If you are like many shoppers, you buy sports apparel and equipment at Dick’s Sporting Goods or Sports Authority, which have a combined 1,000 stores nationwide. But by doing that, you are missing a chance to up your game — whether it’s played on grass, snow, water, or asphalt.
In Consumer Reports’ first ratings of sporting-goods retailers, more than 26,000 readers reported on some 34,000 shopping experiences buying treadmills, skis, and the like. Almost 30 percent of the transactions took place at Dick’s and Sports Authority. But neither made readers as happy as did independent stores and pro shops, one-sport chains, or outdoorsy companies such as L.L.Bean and REI.
The merchants that pleased readers most offered value (goods worth their cost), wide selection, high-quality products, and solid service. Independent stores and pro shops were especially skilled at providing knowledgeable and solicitous service.
Survey respondents who shopped at independents and pro shops took full advantage of the help available: 92 percent interacted with the sales staff. Only 43 percent of respondents who shopped at a mass merchant received help.
Among all-purpose retailers, Costco — a reader favorite in survey after survey for products as varied as eyeglasses and electronics — rated highly, mainly because of outstanding value and quality. Costco’s drawbacks, common to warehouse clubs, are narrow selection and minimal service. Among the least likely to satisfy were Walmart, Kmart, and Sam’s Club, all of which scored lower than most of the rated stores for service and ease of checkout.
The most common problem for sporting goods shoppers was a limited choice of sizes. Overall, about 1 in 4 respondents had a complaint that wasn’t related to service or selection, usually about cluttered aisles, long checkout lines, or hard-to-find price tags. Thirty-eight percent of those who shopped for sporting goods at J.C. Penney, Sears, Walmart, and other mainstream retailers had at least one problem, compared with 15 percent who shopped at outdoor chains and 11 percent who shopped at independents.
Consumer Reports limited its ratings to walk-in stores because that’s how most people buy sporting goods. Bruce Hammond, director of marketing and communications for the National Sporting Goods Association, a trade group, says that more than three-quarters of athletic equipment and shoes were bought at walk-in stores in 2011.
But if you know exactly what you want, buying online makes sense. Prices on the Web are frequently as much as 10 percent lower than in stores, in part because federal law doesn’t require online retailers to collect state sales tax unless they have a physical location in that state.
If you don’t know exactly what you want, websites give you lots to look at. Amazon offers many types of athletic equipment, including boxing gloves and ballet shoes, and has rated high in many Consumer Reports surveys. But most of the merchants in the ratings offer more choices online than in their stores. Walmart’s website, for instance, sells more than 1,400 fishing rods and reels; at a Walmart near Consumer Reports’ Yonkers, N.Y., headquarters, its shoppers spotted 100 or so.