Trends & Features

From sports to schoolwear – the changing face of the sports retailer

I spend much of my time talking to fellow brands and partner retailers looking at how the industry is changing around us and seeing what trends are evolving.

In 2016 I wrote and article in this very magazine looking at the merging of the school and sports channels and, some three years on, the trend looks to be gaining more and more momentum.

When I was growing up I vividly recall the small shop in our local town that was the schoolwear supplier.

He was the only place in the area where one could purchase the relevant blazer and tie and, whilst admittedly it was in the 1970s, it did have a very “Are You Being Served” feel to it – even down to the wooden fixtures and fittings and small drawers that held the various stock items.

Today I find myself kitting out my own children with the various items for school but find a very different, and evolving, landscape within the schools supply business. Yes, of course, the traditional schoolwear specialists are still around and, indeed, many are thriving however, like the sporting goods industry, the online players are growing and consolidation is occuring.

For many sporting goods retailers it seems that the channels of school and sport are merging or the sports retailers are pivoting their model towards school supply and away from sport.


Firstly the numbers are guaranteed – A good comprehensive school may have 1,000 plus pupils all of whom require school uniform without exception. Secondly the market is very large – in England alone there are 24,281 schools – 16,776 primary, 3,408 secondary and 2,297 independent schools. Thirdly the margins are strong.

Counter this with, for example, chasing a football club for teamwear business. Often there are several competing retailers all looking to take the business plus the smaller market disruptors/ own brands. Price wars occur. Gift of kit is expected. And, sadly, the loyalty of some clubs (even if they are in an agreement) is sometimes questionable. Of course, to service a school one requires an investment in stock and there is a small back to school window to drive the business, however sales do continue throughout the school year and the overall upside can be very strong.


But, interestingly, its not necessarily the sports retailers that have recognised the business opportunity here. For many embellishment houses the traditional core business was, on the one hand supplying embellished school and work garments and on the other using their in-house embroidery and print machines to produce a wider range of promotional items or, perhaps, do some embellishment for the local sports retailer. Over time, as that sports retailer has found an increasingly challenging environment he has considered the outsourcing costs to have his items embellished and also looked at the opportunity to service those very markets that his fellow retailer does i.e. schools and workwear.

Likewise traffic has flowed the other way with many schoolwear and workwear suppliers beginning to look at sports teamwear as an opportunity to expand their own businesses.

The result is a merger of the two channels.

More brands

In theory this sounds like a sensible strategy, however there are many points to consider before embarking on this route.

First and foremost the more brands that an agent carries means more products to carry and thus longer sales calls. This may be counter to the demands of the retailer who, arguably, wants shorter sales calls and more time to drive the business.

Alternatively, it may mean more frequent visits to the customer base to get through the product presentations adding more travel costs and negating the strategy of increasing sales for the same number of calls.

Secondly, more brands and products may lead to range cherry picking by the agent and hence a dilution of brand range and message -something that clearly does not sit well with brands.

Market Pressures

The pressures forcing these changes also show interesting similarities. Just as the sporting goods industry has seen seen the development and evolution of the multiple retailer, own brand and aggressive pricing, the schoolwear industry has seen the grocery channel take a large slice of schoolwear sales.

Both channels have also seen the ever increasing growth of the eCommerce specialists. However, in both instances, a vacuum has been left with consumers, and schools who put locality and customer service high on their priority list – something that, in general, these mega retailers are often poor at.

Local retailers are better placed to “court” the school head and chase their business as well as provide an environment for pupils to try on their uniform and to shop for other periphery items – again something both the multiples and online dealers are not proficient at.

The result

The result is the independent retailer filling this hole.

The process of purchasing the uniform, the sports kit, the periphery items (such as mouthguards, shinguards, bags, base layers etc) is often a seamless combination of an online or in store solution.

One simple pack, fully embellished (on all items) with school crest, excellent service and a local focal point.

But is the trend likely to continue? One look at recent statistics provides a clear answer. While, on the one hand, the recent Sports England participation figures showed a slight drop in those regularly participating in sport or exercise at least one a week, on the other hand Official Government estimates suggest that the overall school population is set to grow by one million pupils in the next decade.

Set this in the context of sporting goods independent and the challenges they face, versus the chance to (relatively easily) move into the schools sector and one can see why this is a trend that is likely to continue.

As Neil Keeling, of NK Sports in Weston-Super-Mare, recently said to me: “The repositioning of our business to focus on schoolwear alongside our teamwear business was the game changer for us. We continue to pick up schools based on our customer care and service levels and the same demands from our sports teamwear customers means that we can also grow that side too with both elements complementing each other.”

The conclusion

As I look around this ever changing industry I do see a business model that appears to be working very effectively in the present environment and it is based on this merged school wear / teamwear business.

It’s an out of town unit, with cost effective rent and rates and excellent parking. A showroom with schoolwear and teamwear, changing rooms and in-house embellishment. An eCommerce solution with specific school and club shops.

A core group of small suppliers – both direct and through wholesalers such as BTC or Ralawise.

Excellent customer care and strong links into the community (both through the local schools and local sports clubs.)

A further step is to take this business into the workwear marketplace – after all many local businesses sponsor grass roots football, rugby, cricket etc teams and the dealer may well already have their company logo set up for embellishment if they have printed the kit. Its a small step then to offer them a workwear solution. Good luck!

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