Sometimes the experience just does not matter – the example of Sports Direct

You approach the front of the store with an element of trepidation. Unsure what will happen inside, you are weighing up the odds of coming out alive. It is like the latter stages of the famous children’s book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, as you tip toe into a deep dark cave, to be confronted with a not best pleased Bear! This could be the opening of a similar short story – alas, I fear that my writing skills are not competent enough. I must therefore reveal that this is what it sometimes feels like to me when I make the decision to visit Sports Direct.

Sports retailers have never excelled at delivering fantastic customer service. In fact they are often at the bottom of independent consumer studies. A Which survey conducted a year ago saw JJB Sports, JD Sports, Sports Direct, Blacks and Millets all in the bottom ten ( Since the survey was conducted, JJB Sports has ceased to exist. Blacks and Millets were purchased by JD Sports after they went into administration. Even now, life for JD Sports is a struggle, with a recent announcement of a drop in profits – I often wonder what ever happened to Olympus Sports – the high street sports store that was around when I was a boy.

There are many reasons for the demise of companies like JJB. Poor service is just one of them. Another is the huge increase in competition from new, innovative online retailers like Wiggle and Not only are these retailers able to offer vast ranges of sporting goods for almost any discipline, they can do so more conveniently and often at a better price.

One high street retailer that seems to have bucked the trend (of struggling financially that is) is Sports Direct. Hands up if you have never visited one? Most of us have. I did myself yesterday with my son Jack. Like all growing five-year old boys, his requirement for new clothing is relentless. Yesterday it was a new pair of Crocs that was on the necessary list of purchases. For ease, we visited a local retail park (it is free and easy to park, unlike the high street). We went in to three specialist footwear retailers. None of them sold Crocs. One sold their own cheaper (and nastier) version. So it was inevitable that we would end up entering the cave like labyrinth of Sports Direct.

I am not a fan of Sports Direct as a shopping experience. In fact, in my opinion, as an experience, it is as bad as it gets. Not only is it dark and dingy, it looks like a cross between a jumble sale and a liquidation fire sale. It is often difficult to tell where the floor is. What staff you can find are generally pretty disinterested, and sometimes look as confused as their customers. So why when I am such an avid protagonist of great experiences would I allow myself to be subjected to an experience like this?

One word, and one word alone explains it – BARGAIN. To me, that is what Sports Direct is. It is a place to go to get a bargain. Once we had navigated our way through the maze of clothes, shoes, umbrellas and the like, we found a rotating display of Crocs. We managed to find a navy blue pair to fit Jack – the price – £12.99. The same pair of Crocs is currently on sale at John Lewis for £19.99. It may be difficult to find what you want, but why wouldn’t you give Sports Direct a go if you can get the things you want for so much less?

Mary Portas, the well-known retail expert wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph earlier this year – she sums it up pretty well (and interestingly uses that same ‘Cave’ analogy as me) – Whilst specialist expert sports retailers can offer you great advice, why would you give them your hard-earned money if you can use the advice they give you to get the same products much cheaper somewhere else? It appears that the success of Sports Direct is a combination of eroding competition on the high street, and a very effective supply chain that has enabled it to offer branded goods at almost unbeatable prices. In the current economic climate, it is a very compelling business model. That is why Sports Direct is a business that can and is succeeding whilst offering a pretty poor end to end customer experience. Sports Direct demonstrate that it is indeed possible for the customer experience NOT to matter.

I have visited Sports Direct in the past, and seen customers having full on arguments with staff. I have witnessed the manager of the store in Speke tell a customer ‘I could not care less what you think’. None of it seems to matter – customers keep coming back (I must also point out that I have seen plenty of perfectly pleasant staff). Sports Direct is the sports retail equivalent of Ryanair!!

The ‘pile em high, sell em cheap’ philosophy is what has enabled many businesses to thrive over the years. The question is whether this business model will have the ability to stand the test of time. We seem prepared to accept a ‘sub standard’ customer experience today, so why should Sports Direct need to ever change the way they work? I only go to Sports Direct because there is nothing else like them. I actually far preferred JJB Sports – but that is no longer an option to me. If I want to visit a physical store, my options are limited.

The risk to Sports Direct is that something new will come long that will show the consumer that there is a better option. Something new will appear where consumers can buy the sports gear they need in a far more customer friendly environment with far better customer service. Last year, the Golding family visited northern Spain. In fact we drove all the way to La Coruna on the North West coast. Just outside the city is a huge shopping centre. One of the biggest stores in it is called Decathlon. Decathlon is a sports shop. Unlike Sports Direct it is big, bright and airy. It is also extremely well organised. You can clearly see which aisle contains products for which sport. It is almost like a supermarket for sporting goods.

