Give Customers A Sporting Chance.

When I was a kid Australia had some of the best small specialist sporting goods stores in the world. I was a cricketer, so Stan McCabe’s cricket store in the Sydney CBD was a special favourite. They stocked the best cricket gear, had a well laid out store with good visual merchandising and lots of rare cricket memorabilia and had fantastic senior staff all of whom were cricketers themselves – some of them former or current state and national team members.

When Rebel Sports first emerged as a big box category killer it promised more than just low prices. At its zenith, it replicated a series of specialty sports stores under one roof to create a generalist. In its wake, it overpowered all but a very few areas of specialists. Today there is a smattering of specialist golf and tennis stores. And a few other generalists. But Rebel Sports remains the dominant category leader in sales.

However – in my humble opinion – Rebel Sports no longer serves its customers well. Its stores are hard to navigate, confusing in layout, poorly merchandised, lacking in customer service and almost impossible to buy from. Many customers have little choice but to purchase at Rebel Sports but very few walk out satisfied by the experience from what I have seen and those I have spoken to. Many under-spend, if they spend at all.

A category that needs great service and once got it, has been dumbed down to a glorified warehouse level box based on the weight of cheapest price, highest turn and lowest cost of doing business thinking.

This just clears the way for the entry of Decathlon and JD Sports. However, if you are a sports enthusiast like me with high and regular consumption and specialist needs, don’t get too excited. Both new entrants are in the same game to more or less the same degree. This is symptomatic of much of physical retail in Australia at present where the race to the lowest common denominator is the critical path that could be the undoing of physical retail.

Interestingly Super Retail Group – owners of Rebel Sports – have just launched a new store concept for stable-mate Super Cheap Auto which does exactly the opposite of Rebel’s deterioration by injecting new life into the after market motoring sector. If Rebel rediscovered its mojo and went back to delivering specialist sport department customer experiences as it used to do, it could easily restore its source of strength in what will become a ding dong battle with two well resourced global rivals.

But the point is that in all areas of Australian retail this kind of thinking based on formulaic management dumbing down the customer experience and chasing low cost has created a landscape that is vulnerable to international competition – and un-necessarily so. If the customer franchise is strong in terms of both share and relationship, there is little room for a competitor. But when the only thing that connects you to customers is cheap price – and to a lesser degree locational coverage – you are highly vulnerable.

Australian retailers need to re-establish a deeper customer connection with local customers that they should know better than ‘out-of-towners’. But we need to do it fast.