Sep 17

Academy Sports unveils new store prototype amid growing competition

Academy Sports + Outdoors on Monday opened a store in Richmond with a revamped floor layout and design, part of the Katy athletic retailer’s initiative to improve customers’ shopping experience amid increasing brick-and-mortar and online competition.

The 63,000-square-foot store, off the Grand Parkway near the fast-growing Aliana master-planned community, features a wood and stone exterior meant to evoke the great outdoors. Inside, customers are greeted by curated merchandising displays, such as a tailgate party theme showcasing Igloo coolers, a portable grill, a cornhole set and mannequins wearing Houston Texans jerseys.

“We’re doing a lot more storytelling,” said Sam Johnson, Academy’s executive vice president of retail operations. “We want to create an emotional experience for our customers.”

Academy, one of the largest sporting goods retailers nationally, is increasingly focused on elevating its store experience to attract customers amid mounting competition from retailers such as Amazon, Target and Walmart. Academy, in particular, has been in fierce competition with Dick’s Sporting Goods after the Pennsylvania-based retailer entered the Houston market in 2016 and quickly opened 16 stores.

“Dick’s dropped almost 1 million square feet seemingly overnight,” said Jason Baker, a retail broker with Houston-based Baker Katz. “That’s a meaningful amount of real estate. Academy is thinking, ‘We’ve got to differentiate ourselves,’ and this is an attempt to do that.”

Responding to competition

Academy, known for its wide product selection and lower prices, is refreshing many of its more than 245 stores nationally, including 32 in the Houston area, to stay competitive. The retailer, owned by New York-based private-equity firm KKR, reported revenue of $4.8 billion in 2018, flat from the previous year.

In the new store concept, Academy has moved its merchandise around to create a more logical flow, allowing customers to walk from fishing to camping to grilling to hunting gear. Universal products, such as athletic apparel and footwear, are displayed front and center, while specialty products, such as firearms and sporting equipment, were relocated to the back corners. Some sections, such as those showcasing camouflage and grills, will be changed out seasonally to encourage repeat customers.

On Academy Sports focused on store experience

Academy also grouped similar products and is showcasing more of its apparel on mannequins and special display shelves to drive sales. The Richmond store has 15 percent less inventory than typical Academy stores, but executives expect to sell through its merchandise 15 percent more quickly.

The company has also installed shorter shelves and replaced hanging signs with large wall-mounted ones to create a more open, airy feel. The Richmond store has are nearly 30 skylights and windows as well as LED lights to brighten the interior.

“Sometimes our stores felt a little cluttered inside, like it was a store of signs,” Johnson said. “We want our product to tell the story.”

Further training, offerings

The changes at Academy aren’t just cosmetic. The retailer is also investing in customer service and e-commerce to boost sales.

The Richmond store will employ more than 70 employees, called “enthusiasts,” who will each receive 50 additional hours of training in customer service. For example, employees in Academy’s fishing department will receive training from local fishing experts and vendors so they can recommend the best bait to use in local lakes.

Academy earlier this summer rolled out its “buy online, pick up in store” service, looking to convert some of its online traffic into foot traffic. The retailer is also installing a new digital queuing technology in some of its stores to hasten checkout times.

On Academy Sports to expand amid challenging retail market

Earlier this year, Academy launched its first branded credit card, offering a 5 percent discount to loyal customers. The retailer will allow in-store customers to purchase out-of-stock items online with free shipping.

Academy plans to use its new store as a lab to test new merchandise and retail displays, which can be used to inform future stores and remodels. The retailer is on track to open eight stores nationally this year, including the Richmond store, 19150 West Bellfort Blvd.

“We want to create a better experience across the whole store to make Academy a more interesting place to shop,” Academy Chief Executive Ken Hicks said in June. “We’ve got a strong customer base. Our job is to grow it and make sure people keep coming back.”

By Paul Takahashi
Houston Chronicle
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