Decathlon, the world’s largest sporting goods retailer, has remained resolute in the face of a shifting market that has claimed the scalps of major former rivals.
The French company has expanded into new territories around the world while continuously expanding its presence in the UK, despite the same period seeing JJB Sports bought out by Sports Direct, and American giant Sports Authority disappear from over 450 locations in the US following its liquidation.
Now, as part of an aggressive ten-year expansion plan, Decathlon looks to grow to 300 stores nationwide, initially by building its presence around London, Birmingham and Manchester. To set the bar high ahead of this ambitious strategy, it has spent millions refitting and doubling the size of its flagship store, aiming to create a shopping experience that can be rolled out across the country.
After reading a report from Retail Week that showcased the £14 million refit of Decathlon’s Surrey Quays HQ, SHIFT Magazine took its own trip to London in September 2018 to see if the store matched up to the positive headlines it had already garnered – and if its strategy of getting people in store for expertise and interactivity was a worthwhile investment.
Bridging the gap
Ahead of our visit, it was already clear that Decathlon did not have the physical presence once held by its former rivals, but we thought its pragmatic approach to online growth had put it in good stead – a firm investment in its logistics provided a strong basis for store expansion.
Customers visiting its website are offered a salvo of perks that many established players and competitors simply don’t provide, including:
- A 365-day returns period;
- Accurate stock check;
- Free click and collect from any store within 24 hours;
- Standard delivery within three working days for £3.99 (and free over £30) – including bulky goods such as table tennis tables to anywhere in Great Britain.
These provisions still have some way to go before consumers get the seamless experience they want – most notably, introducing immediate click and collect, given the fact Decathlon has accurate in-store stock check. Yet unlike most other retailers, the company proudly declared itself as an omnichannel business: a tactical direction that already culminated in it building its logistics hub in Northampton. As a result, we presume that it’s only a matter of time before the company adds further benefits.
The company seemed to have designed its online offering to complement and overcome the location restrictions of its national network which, despite comprising 43 stores in the UK, only has four north of the M62. As such, the multimillion-pound refit and expansion of its east London flagship could effectively give the green light for this new template to be copied and pasted into existing locations, as well as brand-new outlets opening in new markets across the nation and beyond.
With this approach, Decathlon could hit competitors hard and keep customers very happy indeed, thanks to certain store developments – many of which we tried for ourselves.
An enhanced, hands-on approach
To capitalise on cross-selling both sports clothing and equipment, Decathlon has invested heavily in bespoke product testing areas, where visitors can try products before they buy. Over 70 sports have been represented by these zones; the most impressive of these are a virtual golf course (with PGA tour golfer Paul McNulty at hand to help people optimise their swing, so long as they book and pay a fee), as well as a rooftop basketball court – which sadly wasn’t open for us to view on our visit, nor could we quite ascertain when or how it could be made available.
While the facilities we did manage see to were far from bleeding edge, they were nicely implemented and perfect for on-site upselling. True enthusiasts could try out new clubs or racquets, while players of similar sports could spend 15 minutes in a safe, comfortable environment to test whether they could extend their sporting pastime to a similar discipline – for example, tennis fans could try badminton, squash, or table tennis.
We also saw how well the site was geared towards children. Upstairs, we found a bike track and scooter circuit, as well as soft-play archery boards, child-sized basketball hoops and miniature football goals. Instead of being dragged around by their parents, youngsters could get interactive. Given the adult customer base often associates Decathlon’s modus operandi with healthiness, skill development and the opportunity to make friends through the shared passion of sport and fitness, it’s a positive trip all round – one that encourages spending on youngsters by parents eager to push against the continuing rise of tech-based entertainment.
Yet the most important thing these interactive zones did was encourage shoppers to avoid making simple beelines for their chosen section, pushing them instead to explore every area of the store, meaning they were exposed to a much larger range of sporting goods between each aisle. That said, we felt that the display areas could have been better placed.
