Connecting The Dots


For decades team dealers have focused on developing and maintaining personal relationships with their customers, perhaps more so than in any other segment within the sporting goods industry. With above-and-beyond service and loyalty still being the gold standards, how are dealers handling the pandemic-accelerated integration of technology – often perceived of as being cold, impersonal and expensive – into the business?

“We’re still in the infancy stage, but there’s been an awakening. Some dealers have adapted better than others,” explains Kendall Whitley, VP–athletics/retail for the Nation’s Best Sports (NBS) buying group. “The way we sell now has been the biggest change. You can have relationships, but technology allows better time management, efficiency and ease of accessing information. You still have to shake hands and have eye contact with customers, but now you also have to prepare by sending computer links and making Zoom calls.”

An Dual Investment in Technology

Whitley sees technology as a dual investment between vendors and dealers.

“The dealer is hungry for collateral and information and manufacturers that are forward-thinking will be the ones that attract the new business,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s all about how you tell your story and the manufacturers that help dealers do this will succeed.”

He notes that technology also provides the ability to eliminate some overhead through the cost of travel, a benefit to both vendors and dealers because it allows them to “accomplish a massive amount of work without the windshield time.”

Two of the most popular uses of technology among dealers have been the growth of online team stores and uniform builders. Whitley believes that uniform builders are still at their early stages.

“In seven to 10 years we could start to see changes in sizing and decorating in 3D and the technologies will become more concise and shareable,” he predicts, pointing out that many manufacturers already have that ability but have had to pull back a little to allow dealers and schools to catch up.

“In three to five years we will see amazing leaps with uniform builders,” he says. “The days of going in [to a school] and showing uniforms is changing — it all about ease-of-use and efficiency.”

Just as importantly, technologies designed to streamline critical functions such as inventory management, ordering and sales are coming to the fore. Efficiencies and the capability to plan the business is key and this includes the ability to get real-time inventory results which “show where the fish bites,” Whitley says.

“We don’t know if the supply chain will improve in three to four years, meaning that inventory availability is a critical development,” he points out. “Today, a salesperson can be mobile and can look up sales inventory to sell — it’s a huge shift from the past five years and has changed the entire way we sell now.

“Gaining inventory visibility in real time gives vendors, dealers and end-users an advantage and helps improve customer service,” Whitley adds. “It’s just a more concise way of doing business and schools and other customers will always be more flexible if they have the information upfront.”

The Supply Chain Challenge

Vendor-to-vendor networks that share information and product are becoming the norm in many industries, but not so much among team dealers yet. Unfortunately, all of the dealer-based technology in the world can’t solve the ongoing issue of a snarled global supply chain and most dealers are loath to give up precious inventory to a competitor – even a friendly one – when demand for those goods remains high. Here’s where buying groups such as NBS are stepping in.

“The challenge now is how to connect backrooms. It’s a big undertaking,” Whitley says, pointing out that the problem is that there has been a shift in inventory ownership, but not a lot of inventory to pick from now.

“This has become an at-once industry, making it difficult to have an inventory-sharing process,” he explains. “Vendors and dealers are both faced with inventory issues, but buying groups can help dealers be more efficient and can sometimes step in to provide goods and services when needed,” he says. “NBS has the resources to help support our dealer network and we’re there arm-in-arm with our dealers to help them manage the business.”

Embracing A Tech Future

In the larger scheme, just knowing that technology exists is not enough — dealers have to be able to access and take advantage of it and this will require a different mindset than in the past, according to Whitley. “Relationships are a foundational aspect of the team business, but as the industry grows there is a need to evolve the ways in which business is done.

Just knowing that technology exists is not enough; dealers have to be able to access and take advantage of it and this will require a different mindset than in the past.” – Kendall Whitley

“Technology doesn’t eliminate or reduce relationships — it provides more clarity and efficiencies, thereby enhancing relationships and business,” Whitley adds. “Technology also allows dealers to be much more educated about the products they’re selling and NBS has exciting things planned for the future, such as technologies to help dealers elevate their presentations,” he reports.

In Whitley’s view, technology should be used to provide an upgraded experience, but service still has to be front-and-center.

“Technology is part of the equation — it makes the recipe better, but you still have to be able to deliver.”