Retail Safari: Fearless despatches from the frontier of consumerism, Decathlon edition.

The first step towards getting into shape, as everyone knows, is to make sure you have the right gear.

Peeling yourself off the sofa and getting all the way to a store to buy the getup and the gadgets is tiring work. Especially when you’re entertained and educated like you are in a Decathlon. After a couple of hours in Singapore’s favourite sports store, who needs exercise?

Headquartered in France, Decathlon is the world’s largest sports goods retailer, with 1500 stores across the world, and 6 of those in Singapore. It’s also known as ‘‘The Aldi of Activewear”, “The Ikea of Sports”, “Sports for EveryJuan” (the Philippines), and in Singapore just “Church”, on account of its devoted Sunday congregations.

Pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap

With rock bottom prices (Sample price list includes hiking bag: $3.90, sleeping bag: $15, badminton racket: $5.90, a basketball $7) and countless sports and activities on sale, Decathlon seems unconquerable. It’s tagline “Sport for All. All for Sport” (Quelle manifesto! So three musketeers! So clever! So French!) encapsulates its role as the definitive article, the great democratizer, and the one-stop-shop for anyone considering getting off their arse and doing something healthy.

The French mega-brand isn’t just about low cost and big scale, however. Decathlon positions itself as an innovator. If the internets are to be believed, it registers around 40 patents a year. In its 24-hour Kallang store (because who knows when you might need a hammock really urgently in the middle of the night?), robots take stock inventory and shoppers can get a free health screening. This isn’t Walmart behavior. This is thought-leadership (Or perhaps its ‘sport-leadership’).

The irresistible draw of retailtainment

Decathlon is also an exemplar of experiential bricks and mortar retail. Although you can buy any of its products online, it’s the store visit that’s really rewarding. At the heart of the Decathlon experience are the twin pillars of retail education and retail entertainment (or ‘retailtainment’, as we experts call it). In their Kallang store, there’s a floor area with four different surfaces so you can try out different shoe grips. You can get your tennis racket restrung in Bedok. In Novena, you can assess the desirability of cushioned insoles for ‘pivoting sports’ or for walking. My daughter learnt to rock-climb in a Decathlon store (just behind the hiking gear aisle). The stores are full of flip-flop bedecked people playing table tennis, skateboarding, riding bicycles, and doing squats, lunges and sit-ups.

Want, not need!

My family and I have discovered previously unknown passions for sports including stand up paddleboarding, archery and rollerblading. Aimless weekend visits have seen us bring home a four-man tent (never used), two sleeping bags, one yoga mat, three bicycles, an inflatable paddleboard, three pairs of rollerblades, a bow and arrow, a skateboard (used once), gym hoops, beach balls, masks and snorkels, as well as countless shoes, swimming costumes, towels, torches, back-packs and bottles. I didn’t even want the tent, but it was only $100, and you know, just in case, right?

Whereas Nike may be where more accomplished golfers buy their kit, and Wilson may be a better choice for a serious tennis racket, Decathlon is the place for dabblers, experimenters and sports novices to try something new with almost no risk of getting it wrong.

The brand’s magic formula of low prices, an expansive product portfolio and a reasonable level of quality simply means Decathlon doesn’t need to persuade us to get involved with a sport. It just needs to remove the barriers so there’s no reason not to.

Now, where can I get some pétanque balls?

This piece was originally published in The Drum.

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