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Steven Handcombe is celebrating 40 years as owner of Topsport in Oxfordshire

How did you get into the sports trade?

I played most sports as a boy, although athletics and cricket were my real loves – I played cricket for 25 years. I’ve run competitively too for the past 50 years and can claim to have taken part in every running event from the 100 yards to the marathon.

In the early seventies my grandmother left me an inheritance, which I used to set up Topsport.

How did you build the business?
We opened four other shops across Oxfordshire over the following 20 years, trading on our strengths of good stock and knowledgeable staff, which enabled us to build a loyal customer base.

In the eighties and early nineties, when football clubs launched new kits, we used to take pre-orders and put them in carrier bags with customer names to await launch day. These were bonanza days, now long destroyed by clubs producing new kits every year and cut price stores.

Junior sports is where the market is, but they’re not booming, they’re just doing all right. Parents want to find out about the best products to buy, but adults know what they want and go online.

What do you like most and least about your job?
The job I least like is the administration, which takes up more and more of our time. I love the customer contact, but I’m most proud of our staff and their loyalty. A year after we opened, we employed a young lad with fashionable 1970’s hair called Tim Baker, who’s still with us now. Then there’s Andrew Scott, who started out as a Saturday lad in the 1970s, and John Rolfe, who’s 83 and works here three days a week. He came here 20 years ago when he sold his own sports shop on to retire.

What does the future hold for the business?
Two years ago we closed one of our branches, as the increased rent didn’t make it worth keeping on. We’ll review the rest of our leases as they come up, but 15 years ago we bought the Abingdon store, which at the time we didn’t think we could afford, but it’s been a godsend.

The greatest problem for small businesses today is the constant pressure of increasing rents, rates, service charges and staffing at a time when competition from the internet and large discounting multiples is already cutting into turnover and margins. But in February this year we bought an established specialist running shop in Abingdon, in part to control the competition, but also because it had a great turnover, so we are now back up to five stores again.

Specialist shops with large stocks backed up by expert knowledge are the future for sports retail. The running store brings things full circle, given my background in athletics.

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