Being a discount retailer doesn’t have to mean a bad shopping experience

It is almost a week since Sports Direct’s new flagship store opened on Oxford Street. Anyone paying a visit to the new shop on its opening day would have found uncluttered aisles, clear merchandising and most importantly a lack of ‘Mega Value’ price promotions.

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A week later and it appears that wasn’t all for show. Gone are the racks of clothes piled so close together you can barely get through. There aren’t products strewn all over the floor where people have picked things up and discarded them, or simply knocked them off in their attempts to get by.

There are clear areas for different sports – from running to golf and cycling – and plenty of staff around to offer advice and help. The random racks of “lifestyle” clothes and cheap merchandise have been relegated to the bottom floor.

It also has individual branded areas from the big sports names, including Nike, Puma and Adidas. The latter is most surprising given its refusal last year to supply Sports Direct with Chelsea replica kits next season in an apparent attempt to distance itself from the “pile it high sell it cheap” apparel sold by discount retailers.

In-store communications are no longer about shouting how cheap its goods are at every turn. Instead the focus is on easily finding goods and providing a more rounded experience – from sports wear to equipment to nutritional advice.

In short this feels less like a discount store and more like a sports shop.

It’s clear that Sports Direct feels awareness of the cheap prices it offers is high among consumers and it doesn’t need to shout about that. Plus on Oxford Street a lot of shoppers will be tourists unfamiliar with its proposition. This is a chance to introduce them to the brand.

With its successful brand value and proposition established why not roll out this new store layout elsewhere?

Now, however, it needs to convince those people put off by the poor layout and frankly offputting experience of shopping in its stores. Much like discounters in other sectors, whether that is food and fashion retailers or airlines, it has realised value is not all about cheap, it is also about quality.

This should be a worry for other high street brands. The recession embedded a certain type of shopping in consumers, one that is more savvy and more willing to hunt around for a good deal.

The early signs of an improving economy haven’t changed that.

Where discount retailers, from Sports Direct to Aldi to B&M are being savvy is by positioning themselves, both in their stores and their marketing, as more than just discounters. As places that provide value and that are pleasant to shop in.

With the new Sports Direct’s store prime location on Oxford Street and new sleek design there is no reason why the majority of people wondering past wouldn’t pop in, even just out of interest. What they discover while in there might just change their minds about Sports Direct and what the brand stands for.

The challenge now will be to replicate what Sports Direct has done here at its other branches, which tend to be in less prime locations and still feel overcrowded. That will take some investment, both in stores and communicating more widely the changes going on.

Aldi, Lidl, Primark and Ryanair have boosted their success by investing heavily in marketing campaigns promoting their new positions. If Sports Direct can do the same it will go from being written off as a discount retailer to taking its position alongside the big high street brands.

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