Trends & Features

The start of something big

Even though the recession is still dominating the headlines, opening a sports business is still a viable proposition. John Bensalhia looks at the initial process for getting your new business off the ground

Turning on the TV news these days, it’s a safe bet that at least one story will feature another doom-mongering report about the recession. These stories seem to have stretched back to the dawn of time, when in reality they only went back to late 2007. With all this panic in the air, you’d expect business start-ups to be a thing of the past. But you’d be wrong.

Sports businesses, in particular, are still hitting their stride. One advantage of starting up a business in a recession is that it provides a real litmus test of whether you can get customers in dicey economic times. If you manage to pull in punters, then it’s safe to assume that when all the panic has died down there will be some serious profit to be made from your business.

A good number of existing sports shop owners have done well despite tough trading conditions. Rory and Daniel Clifford, who run R&D Sports in Bexhill-on-Sea, are good examples of how you can start up a successful business in a recession.

They opened in March 2008, and have reported a strong start to their business. Their secret is good old-fashioned customer service. “Customers will return if you offer an excellent personal service, competitive prices and a full knowledge of the products you are selling,” say the pair. Furthermore, they add that all small businesses’ foundations must be based on a friendly, knowledgeable approach because customers: “appreciate accurate information.”

George Bannon, who is in charge of Roscommon Sports & Leisure, started his business in the early 1980s, another period of recession. Since then Bannon has enjoyed success with his business, again as a result of good customer service. “We keep customers coming back with competitive prices, good service, attention to detail and knowledge of our individual customers and their requirements,” he explains.

Despite the recession, there is still demand for sports shops. Research asserts that about two thirds of adults do some sort of exercise. This means that there will always be demand for sports goods, equipment and clothes, and with sports men and women still being talked about and promoted in the media, people want to be like them, especially the young ones who have dreams of being the next Beckham, Ferdinand or Lampard.

So what is there to bear in mind when starting up a new business? First of all, you have to determine whether you are prepared to stick with the business for the long haul. If you have the requisite amount of willpower, mental ability and determination, then the chances are that you can make a go of your business, even during difficult times.

Preparation goes a long way. You have to work out what kind of sports shop you want to run. Do you want a general sports shop that includes all sorts of activity equipment, or will you specialise in a niche market?

Your choice may have some bearing on the size and location of your business. If you plan on opening a smaller shop, a location just out of town may be more appropriate, rather than being in the middle of a high street. The high street is normally better for larger shops, since they will have to compete with the commonly known big brand names. A smaller shop may have much more work to do to stay ahead – or at least keep up with – the competition.

Also, think about other places in the area when deciding on location. If you are not going to select a location on the high street, consider choosing a site near a car park or a gymnasium.

Do you rent or buy premises? If you have the money, it’s wise to buy, but if you are just starting out (and especially if this is your first business venture) then renting premises would seem the safer option. Don’t forget though, that your budget needs to cover rent or mortgage, council tax, utilities and overheads, staff wages, refuse collection, compliance with regulations and insurance, as well as advertising and marketing.

One way to keep costs to a minimum is to start up an online sports business. JMV Sports, an online retailer of custom-made and general sportswear, is one such company that chose this way of doing business. Camille Whyte, company secretary, explains that: “It’s so much easier and less expensive. Because we offer a customised service, we save money on holding stock.”

Marketing spend is a vital part of your budget. Mail shots and email are relatively cheap methods of publicising your business, but if you have the money print leaflets and even brochures to advertise your new business. It’s also worth doing a check on competitors in the area to see how much they charge for goods and what sort of service they offer. That way, you will have an advantage when it comes to making your sports business stand out from the crowd.

The style of your shop’s interior is an important consideration. Customers will always be attracted to bright, well thought out surroundings that contain plenty of room and are easily navigated. Matt Williamson of Run 4 It in Glasgow says that store design is a crucial element of a shop’s interior. “We want to make our stores as comfortable as possible for our customers, focusing on creating a bright, innovative environment so that our products are displayed as effectively as possible,” he explains. Williamson says his company appointed a visual merchandiser to ensure that the shop always looked in the best condition.

Legal matters also need to be addressed. Not many issues need to be acted upon, but the few that are do need to be dealt with before you can trade. If you are selling bikes, the Pedal Cycle Safety Regulations of 1984 set the standard for all new bicycles in the country. If you are holding customers’ details at your work premises, you have to register with the Data Protection Commissioner. In terms of health and safety, if you employ more than five staff, you need to write a health and safety policy statement and ensure you comply with employment legislation, in particular the minimum wage act, working time regulations and the employment rights act.

When it comes to stock, carry out research into as many different suppliers as possible. As well as using the big names, it is also a good idea to use lesser-known brand names, which can also give you a good profit. Make sure you keep in regular contact with your suppliers – in case there are any problems with the goods, make sure they are sorted out as swiftly as possible.

After you have opened your shop, it is vital to keep hold of customers and guarantee their return. Gareth Britton, the owner of All Sports in Donegal Town, Ireland, says that his shop concentrates on giving customers that personal touch: “We provide information on different products rather than just giving them the thing they come into buy…customers come back for the service they get and the personal attention and friendliness of the store.”

George Bannon of Roscommon Sports & Leisure adds that getting to know customers personally is a good way of bringing them back to the shop in the future. “We keep customers coming back with competitive prices, good service, attention to detail and knowledge of our individual customers and their requirements,” he says. “I spend most of my time on the shop floor and know a lot of my customers on a first-name basis.”

Camille Whyte of JMV Sports explains that, apart from good customer service, customers are attracted by value-for-money deals. “We offer customers special offers, loyalty discounts and rewards, as well as longer-term benefits over large, ongoing orders,” she says.

Matt Williamson of Run 4 It says that his business regularly tries to engage customers in incentives, such as helping out at races and offering educational evenings: “We always aim to ensure that each and every customer enjoys their experience when they visit our stores.”

Whether or not your sports business survives is down to you. You need that spark of determination to make your business the best it can be, even when times are hard. Do the preliminary research, find ways to keep customers coming back and offer excellent value, quality products. Even though the recession is still a much talked-about issue in the media, plan and conduct your business correctly and you stand to embark on the venture of a lifetime.

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