The least interactive product ranges in the store were found across the bottom floor; fitness gear and trainers were particularly dominant. This seemed to prioritise ease of sale to busy joggers rather than reflect the opportunity to excite, involve and potentially upsell to an already captive audience, as was promised by reports of the refit. Upstairs was far more exciting: golf, basketball, archery, scooters, tennis, football and more were free to explore first hand, and there was a strong argument for swapping the floors entirely in order to encourage customer engagement from the first moment.
Function over fashion
What’s safe to say about Decathlon’s flagship store is that the £14 million has not been fully extended to the looks of the store; its bare concrete floors, often-sparse shelving and whitewashed walls initially seemed a little more reminiscent of a Costco than a sports retailer.
However, once we started to explore, the Surrey Quays store felt open and easy to browse. It made sense for there to be no flooring on top of the concrete from the first moment we wandered in; people were actively riding their bikes into the store for them to get fixed or serviced, in what proved to be a monumentally sized area for bicycle maintenance at the front end of the ground floor.
Meanwhile, the lifeless floor helped more colourful underfoot displays catch the eye, from the bright tracks and fake grass of practice areas all the way through to a comparably innocuous – though no less useful – floor print that demonstrated the different sizes of the rolled microfibre towels offered above it.
On top of this, the otherwise austere décor of the new warehouse certainly felt like it placed a firmer focus on the products and testing zones. An often-heard criticism of Sports Direct is the perceived “pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap” mentality, with ceiling-high racks displaying products in every direction. While this approach suits some shoppers, Decathlon’s simpler approach ensured that everyone in store was engaged with products, whether they’re browsing or actively testing, and they at least have room to negotiate fellow customers.
Sometimes, it felt like Decathlon missed the mark; the painted running track, which ran an oval around the central footwear aisle, may look the part but in the context of the store’s push towards creative interactivity, little good may come from implying that someone should sprint around the shoe racks. It provided a clear sign as to where footwear could be found, at least.
Yet everything felt purposeful. Sure, there still might be an argument for more comfortable lighting, or other small flourishes that improve its perception as a higher-end retailer, but on the other hand, Decathlon is already planning on undercutting Sports Direct’s cheaper price point by 20% on its entry-level products (which do seem to take up a major percentage of in-store stock). The interior design undoubtedly plays into this push towards a simple, honest approach.
Expertise on all levels
In another omnichannel approach to customer satisfaction, Decathlon is actively encouraging its staff to become bona fide specialists in their fields, underlining both in-store and online efforts to stay relevant and respond to evolving trends and tastes.
As Retail Week reported, 40 or so members of Decathlon’s 1,300 UK workers have been designated “sport experts” across its biggest sales categories, who “continuously research products, visit the sports retailer’s international estate and tailor the UK offer”. Ultimately, this means it will get the right products at the right time, anticipating the future requirements of both new and returning customers.
Meanwhile, it is actively developing the knowledge of in-store staff – killing two birds with one stone by appealing to the customer and the employee through their personal development. The bottom line is friendliness and building a relationship with the shopper: staff are told to get the best product for them, ignoring price point in favour of true service. There was no shortage of these helpers on hand when we were there, even on a weekday morning.
Given that sports equipment can often be technical or a major investment, this keen eye on the customer is exactly what the company needs to flourish, especially given the poor customer feedback competitors such as Sports Direct continue to receive.
A transparent goal
Decathlon isn’t backwards in coming forwards about its future. It already has many of the ingredients needed to power its ambitious growth target and operates in a market that still lacks brand dominance. While it still has a lot of ground to cover – particularly in perfecting its prized omnichannel experience – the foundations have been firmly laid. Its HQ surpassed expectations once we were there, and even our own photos don’t do the experience justice.
What sets the business apart from its rivals isn’t that it’s responding to customer demands; Decathlon is anticipating them. While it has very much had a “slow and steady wins the race” mentality up to this point, Decathlon certainly looks like it could transform from the tortoise into the hare in its race against rivals – except that it doesn’t exhibit any arrogant traits that could see it lose on the final stretch.