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Small, local sporting goods stores need to be nimble

Palinda Dockery combed through what seemed like acres of Buffalo Bills-themed merchandise. She thumbed stacks of Bills stickers, clinked past rows of Bills shot glasses, and giggled at Bills dog bowls, dog collars and dog-sized Bills jerseys.

“My friend likes the Eagles, but I’ve got to bring back some Buffalo sports souvenirs,” said Dockery, a Buffalo transplant now living in New Jersey. “That’s my hometown.”

Joe Eckl, the store manager at Laux Sporting Goods in Boulevard Mall, knows customers like Dockery well. They become more common in June, when former Western New Yorkers, back to visit family, come looking for pieces of home to bring back to their new lives in North Carolina, Florida, Las Vegas and around the country.

To prepare for them, Eckl reconfigured the front of the store with a sea of Bills and Sabres merchandise at the beginning of the month.

“People think it’s too early for football, but now is when you need it,” Eckl said. “If you go to a department store, you might start seeing things in August, but by then, you’ve missed a big chunk of sales.”

Across the hall at Champs Sports, a national chain, there are a handful of Sabres and Bills jerseys in the back corner, but the emphasis throughout the store is clearly on Michael Jordan’s Air Jordan brand – sneakers, hats and T-shirts devoted to a Chicago Bulls player with no ties to Western New York.

“We do things a little differently here,” Eckl said. “That’s how you survive.”

Laux Sporting Goods knows a thing or two about survival.

Despite intense competition from big box stores and Internet sales, the independent retailer has rolled with the punches for 94 years. Eckl, manager at the Boulevard Mall store, which opened with the mall in 1962, credits the company’s deep knowledge of the local market and ability to respond quickly to customers’ needs. He believes the company’s local expertise and nimble size will help carry it through, even as rival Dick’s Sporting Goods prepares to enter the mall as its newest anchor.

Al Laux opened his first store at 441 Broadway in 1921. His sons James and Richard took over in 1959. Richard passed away in 2010, but James, at age 86, is still involved in the company’s daily operations. James’ son, David, is at the helm today, after being appointed president in 1998, and his daughter, Kathy Molnar, is the company’s buyer and vice president.

The company’s offices, warehouse and screenprinting operation now are located in Amherst. Its seven-person sales force sells uniforms and sports equipment to high schools and colleges throughout New York State. The company, which employs about 75 people, is known for its retail stores, which sell all manner of sports gear in addition to clothing and team merchandise, but the institutional sales division makes up roughly half of Laux’s business.

The tanned and athletic Eckl started at the company fresh out of college in 1981, as an assistant manager at the Boulevard store. Eckl’s father, a cousin of the Laux family, ran the screenprinting shop before he died. He credits the company’s close-knit, family atmosphere for its ability to retain good employees. Other store managers have been with the company 20, 30 and 40 years. Even Eckl’s assistant manager, who is just 25 years old, has nearly a decade under his belt, having started at the store at age 16.

Though you’ll find the same Rob Gronkowski and Patrick Kane jerseys that are available everywhere, Laux is probably the only place you’ll find the recently signed Percy Harvin’s number 18 and Jerry Hughes’ number 55 right now.

“We know Buffalo because we are Buffalo,” Eckl said. “We don’t have to be cookie cutter. We can get on the phone and say, ‘Kathy, these things are flying off the shelves,’ and she’ll be on the phone with Nike or whoever ordering more in five minutes.”

That was the case when Terry and Kim Pegula bought the Bills last year, spurring a renewed interest in the team and a thirst for Pegula-themed merchandise.

Business can ebb and flow dramatically depending on the state of Buffalo sports. But fortunately, Buffalo is known for having some of the most passionate sports fans in the country – even when teams are at their worst. Sabres merchandise sold steadily last season, even though the team was at the bottom of the league.

In fact, Laux’s most prosperous years were not the years the Bills were in the Super Bowl. Rather, they were during the 2006-07 hockey season, when the Sabres won their first 10 games, the President’s Trophy and made it to the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. It also was the year the Sabres changed their logo design.

“That was the logo people called the slug,” Eckl said. “For as much as everyone said they hated it, they all seemed to buy it.”

As far as Dick’s Sporting Goods is concerned, Eckl notes Laux already competes with an existing Dick’s store, which is just half a mile away on Meyer Road. Besides, the store often refers customers looking for something Dick’s doesn’t stock, Eckl said. He’s also hopeful customers attracted to the mall by the big store will make their way to Laux, as well.

Like any independent retailer that has survived competition from both the Internet and corporate giants, Laux and other local sports stores have carved out niches that let them serve needs that aren’t otherwise met by larger operations.

Buffalo Sports, which has been in business in Hamburg since 1992, differentiates itself by offering trade-ins. In addition to dealing new sporting goods, the company buys and sells used gear, which brings customers back again and again.

“It’s great. Johnny outgrows his hockey skates, we take back the size twos and sell him the size threes,” said Dave Westphal, owner.

The concept appeals to consumers newly entering a sport, who might not be sure whether they will like it enough to justify a big investment in equipment. The long winter and the ice rink at Canalside brought in a lot of new customers looking for inexpensive ice skates, for example. With long-term repeat business in mind, Westphal trains staff to not upsell customers and to focus instead on the consumer’s individual needs.

“We want to give them the least expensive option and don’t give them anything they don’t need,” Westphal said. “The kids don’t like me. They’re telling mom they need the new $200 soccer cleats and I’ll say, ‘Why don’t you try this $10 pair?’ ”

Rick’s Sports Apparel has been in business in Allentown since 1984. It focuses on clothing, caps and jerseys, and features “shoe and cap hookups,” that pair caps with sneakers in complementing, high-fashion styles.

“It’s about having a niche customer base and reacting to trends more quickly,” said Rick Dehlinger, the store’s owner.

Laux has found success by melding the best of both retail worlds – the access, convenience and pricing offered at the big box stores, with the local market expertise, customer service and specialized inventory found at independent ones, according to Arun Jain, a marketing professor at the University at Buffalo School of Management. But its trump card is something that can’t easily be replicated on a national scale.

“Local owners have an emotional attachment to the business,” he said.

Dick’s Sporting Goods, which initially opened as a small hunting and fishing store in Binghamton in the 1960s, first expanded into upstate New York in the 1990s. Now headquartered in Pittsburgh, it is a Fortune 500 company and has more than 500 locations across the country.

Laux has four mall locations, at Boulevard, Eastern Hills, Walden Galleria and McKinley; and another in the Pine Plaza, at the epicenter of Niagara Falls retail near the Fashion Outlets. That puts them where customers are, rather than requiring customers to veer off the beaten path to find them, Jain said. While some small, local retailers “keep banker’s hours and close for lunch,” Jain said, Laux opens as early and closes as late as the corporate chains. It also generally sets pricing below the manufacturer’s suggested retail price.

In his own experience, Jain has had trouble tracking down employees to help him at big box sports stores. When he does find someone, they “don’t know anything about the product” and “it feels like they’re just trying to upsell me,” he said. Independent stores wouldn’t be able to survive with that caliber of customer service.

“In a store like that, if you lose a customer, they’re going to walk away with their wallet and never come back,” Jain said. “And they’re going to tell 10 of their friends not to go there, either.”