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Sporting-goods stores that earn high scores

26,000 readers rate the best and worst among dozens

Consumer Reports magazine: June 2013

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If you’re like many shoppers, you buy sports apparel and equipment at Dick’s Sporting Goods or Sports Authority, which have a total of about 1,000 stores nationwide. But by doing that, you’re missing a chance to up your game—whether it’s played on grass, snow, water, or asphalt.

In our first Ratings of sporting-goods retailers, 26,461 readers told us about 34,229 experiences buying treadmills, skis, and the like. Almost 30 percent of the transactions took place at Dick’s and Sports Authority. But neither made readers as happy as did independent stores and pro shops, one-sport chains, or outdoorsy companies.

The merchants that pleased readers most offered value (the goods were worth their cost), wide selection, high-quality products, and solid service. Independent stores and pro shops were especially skilled at providing knowledgeable and solicitous service. “If you’re investing $1,000 on a set of clubs, you want a personal connection with someone who knows what they’re talking about,” says Lee Diercks, a partner at the Clear Thinking Group, a business-strategy company. “Specialty shops exist because there are those consumers who value someone who can string a racket and make sure it’s properly weighted, teach you how to shoot, and make sure you select the right ski boots.”

Survey respondents who shopped at independents and pro shops took full advantage of the help available: 92 percent interacted with the sales staff. Only 43 percent of respondents who shopped at a mass merchant received help.

Among all-purpose retailers, one of the warehouse clubs rated highly, mainly because of outstanding value and quality. That retailer's drawbacks, common to warehouse clubs, are narrow selection and minimal service. Three well-known retailers were among the least likely to satisfy; they all scored lower than most of the rated stores for service and ease of checkout.

The most common problem for sporting-goods shoppers was a limited choice of sizes. Overall, about one in four respondents had a complaint that wasn’t related to service or selection, usually about cluttered aisles, long checkout lines, or hard-to-find price tags.

We limited our Ratings to walk-in stores because that’s how most people buy sporting goods. But if you know exactly what you want, buying online makes sense. Prices on the Web are frequently as much as 10 percent lower than in stores, in part because federal law doesn’t require online retailers to collect state sales tax unless they have a physical location in that state.

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