Going batty: baseball and softball bat price points–along with performance–continue to rise

What’s the first word when it comes to baseball and slow pitch softball bats? Manufacturers such as Easton, Mizuno, Louisville Slugger, Akadema, DeMarini and Worth would like it to be their brand name. But as dealers and retailers will tell you, loyalty ranks behind performance, not to mention price.

“The market is driven by the bats that are perceived to hit the ball the farthest,” says Tom Seegmiller, owner of the Locker Room in St. George, UT. “The baseball and softball categories differ a bit, but in both it usually comes down to performance, particularly on upper-end bats.”

Travis Thompson, manager at GoJo Sports in Fort Collins, CO, echoes Seegmiller’s thoughts. “Most people know what they want,” he says. “Some have a price ceiling. But for the most part, if they want a bat, they’ll get it.”

Technology is obviously the key to performance. Composite is the big thing right now, and many manufacturers are developing enhanced models that capitalize on this trend (see sidebar on page 32). Most dealers report that Easton is their most popular brand, with Louisville Slugger, DeMarini, Mizuno and Worth all doing well at retail as well.

Relative newcomers to the bat market are also making an impression on consumers. For example, Lawrence Gilligan, president of Akadema in Garfield, NJ, is elated at how quickly his company’s aluminum Xtension series has caught on with high school and college players. Schutt, of Litchfield, IL, is getting into the game, too, with the introduction of a new series of composite bats for fast-pitch.

Meanwhile, Bill Higgins, director of purchasing at Brine Sporting Goods in Sudbury, MA, says that Rawlings is creating a buzz with a lightweight youth bat that goes for just $39.99. “It’s a -11 model,” he says. “Typically, a bat like this will fall in the $80 range.”

Matt Arndt, director of baseball/softball at Easton in Van Nuys, CA, says a lot of factors go into pricing bats from the manufacturer’s side. “There are vastly different characteristics in who’s playing softball and baseball, and what technology they want,” he explains. “Pricing also depends on the cost of developing and making a bat, and what the market will bear. At Easton, we have so many different platforms and products. There is some elasticity in the market in terms of price.”

Tim Lord, business team leader of marketing for Diamond Sports at Worth in Fenton, MO, has observed price points rising for high-end bats. “If you have something that performs and holds up over time, people will pay,” he says.

James Sass, director of marketing for Louisville Slugger, Louisville, KY, feels price is determined in part by the consumers. “In slow-pitch, users are normally doing the buying,” he says. “Prices can climb faster in this category. In baseball, parents often do the buying for their kids, so price is a factor. In fast-pitch, price doesn’t seem like a concern at all.”

For Higgins, the formula for success isn’t complicated at all. “The lower the price of the bat, the more volume you will sell,” he notes.

Another factor that influences bat sales is aesthetics. Loren Samuelson, corporate president at Lee’s Pro Shop in Pine City, MN, has an interesting take on this topic. His store does a booming bat business, especially in softball, thanks in part to its sponsorship of a high-level slow-pitch team. Lee’s carries an impressive selection of softball and baseball bats, and its reputation among local consumers as an expert in the category is unparalleled. His opinion on aesthetics? “A 250-pound softball player won’t step in the box with a pink bat,” he says.

Chad Robertson, business unit manager for Mizuno USA in Norcross, GA, agrees. “In the grand scheme of things, performance is the overwhelming aspect, but aesthetics play a role,” he says. “We try to use bright colors, something that will stand out at retail from 300 feet away.”

Retail, by the way, is where most dealers sell bats. Indeed, team business in baseball and softball is minimal. Higgins puts the ratio at 70% retail and 30% team at Brine. Other dealers report similar numbers. Thompson says that most of GoJo’s team business is generated by local softball organizations. “Price is No. 1 with them,” he adds. “They come in at the beginning of the year with limited budgets.”

Samuelson also has helpful insight on buying habits. “In February, we get a lot of top-level softball players who are getting ready for the upcoming season,” he says. “In April and May, most of our customers are rec league players.”

Seegmiller, meanwhile, has noticed a change in the buying season. “In the old days, it went from December to March,” he says. “Now consumers want next year’s bat now.”

