“It’s clear we have smashed the ball out of the park with our ‘Selfridges’ of sport concept,” boasted Sports Direct chief executive Mike Ashley to financial analysts, following the release of the company’s latest results.
He was talking about the retailer’s efforts to drive its stores upmarket and “elevate its retail proposition”.
The idea is to give more space over to branded goods and showcase their “very best products”, even opening gyms in some of the flagship stores.
And on Thursday it announced a “strategic partnership” with upmarket Japanese sportswear brand Asics, whose products will be stocked in Asics-managed areas of flagship stores from next year.
Sports Direct described this as “an important step in Sports Direct’s journey to being recognised as the Selfridges of sport.'”
Well, there was only one way to find out what this was all about – take a visit to its flagship store on London’s Oxford Street, which is showcasing the latest approach.
As I walked through the door, to be greeted by thumping music, I dredged through my memory for the last time I’d been in a Sports Direct.
It was a long time ago, but my memory was of the slightly claustrophobic feel of fighting through a crowded jumble of kit and equipment, and my perception, right or wrong, that this was an environment aimed primarily at men.
So the fact that the Oxford Street store felt light and airy with plenty of space between rails was a welcome relief.
But let’s be honest, I’m not a typical Sports Direct customer.
Yes, I exercise regularly, but fashion is not foremost in my mind when I’m struggling through another tortuous workout, and I think of Sports Direct as being more about fashion than “serious” sport.
Could I be converted?
Well, first off, reinforcing my prejudice that this is more of a male environment, the first thing you see as you walk through the door of the Oxford Street store is a display of club strips and a sign proclaiming this is “The Home of Football”, a reminder that another of Sports Direct’s stated aims is to become just that – the home of football.
And most of the customers did seem to be male.
Of course, a key element of shopping is how the staff treat you.
Would I be made to feel welcome? As I wandered aimlessly, an assistant did offer to help me, so a big tick there.
What would happen if I tried to buy something. New boxing gloves. Could I get an assistant to advise me?
Yes, as it turned out. A smiley young woman confidently explained the point of the different glove weights.
OK, once I’d said I would buy them she tried to sell me a special offer on some “workout make up” but was quite happy when I said I’d think about it.
So how about trying to buy something for my sartorially conservative husband? On the floor below there was no price on the black T-shirt I chose. But another assistant spent a good few minutes checking out the price on the website.
Ticks all round for my experience of the staff I came up against, anyway.
So then I waylaid shoppers as they left the store to gauge their reactions.
Rory Bryant, a teacher who used to work in advertising, had come into buy some socks. He had spotted the shift upmarket and was impressed by the lighter feel, “compared to most Sports Direct stores”.
“Most are a jumble of crumpled socks and piles of clothing,” he says.
Photographers’ agent James Denton, 49, had been in the Oxford Street store for the first time. He came out with a football for his two-year old son.
He said he normally thought of the chain as a slightly downmarket depressing experience. “so it definitely feels different”.
“Stuff is a lot better laid out, they’ve put a lot of thought into design and layout of everything,” he added.
Another customer, Philip Yardy, described the design of the shops as “open, appealing” and encouraging people to walk through.
But Stuart Deveson wasn’t quite so happy. He spent all of 10 seconds in there, he said. He agreed the entrance to the shop “looks quite nice”, but said the reason he had walked out so quickly was because he’d gone in to buy shorts and couldn’t find them.
“If they’re not going to make it easy to find what I want, I’ll go somewhere else,” he said.
Sports Direct now has more than 25 new generation stores, of which 12 are “flagship” outlets. It plans to open between 16 and 24 new stores in the current financial year, of which about half will be flagship stores.
So is Sports Direct “smashing it out of the park” with its “Selfridges of Sport” concept?
Financial analysts seem happy enough with how it’s going. Neil Wilson, senior market analyst at ETX Capital, said this had been a “transformational” year for Sports Direct.
Progress was being made on the new premium stores, he said, and they were “a lot more profitable than the existing Sports Direct stores”.
Initial impressions from the shoppers I spoke to at least do seem positive.
Perhaps the last word should go to customer Rory Bryant, who compared the Oxford Street flagship with another retail success story.
He said it was now “more like Niketown up the road”, and perhaps that, as much as Selfridges, is the inspiration behind the chain’s makeover.