You approach the front of the store with an element of trepidation. Unsure what will happen inside, you are weighing up the odds of coming out alive. It is like the latter stages of the famous children’s book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, as you tip toe into a deep dark cave, to be confronted with a not best pleased Bear! This could be the opening of a similar short story – alas, I fear that my writing skills are not competent enough. I must therefore reveal that this is what it sometimes feels like to me when I make the decision to visit Sports Direct.

Sports retailers have never excelled at delivering fantastic customer service. In fact they are often at the bottom of independent consumer studies. A Which survey conducted a year ago saw JJB Sports, JD Sports, Sports Direct, Blacks and Millets all in the bottom ten ( Since the survey was conducted, JJB Sports has ceased to exist. Blacks and Millets were purchased by JD Sports after they went into administration. Even now, life for JD Sports is a struggle, with a recent announcement of a drop in profits – I often wonder what ever happened to Olympus Sports – the high street sports store that was around when I was a boy.

There are many reasons for the demise of companies like JJB. Poor service is just one of them. Another is the huge increase in competition from new, innovative online retailers like Wiggle and Not only are these retailers able to offer vast ranges of sporting goods for almost any discipline, they can do so more conveniently and often at a better price.

One high street retailer that seems to have bucked the trend (of struggling financially that is) is Sports Direct. Hands up if you have never visited one? Most of us have. I did myself yesterday with my son Jack. Like all growing five-year old boys, his requirement for new clothing is relentless. Yesterday it was a new pair of Crocs that was on the necessary list of purchases. For ease, we visited a local retail park (it is free and easy to park, unlike the high street). We went in to three specialist footwear retailers. None of them sold Crocs. One sold their own cheaper (and nastier) version. So it was inevitable that we would end up entering the cave like labyrinth of Sports Direct.

I am not a fan of Sports Direct as a shopping experience. In fact, in my opinion, as an experience, it is as bad as it gets. Not only is it dark and dingy, it looks like a cross between a jumble sale and a liquidation fire sale. It is often difficult to tell where the floor is. What staff you can find are generally pretty disinterested, and sometimes look as confused as their customers. So why when I am such an avid protagonist of great experiences would I allow myself to be subjected to an experience like this?

One word, and one word alone explains it – BARGAIN. To me, that is what Sports Direct is. It is a place to go to get a bargain. Once we had navigated our way through the maze of clothes, shoes, umbrellas and the like, we found a rotating display of Crocs. We managed to find a navy blue pair to fit Jack – the price – £12.99. The same pair of Crocs is currently on sale at John Lewis for £19.99. It may be difficult to find what you want, but why wouldn’t you give Sports Direct a go if you can get the things you want for so much less?

Mary Portas, the well-known retail expert wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph earlier this year – she sums it up pretty well (and interestingly uses that same ‘Cave’ analogy as me) – Whilst specialist expert sports retailers can offer you great advice, why would you give them your hard-earned money if you can use the advice they give you to get the same products much cheaper somewhere else? It appears that the success of Sports Direct is a combination of eroding competition on the high street, and a very effective supply chain that has enabled it to offer branded goods at almost unbeatable prices. In the current economic climate, it is a very compelling business model. That is why Sports Direct is a business that can and is succeeding whilst offering a pretty poor end to end customer experience. Sports Direct demonstrate that it is indeed possible for the customer experience NOT to matter.

I have visited Sports Direct in the past, and seen customers having full on arguments with staff. I have witnessed the manager of the store in Speke tell a customer ‘I could not care less what you think’. None of it seems to matter – customers keep coming back (I must also point out that I have seen plenty of perfectly pleasant staff). Sports Direct is the sports retail equivalent of Ryanair!!

The ‘pile em high, sell em cheap’ philosophy is what has enabled many businesses to thrive over the years. The question is whether this business model will have the ability to stand the test of time. We seem prepared to accept a ‘sub standard’ customer experience today, so why should Sports Direct need to ever change the way they work? I only go to Sports Direct because there is nothing else like them. I actually far preferred JJB Sports – but that is no longer an option to me. If I want to visit a physical store, my options are limited.

The risk to Sports Direct is that something new will come long that will show the consumer that there is a better option. Something new will appear where consumers can buy the sports gear they need in a far more customer friendly environment with far better customer service. Last year, the Golding family visited northern Spain. In fact we drove all the way to La Coruna on the North West coast. Just outside the city is a huge shopping centre. One of the biggest stores in it is called Decathlon. Decathlon is a sports shop. Unlike Sports Direct it is big, bright and airy. It is also extremely well organised. You can clearly see which aisle contains products for which sport. It is almost like a supermarket for sporting goods.

What is also evident is the competitive pricing – it was remarkable value. I immediately started to make comparisons with Sports Direct, and wondered why we did not have any Decathlon stores in the UK. Well, unbeknown to me, we do. I have since found out that Decathlon is a major French sporting goods chain, with stores located throughout the world. It started with a shop near Lille, France in 1976. It expanded to Germany in 1986, Spain in 1992 and the UK in 1999. It is a company that is growing rapidly, and in my opinion potentially poses a big threat to Sports Direct in the UK.

You need to ask yourself the question – ‘if there was a credible alternative to Sports Direct’, would I shop there at all? If there were a Decathlon in Chester, I would not be visiting my local Sports Direct in a hurry. There are other competitors, but they tend to be smaller, and more specialist, and often cannot compete on price (as per the Mary Portas article). But something of the size of Decathlon could seriously eat in to the dominance of Sports Direct.

There is nothing to stop Sports Direct transforming themselves into a retailer that delivers bargains AND a great experience. But whilst they can do one and not the other, why would they bother. Nothing lasts forever though! At the end of ‘bear hunt’ the children and their parents end up under the bed covers wishing they had never been on the hunt in the first place – could that happen to Sports Direct? Ignore the customer experience at your peril, or your customers will eventually stop coming back.

What do you think? I welcome your comments and debate.