“When the youth baseball All-Star teams are named and tournaments begin, we get a lot of kids looking for new bats,” Seegmiller continues. “Little Leaguers tend to want really light bats. In high school, players ask for upper-end bats with lots of features–33-inch length is popular.”

Higgins adopts an active approach with his customers. “I try to fit kids with as light a bat as possible,” he says. “They always want a bat that’s too long. Once a kid turns 11 or 12, his parents may step up to a higher price point. Under this age, parents will look for something inexpensive.”

Given all the factors that influence bat sales, what are the keys to maximizing business in this category? Manufacturers and dealers alike have advice.

* “There’s not a great deal of loyalty in slow-pitch from consumers,” says Robertson. “Word of mouth is big in softball. Check the Internet message boards. Consumers sometimes know what’s coming before our salesmen do.”

* Since he is one of the new bat guys on the block, Gilligan naturally urges dealers to experiment with different brands. “Like anything else, don’t get stuck with just one or two manufacturers,” he says. “Kids want variety. They like alternatives. Take a chance on newer items.”

* Sass believes that nothing beats the feel of a bat in player’s hands. “Demos can be a real service to bring in consumers,” he says. “Give them a chance to swing a bat before a purchase.”

* Lord advises dealers to know their customer base. “You’re servicing three different consumers,” he says. “There’s always that person who cares only about price. Then there’s the value customer who wants technology at a good price. Lastly, there’s the upper-end consumer who will pay anything for an advantage.

“Mid and low price points are becoming more competitive,” Lord adds. “Technology is improving but price isn’t necessarily rising. Aesthetics are extremely important in this segment.”

Higgins concurs with Lord. “We’re in a wealthy area of Massachusetts, so we can move high-end product,” he says. “Educate yourself about bat technology. Bats made with similar materials should sell for a similar price. That being said, it always surprises me how much people will spend on a bat.”

* Seegmiller says the dealers should keep a close eye on the industry. “Get the newest bats as early as possible,” he notes. “Our 2005 models are already starting to be discounted. Avoid going real deep in inventory. Try to be out of upper-end bats, so you’re ready for new models.”

* Inventory is also the focus for Thompson. “At retail, we sell mostly to kids ages 12 to high school,” he says. “For them, it’s crucial to keep bats in-stock year-round. Most players know what they want, but the parents of younger kids may need help. Learn why one bat is more expensive than another. Consumers feel comfortable talking about bats. Make sure you are, too.”

* Samuelson urges dealers to consider sponsorships. “Our softball team is very important to our bottom line,” he says. “We supply them with 10 to 20 bats to start the year. They really help us promote the bats we carry in the store. Opposing players know they can swing them at our bench.”

“We price according to the Internet,” Samuelson adds. “We have one price for team and retail. Our goal is to move product.”

BATTERS Up

What do manufacturers have in the on-deck circle? Here’s a rundown from some of the industry’s top brands:

Easton, Stealth CNT and Synergy CNT … The CNT stands for carbon nanotube technology. Developed in conjunction Zyvex, this advancement strengthens composite structures to provide improved handle designs with optimized flex, responsiveness, and more “kick” through the hitting zone. Easton has introduced two models: the Stealth CNT and Synergy CNT.

“We pioneer real technology,” says Matt Arndt. “Every couple of years, we come up with something really exciting, and CNT is the latest. Before long, you’ll see this technology used in other sports and industries.”

Mizuno, Techfire Envy and Jennie Finch Signature Series … Chad Robertson calls the Envy the “evolution of composite technology. The feedback we’ve received from players is that they want improved feel and a bigger sweet spot,” he says. “The Envy is a slow-pitch bat certified for all association play.”

Fast-pitch is becoming a major focus for Mizuno, too. This is where the Jennie Finch Signature Series enters the picture. “These bats feature Banzai aluminum for great performance and durability,” says Robertson.

Louisville Slugger, Dynasty ST+20 … The company has worked with Alcoa to develop ST+20, a new alloy that James Sass says is 20% stronger and tougher than that used in the company’s Warrior series. “This has given us more design flexibility,” he explains. “A lot of manufacturers focus on the bat handle. Our approach is the exact opposite. We offer a stiff handle with a barrel that flexes. This keeps the ball on the barrel longer.”