What is also evident is the competitive pricing – it was remarkable value. I immediately started to make comparisons with Sports Direct, and wondered why we did not have any Decathlon stores in the UK. Well, unbeknown to me, we do. I have since found out that Decathlon is a major French sporting goods chain, with stores located throughout the world. It started with a shop near Lille, France in 1976. It expanded to Germany in 1986, Spain in 1992 and the UK in 1999. It is a company that is growing rapidly, and in my opinion potentially poses a big threat to Sports Direct in the UK.

You need to ask yourself the question – ‘if there was a credible alternative to Sports Direct’, would I shop there at all? If there were a Decathlon in Chester, I would not be visiting my local Sports Direct in a hurry. There are other competitors, but they tend to be smaller, and more specialist, and often cannot compete on price (as per the Mary Portas article). But something of the size of Decathlon could seriously eat in to the dominance of Sports Direct.

There is nothing to stop Sports Direct transforming themselves into a retailer that delivers bargains AND a great experience. But whilst they can do one and not the other, why would they bother. Nothing lasts forever though! At the end of ‘bear hunt’ the children and their parents end up under the bed covers wishing they had never been on the hunt in the first place – could that happen to Sports Direct? Ignore the customer experience at your peril, or your customers will eventually stop coming back.

What do you think? I welcome your comments and debate.

10 thoughts on “Sometimes the experience just does not matter – the example of Sports Direct

  1. Great blog. I genuinely detest sports direct. For all the reasons you outline. JJB did get better (Broughton near me) but it was all too late. I would welcome strong competition or just some competition as it is severely lacking. I get the sense Mike Ashley doesn’t care too much. Whenever I see him on TV at a Newcastle game, he always looks just a little smug to me. Maybe how he treats his customers.


  2. Great post Ian, I am certainly no fan of Sports Direct, but given the current lack of sports retailers on the High Street, like many do have to pay a visit. I will probably generalise from my experience, but the traditional sports shop used to be filled with like minded fitness types, who could give information on equipment and clothing, however, Sports Direct seem to employee people who are very much removed from the sporting fraternity. The only time you tend to see more than one member of staff is when they are huddled outside of the main entrance having a cigarette and whenever you ask for assistance, it is often met with complete disdain for having interupted their day.

    Their returns policy is very restrictive, especially if like me, you do not fancy fighting your way to the changing rooms, which are often akin to a hostelry toilet late on a Saturday evening, and would rather try the products at home. Once they have your payment, you will not get it back and are restricted to a credit note, with a limited expiry date.

    The comment regarding why would we buy from the dearer stores when we can try products, then order them online at a more competative price worries me, as eventually there will be nowhere left to try !!! Then what will we do ?


    • Thanks again for your valuable comment and feedback Gordon. I did contact Decathlon directly about this post – they are hopeful that expansion in the UK is coming!!


  3. Hi

    Hope you are well ? What are you up to?

    I still love reading your blog- but I had to chuckle at the unintended( I’m sure!) error in the 5th para when you say I’m not a fan of Shop Direct!!! Is your subconscious coming through there? Ha ha!

    Keep up the good work

    Cheers Linda

    Sent from my iPad


    • Hi Linda – lovely to hear from you. I can confirm that that particular Freudian Slip was amended last week! Fortunately another ex colleague brought it to my attention very quickly!! It was not intentional….honest!

      Pretty busy my end – lots of activity going on that will hopefully continue to result in work. I hope and trust things are well with you.



  4. Ian, Interesting article and has had me mentally lurching from one potential response to another. Interesting concept that Decathlon could challenge Sports Direct, for some of their customer base I would agree 100%. As a runner I buy from Decathlon and was interested that they had taken a full page ad is this months runners world, so for people who partake in sport, I agree. I would estimate that the vast majority of Sports Direct customers do not buy from there to actually do anything sporty but to wear as day to day casual clothes. The Sport Direct model is clearly a price first, service last model whereas Decathlon are a bit more even in that respect.
    The specialist sports shops (in my experience) are doing well, with my local branch of Sweatshop being packed at the weekend and extending its offerings to a free running club and training sessions. thus type of approach will I feel sustain the specialists and contrary to what Mary Portas says will bring customers who are willing to pay more even though they can go on-line and get a better price


    • Many thanks for your comment Roger – I do agree with you. There is an ever growing band of committed sports people in the UK who are looking for something more than just sports ‘fashion’ – specialist retailers obviously offer that, but all too often at a price that cannot be matched by the Sports Directs of the world. However – you are right – it is a proven fact that people are prepared to pay more for better service – I only hope that the number of specialist retailers increases over the coming months and years.


  5. Ian –

    Great post on Sports Direct and I think the Ryanair comparison is apposite. The difference, I suspect, is that I think Ryanair know they want to offer a consciously limited customer experience and so they manage expectations actively in that regard. Sports Direct, on the other hand, appear to manage for lowest cost with little thought for the customer experience, making the dismal shopping experience just a side-effect of their management approach. Decathlon offer an unashamedly better experience and I suspect are cost-competitive as well – for, as many of us know, offering a good experience usually costs less than offering a bad one.


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