Sports Authority’s Sportin’ life over

searchFounded in 1987 and at the height of the fitness craze, Sports Authority bounced onto the retail scene and became an MVP as America’s largest sporting goods retailer.

Now it’s going-out-of-business. Most of the obits say the Internet took it down, as consumers can find tax-free merchandise online in many states. Yet, is that the whole story? After all, the Internet has been around for over two decades and online e-commerce has been the way of the world for almost as long. If it were solely the fault of the Internet, our retail landscape would be far more bleak.

The problem for Sports Authority wasn’t just the Internet. Rather it was their myopic inability to adjust to it. Combine with that, their unwillingness to stake out a clear positioning in the face of Dick’s Sporting Goods and, to put it in sports terminology, there wasn’t any room on any of the bases for them.

On first, were high-end private sporting goods stores like Princeton Sports, where the staff is exceptionally knowledgeable, the experience is personal and very hands-on. Contrasted with the salespeople at SA, there was just no competition.

Playing at second, though not as tony as Princeton, Dick’s Sporting Goods is a fun, big box retail experience with a knowledgeable staff and a cleaner, newer, better lay-out than SA.

Finally at third, and on the way home, was the online superstar player, Amazon. Next to impossible to beat on price, no sassy salespeople to argue with and packaging that arrives at your door – Wow.

Left on the bench, with bad fluorescent lighting and white linoleum floors, how could the dingy, old, bricks and mortar at Sports Authority get on base? The answer was staring them right in the mirror. Given the quality of that retail experience, Sports Authority should have become a discount sporting goods store.

As any athlete knows, staking out and holding their position is key to winning. And part of positioning is looking for an opening where the competition isn’t. With the high-end taken, a recession turning customers into bargain-seeking shoppers and a worn-out physical presence as the face of your brand, it could have appealed to shoppers looking for good deals on clothing and equipment. It could have been the Walmart / Target of sporting goods stores.

Instead, they pushed their expensive merchandise to the front-end of the store, trying to be something they weren’t and at the same time creating a barrier to the lower cost items.

Brand positioning takes at the very least, three important factors. First, get in the heads of your consumer. Second, understand the competition and third, really know thyself. On all three counts and given a lingering economic recovery, customers are trained to be cost-conscious. Competitively, don’t get caught between the higher-end Scylla and the all devouring, whirlpool, Charybdis of the Internet.

Sports Authority could have come home safe, were it willing to slide and proudly worn a little dirt on its uniform.

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