Competitors in the upcoming Boston Triathlon might get a feeling of deja vu when they see the logo of City Sports on their swim caps and race bags.
The sporting apparel chain that went into bankruptcy nearly two years ago is back.
Two New Jersey brothers who bought the City Sports brand and customer lists in 2015 are ready to return the retailer to business. And they’re using a pop-up store at the July 30 triathlon as an informal kickoff.
Brent and Blake Sonnek-Schmelz, who also run the 31-store Soccer Post chain based in Eatontown, N.J., fondly remember shopping at City Sports in Philadelphia and believe the company has enough of a following to merit a resurrection. They launched a City Sports website last fall, and have signed a few suppliers, such as Adidas and New Balance. Many more are in the works. The website’s most popular item: a “City Sports Boston” T-shirt.
The Boston Triathlon sponsorship marks the new company’s first such effort to get involved with a local event, and it won’t be the last: The brothers are working on others, but aren’t ready to announce them yet.
As for a brick-and-mortar store, Brent Sonnek-Schmelz said he’s on the lookout for locations in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. But with retail rents in popular shopping districts at high levels, Sonnek-Schmelz said he will open a store only when he finds the right spot, at the right price.
In Boston, City Sports’ former hometown, Sonnek-Schmelz hopes to have a temporary store by next spring, and at least one permanent location open by the end of 2018. It’s hard to compete with bigger rivals with just an online outlet, because price is the big differentiating factor. A storefront, he said, gives a retailer an opportunity to better connect with customers.
“We’re brick and mortar people,” he said. “Our family has been in retail for several generations. I believe in storefronts. I think they’re vital to Main Streets and downtowns.”
Sonnek-Schmelz said he plans to do a few things differently, to avoid the previous ownership’s mistakes, which included expanding too aggressively into the suburbs. The chain had 26 stores at the time of the 2015 bankruptcy; Sonnek-Schmelz doesn’t expect to open more than 10. The new stores will be smaller, likely under 5,000 square feet. The inventory will be more focused on fitness-oriented customers and less on participants in ball and bat sports.
“You can deal with smaller footprints, fewer stores, but still in critical locations,” Sonnek-Schmelz said.
And the new City Sports will stay true to its name with locations just in urban neighborhoods, and not venture into the suburbs — except for one location. Sonnek-Schmelz said he expects to open a store soon next to his office and warehouse in Eatontown, which is near Asbury Park, and use it to test ideas. So far, he is the only City Sports USA employee, though he relies on members of the Soccer Post team and is about to hire a few City Sports-specific workers.
Boston Triathlon director Michael O’Neil said the previous owners appeared to lose sight of the core audience by expanding outside of urban centers, putting City Sports in closer competition with big box retailers.
“It was called City Sports. It wasn’t called Suburb Sports,” O’Neil said.
One of the biggest selling points for the brothers: brand recognition.
“So many people in the Northeast grew up wearing a City Sports T-shirt,” said Dave Spandorfer, cofounder of Janji, a running apparel company in Boston. “City Sports’ biggest benefit is it has this legacy of this incredible name. The greatest challenge they’re going to have is getting those people who were burned by the City Sports bankruptcy back in the fold.”
NPD Group sports industry analyst Matt Powell said that while one in four running shoes sold in the United States in 2016 were bought online, there’s still room for a brick-and-mortar retailer like City Sports.
“If you go back to the original concept of what City Sports was about, it was really aimed at young consumers, living in cities,” Powell said. “The chain did quite well for a number of years. Getting back to those roots really makes a lot of sense.”Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.