Trends & Features

Strong community links and a prominent digital presence are essential for success

The Hockey Centre is one of the oldest specialist hockey equipment shops in the country.

Now based in Woking, in Surrey, it was set up over 30 years ago as Bablock Sports, the retail arm for the brand Mercian.

As the brand grew it had to separate from a retail environment and The Hockey Centre was born as a multi-brand hockey specialist catering for the hockey population in the SouthEast of England.

At the time there were very few hockey retailers, a lot of carbooting sales. The Hockey Centre also had a mobile shop in the form of a double decker bus and went around all the hockey festivals, taking product out to the players.

Shop manager Ted Warren (pictured) said: “Over thirty years the business has seen many changes, recessions, the advent of mail order and then the internet.

“But over the last three years, the change in focus has been a more visible digital presence with a high-quality e-commerce platform, an increased stock position in store and an improved retail environment to service the high level of foot traffic that we have and finally an extensive staff training programme to give out the best level of information possible to the consumer.”

They believe that building and maintaining strong links with with local hockey clubs is essential to their success.

Warren said: “It is an area of business that we will be focussing on in the coming year. Our relationship with local clubs is very important to us. Offering club-specific deals, making club clothing agreements and then making those club members feel welcome and part of a Hockey Centre community. We have a great level of foot traffic but we have not promoted the business in a targeted way to some local clubs and their members. So we will be making agreements with clubs that benefit them and their members.”

But they also have to battle a problem that is common to many high street retailers today, parking and the internet.

Warren added: “Parking for our retail customers is a constant challenge, as our business grows we constantly struggle to have enough parking for the increasing number of customers, but we have altered the front of the business to try and address that. The internet is also a challenge, to stay on top of digital trends so that we appear near the top of search rankings and maximise, platforms like Facebook and Google constantly change how they analyse retailers and so we have to stay on top of those changes. Fortunately, we have some partners within the business who are experts in that field and are driving that side forwards.”

And The Hockey Centre keeps a close eye on the marketplace when they select new products. They want to be able to give their customers what they want, when they want it.

Warren said: “We have to be aware of the brands that exist in the market, looking at international tournaments to spot what the top athletes are using across the world. We also look at competitor offerings to see what else is around and monitor three or four social media platforms to see what is hot and on the way up and what is going the other way.

“There are then also the niche brands where a player or coach may do something with a brand at a local club or school, promoting it more than usual and directing players in store for those products. We need to understand and service that demand.”

Tommy Alexander, a hockey expert at the store, also keeps his eye on what trends may be coming up in the game.

He said: “There will be new stick bends and head shapes from a number of brands. Triple core technology has now proven itself and will also be in some sticks as it enhances stiffness and therefore potential hitting power. More players are using right and left hand gloves so we will see some of those come into stock and also some new shell shapes in shinguards.”

The Hockey Centre attempts to stay ahead of the competition by focusing on three key areas. They make sure they have a good level of stock for as much of the season as possible, working as closely with brands as possible to place good stock orders and then top-up regularly.

They are training their staff to have a high-level of knowledge about all the products so that they can advise customers as well as possible, in-store, on the phone and online.

And finally, they promote the business on social media, increasing awareness of what they do and creating the maximum number of opportunities to sell. But they also offer innovative services to their customers.

Alexander added: “We have an in-store area called Goalie Gear where clubs, schools or just individuals can book an appointment to come in, discuss the complicated world of goalkeeping with an expert and buy from a full range of kit, available there and then. We believe it is one of only two or three similar services in the whole country.”

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