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Tiffany Montgomery
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Interesting insights from a savvy retailer

By Tiffany Montgomery
October 13, 2008 5:39 AM

While I was in Bend, Oregon last week, I met with Roberta Johnson, who owns Sports Vision Bend, a specialty sunglass store downtown, with her partner, Todd Johnson.


Roberta is a Shop-eat-surf reader and an industry veteran. She grew up in Huntington Beach, moved to the mountains to run a ski shop that also carried surf apparel, and eventually settled in Bend, where she has operated Sports Vision Bend for 19 years.


sports vision bendShe has some great insights for running a retail operation in tough times, including concrete strategies she is employing to tighten her operations and preserve cash. She also discusses the evolution of her successful internet business, her strategy behind carrying a limited number of brands, her customer service philosophy, why she's not selling goggles this year, and her take on the economic challenges ahead.

Online: Sports Vision Bend's overall sales are up this year even though its brick-and-mortar store is down, thanks to its robust internet business.


Roberta launched the online operation in 1997 and, along with REI, was one of the first online partners with Smith and Arnette.


"It was good until everybody else started doing it," she said.


Now, Sports Vision Bend is evolving again, and is offering prescription sunglass services online. Roberta has partnered with Von Zipper to be its online RX provider and will next partner with Anon, she said.


Providing the prescription services online has given the business a big boost and illustrates two of Roberta's main business philosophies:

 

  • If you're a small business, you have to be nimble, you have to be looking for that next thing, and you have to change things up, especially in challenging times. "You better move, you better shake," she said. She also applies that to the brick-and-mortar store, and will "shake the whole store up," now and then.

 

  • Specialization is key. Roberta believes if you're a skate retailer, go deep in skate and be the best you can be. Same goes for snow and surf. The problem comes when a retailer tries to be everything and thus is an expert in nothing. That's one of the reasons she decided to drop apparel and footwear in favor of going deep in sunglasses and becoming an expert. She also liked that the product is higher margin, you can order just-in-time inventory, and inventory can carry over from season to season, instead of being forced to have continual closeout sales.


I asked Roberta what will happen to her online business when her vendors go direct, as so many are doing these days.


"I'll think of something else then - you have to keep changing," she said. "And, I'll have my database."


Brands: Sports Vision Bend carries five main brands of glasses - Oakley, Maui Jim, Smith, Von Zipper and Anon - but it is deep in those brands.


sports vision bend"I only carry five so I can be the best I can be" in those brands, she said.


The store's number one brand is Oakley, and Roberta has an entire Oakley room, which you can see here in the photo to the right.

 

Oakley might not be the No. 1 brand in the core shops in Orange County, she said, "but in the rest of the world, Oakley is huge," Roberta said. The new women's line has done particularly well.


As far as a new brand, Roberta said selling Von Zipper is like selling "candy" - you put it out there and it goes.

sports vision bendBoth guys and girls are snapping the glasses up, she said, and other retailers around the country have told her Von Zipper is "the one" - the new brand that is really resonating.


Service: I asked Roberta about customer service, because I had heard from people in Bend that the store goes above and beyond. Roberta sees is as a key advantage.


"I'll fit anybody, whether they bought the glasses here or not. I'll just serve you. I'm going to make you happy. I'm going to tell you what to buy (if you need advice), I'm going to fit you. If your eyesight is going bad, and you need readers, I'm going to make you look cute in them. If your glasses break, I'm going to help you. ... One way or another, I'm going to get you."


Goggles: Roberta did not order goggles this year. She decided to stick to her philosophy of specialization and not run the risk in these tough times - even though she lives in a town that is about 30 minutes from Mt. Bachelor and is filled with snowboarders and skiers.


"Let the snowboard shops carry them, let the shops on the hill carry them," she said. "I'll send customers their way."


Goggles had three strikes against them this year, Roberta said.

 

  • It's a preseason order, and she doesn't place preseason orders.

 

  • They have a limited selling window

 

  • It's a weather related item.


"Not in this economy," she said. "(The goggles) would all be here, ticking away on a 1/10 due date."


I asked her if it could end up hurting her business if it does snow.


"It could snow, but I had to make a decision," she said. Plus, goggles are rider and fashion driven and trying to figure out which will be the hot ones is difficult.


"I'm not that hip," she said.


The economy: Like other retailers, Roberta is watching her inventory very closely. Because she sells sunglasses and pays her bills on time, she is able to place just-in-time orders. She wrote one order at the recent eyewear show in Las Vegas and it was for less than $200.


In times like these, "it's not about what you write, it's about what you don't write," she said. "I'm going to wait to order it until I need it."


Roberta believes 2009 will be much harder than 2008. She thinks consumer spending is going to slow dramatically.


She said many regular buyers of accessories are credit card users and are maxed out. She's seen some of her customers whip out several cards, trying to find one that still has some spending capacity left.


The slowdown, combined with the credit crunch, will hit many retailers hard, she said. "I hate to be so negative," Roberta said.


But, "the retailers that have cash or capital" will be the ones that make it, she said.

 


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