Schuylkill Valley Sports, based in Pottstown, Pa., is focusing on its customers’ shopping experience by creating visually appealing stores and emphasizing its employees’ product knowledge.
The company opened its first location in 1971 in the Audubon Shopping Center in Audubon, Pa., as a full-service sporting goods retailer. Today, the company has 20 store locations serving eastern and central Pennsylvania with high-quality merchandise from the top manufacturers in athletic equipment, footwear and apparel. “It’s easier to say what we don’t carry and that is items for hunting, fishing, bowling, biking and golfing,” Director of Apparel and Licensed Products John DeMaria says. “We carry the full-line of sporting goods for the main sports.”
The company is unique because it is 100 percent employee-owned, President Jerry Williams says. “We have long-term employees and great customer service because we are [employee-owned],” he adds. “When you walk into our stores, you get someone who is knowledgeable on the products.”
Schuylkill Valley Sports started a new customer rewards program this past summer known as Hometown Rewards, which gives customers one point for every dollar spent and a $5 voucher for every 150 points. “We looked at what other stores did and we determined it took too long for the customer to get rewarded,” Williams says. “We looked at what our biggest competitors offered and made our rewards quicker to receive. It’s going good so far. We have had a strong response, so we are going to keep it going. The customers are excited about it.”
Savings can always inspire a customer to come shopping, but Schuylkill Valley Sports is also upgrading its stores’ appearances to draw people in. “We have developed more of a concept-shop look,” DeMaria says. “We realize in retail, it’s a visual experience. Sporting goods was a ‘socks and jocks’ store, where you came in and merchandising wasn’t that important. Today you need to give the customer an experience.”
Schuylkill Valley Sports employs people who enjoy sports. “The sporting goods industry is interesting every day, positive and exciting,” Williams says. Employees come to work and are motivated because of their love for the games, but they also have a vested interest in keeping profits up. “They get a return off how well the company does, which is unusual, but we are 100 percent employee-owned,” Williams explains.
Employees help increase profits by keeping their product knowledge fresh and participating in the company’s training programs. Scrimmage is one of the courses, which involves training people on the sales floor in customer service. “We use a method we picked up from Nike 30 years ago called ‘Air Thanks,’ which is acknowledge, investigate, research and thank the customer,” Williams explains. The objective is to recognize the customer, understand what they are looking for, help them find the best product for their needs and ultimately thank them for their patronage. The other course is called Playbook, which involves district managers getting involved at the store level on a regular basis by quizzing employees on a new area of learning.
“Our main focus is customer service because people still want to know the differences when it comes to spending a certain amount of money,” Williams explains. “They want to know why one running shoe or baseball bat is better than the other.”
Evolving into the Future
Technology has altered Schuylkill Valley Sports’ daily operations as new developments and upgrades have become available. “The day-to-day business has changed over the years,” DeMaria says. “For example, we hold a lot of meetings through conference calls and video conferencing. With 20 stores and six district managers in different locations, it becomes really costly to have them travel for weekly meetings.” Instead of coming into the headquarters, those needed for the meeting can dial-in or open video conferencing to be present.
The number of meetings has increased at the company because technology takes away the personal, face-to-face connection. “The person in charge of the meeting needs to make sure now that people are getting it and know if things are not being communicated correctly,” Williams says.
Schuylkill Valley Sports is also focused on updating its website, which is a necessity in the retail industry, Williams says. Regular traffic is generated on the company’s website, which allows customers to shop, gain more information and find locations.
The current executive team, which includes Williams and DeMaria, runs the daily operations of Schuylkill Valley Sports. A leadership team is also in place that will eventually take over the executive positions. “Jerry and I would like to continue for a while and grow the equity and shares of the company,” DeMaria says. “We want to teach and mentor the people and eventually, hopefully, turn the company over to them to run the daily operations.”