Let the merchandising games begin.
In the block and tackle business of athletic-wear retailing, an emerging player -- Dick's Clothing & Sporting Goods -- is plowing into the Baltimore market with three newfangled hangar-sized stores opening today in White Marsh, Glen Burnie and Hunt Valley.
For the fast expanding chain out of Coraopolis, Pa., it's only the beginning.
Dick's invasion of the mid-Atlantic, executives of the privately held company say, includes plans for a fourth Baltimore-area store in Columbia off Route 175 in early 1997 and a drive into the upscale Washington market.
The competition, observers caution, should take note.
"They're a regional player with a good game plan moving into major markets," said Alan N. Carr, chief executive officer of Retail Strategies, a consulting firm in Shaker Heights, Ohio. One day, Mr. Carr predicted, "They will be a national company, and they will be No. 1 in the industry."
A bold prediction, but it's based on a company that has bulked up from 12 to about 40 stores in the past 24 months and expects to grow at the same rate over the next two years. Dick's, however, has a long way to go.
Foot Locker, focusing on sneakers and athletic apparel, is well entrenched in the No. 1 spot in the nation with 1,417 stores, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association in North Palm Beach, Fla. By contrast, Herman's Sporting Goods, a major player in Baltimore with seven stores, is ranked 16th overall with 111 stores offering a full-line of sports equipment. And Sports Authority, another broad merchandiser in Baltimore with three stores, is 18th overall with 107 outlets.
Although there are vast differences in store size and merchandise selection, sporting goods retailers are all pursuing the same kind of customer. And even in an athletics-manic nation, there is only so much room for more growth.
The industry is "really going through a major shift in which we're ++ seeing the larger warehouse block-style stores taking over and giving a severe financial stiff-arm to the locally owned mom-and-pop stores," said Michael May, communications director of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. "Even some of the bigger ones are being squeezed out."
Case in point: SportsTown, a Georgia-based chain that generated $198 million in sales, recently filed a plan to liquidate its assets after a failed attempt to showcase its stuff in warehouse settings.
Size, it seems, isn't always enough.
Increasingly, retailers are turning to interactive shopping. The name of the game is entertainment. And Dick's is capitalizing on it, offering customers a chance to test products in cavernous 55,000-to-65,000-square-foot stores.
The idea is simple: If you want to buy a pair of Nikes, try them on, then jog around the store's indoor track. If you want a new golf club, take a swing on the store's practice driving range.
"Dick's is a lot more exciting because there's a lot more pop and sizzle," said Adam Miller, a principal with KLNB Inc., which acted as the retailer's local broker.
Just in case anyone around here hasn't heard about it yet, Dick's has launched a prominent campaign, plastering the face of hall of fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw on television and newspaper advertisements touting the grand opening.
Yet promotion is only part of the game plan. Dick's, founded nearly 50 years ago as a bait-and-tackle shop in Binghamton, N.Y., credits its success to the old-fashion way of doing business: through customer service and strong merchandise.
"We're going to offer customers a complete presentation of sporting goods, foot wear, of athletic apparel and casual apparel," said Joseph Queri Jr., the company's vice president of real estate. "We're going to offer it to customers in a specialty-store setting that makes us a little bit different than other people in our business."
It doesn't appear to be an idle boast.
Although financial figures are not available, Dick's store presentation is, and analysts like what they see: a broad inventory, competitive prices and the little things that make a concept work -- the brightness of store lighting, the number of sales clerks on the floor, the ease in parking.
What serves the customer well, however, may dent the competition.
Sports Authority could take a hit here because it offers a full line of sporting goods like Dick's -- but in stores about 20,000 square feet smaller and without the interactive element. Herman's could face even harder times because its stores are about five times smaller than Dick's.
But there is little outward sense of concern.
Sports Authority officials couldn't be reached for comment, but Herman's spokesman Michael Freitag said, "Customers have a strong emotional attachment to Herman's. It's often where they bought their first mitt or tennis racket."
What's more, Mr. Freitag said, Herman's plans to expand in the Baltimore-D.C. region.
And why not?
Expansion is the rage.
Sports Authority has done it. So has Dick's. Even a smaller retailer like Sunny's, a 12-store chain in Baltimore, has gotten into the act, opening about eight stores in five years.
But Sunny's, for one, wonders how much longer the industry-wide expansion can last.
"It's like stretching an elastic band," said Sunny's President Stephen A. Blake. "Sooner or later, something is going to have to break."
The five largest sporting goods retailers in the nation.
Chain ....... .......... Number of stores
1. Foot Locker ......... 1,417
2. The Athlete's Foot .... 680
3. Lady Foot Locker ...... 595
4. Champs ................ 503
5. FootAction USA ........ 439
SOURCE: Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association