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Retail interview: Danny Cornter, owner of Wilds Sports in Hampshire

How did Wilds Sports come about?
The Wilds family set up in 1927 with a shop in Winchester. I’ve always been into sport and came in to do work experience when I was still at school. I ended up with a Saturday job, progressed to manager and bought the business in 1990. I opened a second store in Ringwood in the late 1990s and another in Newbury in around 2000.

What do you stock?
As a general sports retailer, we deal in the regular sports such as running, rugby and racquet sports. We focus on equipment and technical clothing – we dabbled in fashion, but our speciality is product knowledge. We do sell some Nike and adidas, but we prefer to work with smaller brands. It means we can offer something different and we have a very good customer database who trust us to provide what they need.

How do you compete?
As with any sports retailer, our main competitor is the internet. We can’t compete on price, so we compete on service. I think the market is split 50/50. Half buy from the internet, the other half buy from us because they want to support the high street.

We do all the usual stuff like gait analysis and racquet restrings and we employ staff who are specialists in different areas, so that can become their area of sales expertise. Our embroidery and printing service also works well with clubs and schools.

Essentially though, we try to listen to our customers and respond to demand. A skate park opened in Winchester recently and there was nowhere to buy a skateboard locally, so we started selling them. Our busiest time is at the start of term when families come in – the kids see the skateboards and want one. It’s early days, but we’re looking into skate accessories and spin-off buys. Being small, we can react to local demand. Blacks and Millets closed recently, so now we’re selling hiking boots. We’re always on the lookout to offer something new.

What marketing techniques do you employ?
We’ve got a loyalty scheme that we’re going to refresh this year and our customer database is constantly growing. A recommendation is better than any amount of paid advertising. We’re experimenting with social media to see what has the best effect.

Are you a member of any buying groups?
We used to belong to Allied and STAG and we looked into joining Intersport, but we’re happy as we are. The best bit about being in a buying group was talking to other retailers and bouncing ideas off each other. Even though we’re now on our own, we’ve still got those contacts to chat to.

How does online business compare to that in your physical shop?
We don’t sell a lot online, though we hope to expand this by selling bigger items and clearance from the website in the future. The problem with online is that there will always be someone selling it cheaper, so it’s not an area I want to get into. Having said that, a lot of the clubs we deal with have asked for an online club shop, which we do provide.

What do you like most and least most about the business?
I love being my own boss and working in sport, but dealing with staff can be tough. We try to keep numbers to a minimum to keep costs down, but if people go off sick finding cover can be difficult.

I also find dealing with manufacturers, the big brands in particular, very galling. They completely fail to understand what the customer wants. Nike no longer produces a screw-in stud football boot because in Europe they all play on firm ground. The boots they offer are also all in bright colours, which some schools don’t allow, yet a pair of football boots for school is compulsory. Smaller brands are getting squeezed out and I literally can’t get the products I need to supply my customers.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Dealing with a greedy landlord. We had to close our shop in Ringwood because the rent went up extortionately. Gratifyingly, the shop remained empty for years and he’s still only managed to rent it out to a charity shop, who pays him rent on a weekly basis. At the same time, a compulsory purchase was made on our Newbury store, so we had to move premises – it was a difficult time. But we’re back on track now and although retail is tough, business is steady. The printing and embroidery is easier to grow than the sports side, but it gels well with what we’re doing already.

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