off-the-shelf bats.”
Bacon emphasises that there are lots of benefits for retailers beyond the competitive price: “There’s no initial layout on stock, saving anything from £50,000 to £100,000. “There’s no stock to take up space, nor any left over at the end of the season to put on sale. We can turn bats around very quickly and offer a no quibble replacement guarantee.”
Another alternative to the major cricket brands is Mongoose Cricket, which is renowned for its MMI3 bat designed for the T20 market.
“Getting to see and feel a bat before buying it is becoming less important to younger people, because they’re driven to buy what their heroes use,” David Tretheway, general manager at Mongoose Cricket, says. “But experienced cricketers will always choose their bats in person and will go through any number of them until they find the right one. We’ve also found that the majority of online sales tend to be softs, accessories and lower end bats.
“Still, it’s getting more and more difficult to stay ahead with new brands popping up every season and small regional brands becoming more available. Our key to success is to offer players exactly what they need, rather then telling them what they need. But it’s hard getting retailers to take us on, even though we offer great incentives for a premium product with all the bells and whistles at sub premium pricing. Retailers just tend to buy the same, traditional brands.”