Saturday 10 December 2016

This is where the green-jersey agenda goes when it's looking for a special little number

Debbie Byrne of Lifestyle Sports tells John McGee that sports retailers must be able to straddle the worlds of fashion and sport

John McGee

Published 26/06/2016 | 02:30

Debbie Byrne is marketing director of Lifestyle Sports. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Debbie Byrne is marketing director of Lifestyle Sports. Photo: Steve Humphreys

With Republic of Ireland fans the toast of the Euro 2016 tournament, many of the estimated 80,000 who made who trip did so with their green jerseys packed into their luggage. If you were to ask the average fan where they got their jersey, there's a good chance that he or she bought it in Lifestyle Sports, Ireland's largest sportswear retailer.

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Owned by the family-controlled Stafford Holdings, which has an annual turnover in excess of €350m, Lifestyle Sports was acquired by the group back in 2005 for €60m and now sits alongside its other key subsidiaries - Campus Oil, Stafford Fuels and Stafford Shipping.

The global sportswear market has always been highly competitive as leading brands such as Adidas, Nike, Puma, Reebok and Umbro compete for a share of the $270bn annual spoils.

For its part, the Irish market is estimated to be worth in excess of €450m a year and with 53 stores in the Republic and eight in Northern Ireland, Lifestyle Sports is by far the biggest player in the market.

"It's very competitive and competition comes from the traditional bricks-and-mortar stores as well as a number of online retailers," says Debbie Byrne, marketing director of Lifestyle Sports.

Big international tournaments like Euro 2016 may be a godsend to sportswear retailers but it's an all-year-round business that is driven by a number of factors, including healthier lifestyles, seasonal club-jersey sales, gifting, the all-important Christmas period and an increasing emphasis on fashion.

"Some periods are busier than others and it depends on the time of the year," says Byrne. "Football, for example, is our biggest category and, within that, Premiership jerseys are the biggest sellers and it tends to be seasonal with new football jerseys being launched right up until August. All the Premiership teams bring out three new jerseys every year. "Our flagship stores stock everything - including most of the jerseys for the European clubs. It's the same for Euro 2016. We are stocking the jerseys of all the 24 teams, and it was the same for the Rugby World Cup, when we stocked the national jerseys of all 20 teams. There is a big and wide demand from customers," she says.

"We are trying to be known as a destination where you can get the full range and while they may not be in every store, you can still order whatever it is using iPads we have in all our locations and it will be delivered the next day."

The increasingly sophisticated sportswear market, however, is no longer just about the latest Man Utd, Ireland or Dublin jerseys. Ever since the American company Du Pont created the nylon tracksuit back in the 1930s, right through to the first Adidas-manufactured celebrity top (for Franz Beckenbauer in 1967), the shiny polyester shell-suits of the 1980s and the more recent interventions by brands like Chloe and Gucci, sportswear has enjoyed and on/off love affair with the world of fashion.

By all accounts, this love affair with 'athleisure' looks set to endure as more and more big-name designers and celebrities are reeled in by the manufacturers to endorse or co-create new products. In addition, retail brands like GAP and H&M have also been closing in on the market with their own creations.

"It's interesting to see what's going on in the market," says Byrne. "Some other retailers are strong in sport and weak in fashion but we play very heavily in both, particularly for our female customers. But we are definitely seeing a crossover between the two. In addition, some of the luxury brands that wouldn't have an historical association with sport are also getting in on the act."

Standing out from the online and offline competition is important to Lifestyle Sports, says Byrne. Apart from trying to offer the full range of sports, fashion and leisure, maintaining the same shopper experience both online and offline is paramount.

"The big thing for us is trying to have a consistent brand offering across our channels. With a big estate of 58 stores, all various sizes and shapes and at different stages of refits and age, it's always a challenge. And then we have to ensure that the digital manifestation of this experience is the same online and it's important that there are no inconsistencies," she adds.

"The other big thing for us is our role in the whole social and content-marketing space and this is something we have wrestled with over the last year. Obviously, given the nature of the business that we're in, it's about finding the right positioning for the brand in all the different categories and how and where we should be talking to consumers.

"Given that the brands we stock are also in the content-marketing space, we decided that our role is probably more in the build-up to games and to be part of the anticipation of looking forward to big tournaments by providing water-cooler snippets and facts that allow you to have the conversation with them but they can develop it further elsewhere," she concludes.

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