The Ikea of Sports Comes to The US

The world’s largest sporting goods retailer just landed back on US shores. Decathlon opened its first store in Lille, France in 1976 and now, over 40 years later, operates more than 1100 stores across 39 different countries including China, India, South Africa, and as of now, the West Coast of the United States (the sporting goods retailer was previously active in the United States between 1999 and 2006 with a handful of stores located near Boston). Last week I had the chance to attend their initial store opening party on Market Street in San Francisco.

Decathlon offers a dizzying array of sports-related gear at affordable prices. The billion-dollar retailer does not sell brands like Adidas, Nike, or even The North Face, but instead sells its own brands, each dedicated to a specific sport. You may have heard of Quechua, the company’s outdoor brand or even Artengo, the company’s tennis brand.

One of the keys to Decathlon’s success is in its variety of offerings — you can find up to 70 different sports represented, everything from cycling, backpacking, and running, to more obscure sports like futsal and nordic walking.

And similar to IKEA, Decathlon is able to offer all this gear at amazingly affordable prices thanks to its vertical integration — they take 100% capacity if not own most of their factories and sell online or through their own stores. Retailers know that own brand gear can be priced more competitively and offers better margins — that’s why REI and now Backcountry (more on that tomorrow) push their own products. But where Decathlon excels compared to these incumbent retailers is both in its breadth of offering as well as pure scale.

Lower price doesn’t equal cheap gear. Decathlon’s motto is “High quality doesn’t always mean high prices.” Indeed while walking through the store, I noticed a good looking Quechua 120-liter duffel priced at $58.90 and a down puffy priced at $31.90. Compare that to $160-$170 for a similar duffel from The North Face or Patagonia and over $200 for a puffy.

Easybreath

With over 500 product engineers on staff, Decathlon pushes innovation to help further differentiate themselves.  The company designed the Easybreath Mask, for example, which saves you from having to stuff a snorkel in your mouth to check out the fish or the 2 Seconds tent which simply pops open and you’re ready to camp.

Decathlon operates a huge online presence across the globe, with country specific sites for almost 50 countries. I had the chance to speak with Decathlon USA COO, Sophie O’Kelly de Gallagh, at the opening event about their plans for the US market. She said San Francisco will make a great testbed for them before a further push into the country, but the big focus will be on e-commerce with a full US-wide site coming soon.

When not shopping online, Decathlon aims to differentiate the retail experience through both its highly knowledgeable staff and its try-before-you-buy policy. The store is set up in stations according to sport, where you can often try the gear out right there. Each member of the retail staff is a major sports enthusiast and highly experienced in their area of expertise. For example, I got to meet pro cyclist Jen Tetrick who is the Sport Leader for the bike category. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Even so, Decathlon understands very well who they are targeting. “Decathlon is a rite of passage,” remarked Tetrik. “It’s where you get your first bike, and then grow through our more advanced product offering.” Not bad if you can get a carbon fiber frame with Dura-Ace groupset and Zipp wheels for less than $4,000.

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