Akadema, Xtension with TX7 … New for this year is the addition of TX7 metal. “It’s more durable,” says Lawrence Gilligan. “The balance of this bat is unbelievable.”

Worth, Asylum Series with nanotechnology … The company has teamed up with Akzo Nobel to introduce its latest development. According to Tim Lord, Worth differs from others in its application of nanotechnology, using it the bat shell. “Asylum is a high-end series for baseball, slow-pitch and fast-pitch,” he says. “We also have the Mayhem series with ACT technology, a 100% composite line.”

Schutt, Bandit Series with Trebon–The company is entering the market with bats that incorporate Trebon, a combination of composite materials embedded in a polymer matrix. Precision engineered with the latest FEA software, the Bandit Series is designed for fast-pitch play.

MATTER OF Protection

At a time that the inventor of the baseball batting helmet back in the 1950s, died–and a year before many leagues and associations will begin mandating face guards on softball batting helmets–protective equipment continues to expand its importance in the baseball and softball markets. Manufacturers weigh in on what’s new and what consumers want.

All-Star (Shirley, MA) … The company is featuring a redesigned line, including chest protectors that utilize Ultra Cool and an anti-microbial material known as Aigeis. “We’re always moving toward equipment that’s safer, lighter and more comfortable,’ says All-Star president Stan Jurga.

Safe-T-Gard (Lakewood, CO) … The latest is the Cage Cup, which is lined with foam for comfort and covered with a plastic cage. Forty percent lighter than previous models, the Cage Cup is also promoted as being much cooler. “For both baseball and softball we are working on products for a smaller and younger age group,” says Sheila Gottsch, president of Safe-T-Gard. “Each year we get more and more requests for additional products in the 8-to-12 market.”

Adams (Cookeville, TN) … Trace leg guards with Cool-Max, and sliding shorts with Naturexx material. “We’ve been working a lot closer with Lisa Fernandez,” says Gary McNabb, co-owner of Adams. “A lot of dealers have told us that consumers want new products with a different look.”

 

Retail report card: running shoes

A survey of the service, selection, presentation and product knowledge of the sales personnel of five shoe stores in New York has been conducted. The superstores, Paragon Sporting Goods, had the highest rating because of its abundant selection of merchandise, fast service and cordial personnel. The performance of the other four stores, Herman’s Sporting Goods, The Sports Authority, Athlete’s Foot and Super Runner’s Shop, are presented.

On a sunny spring day in Manhattan, the Mystery Shopper searches the streets of the city to find the perfect pair of running shoes.

It’s a beautiful spring day in New York, the kind that brings runners out in droves to pound the not-so-mean streets of the city. And Mystery Shopper would like to be out there among them, except that my shabby running shoes have finally broken down to a point of no return. One more time of striking worn-down rubber against pavement, and I fear my freshly healed legs will once again be revisited by the demon of chronic shin splints.

So instead of heading toward the loop in Central Park, I make my way downtown to search for a new pair of running shoes that will let me join the throngs of runners, walkers, skaters and cyclists looking to escape, temporarily, from the concrete jungle.

My first stop is the expanded Herman’s Sporting Goods store on the outermost corner of Union Square. The bi-level store is designed with a light and airy feel, with an open staircase leading you downstairs to the footwear department. Spread across the back wall are several rows of athletic shoes for plantar fasciitis. I head toward the bright neon lights that highlight the “Women’s” section, and spotlight the various footwear categories.

The only problem is when I actually walk over to the “Running” area and discover that a good portion of the shoes fit in about as well as a tourist on a subway platform. Meshed among the so-called running display are aerobic, walking and even cross-training shoes.

When I do finally find actual running shoes, the selection is somewhat sparse. My choices are already limited to four brands – Nike, Reebok, Asics and New Balance – with a few models in each.

Picking up a shoe, I look around for some help, and spot one lone clerk assisting other customers. Patiently, I stroll in front of the display, peering around every few seconds to draw some attention. It doesn’t work. I stand there some more. Still no response.

HERMAN’S SPORTING GOODS

Service                            C

Selection                          D

Presentation                       B

Product Knowledge                  C

Finally, the weary-looking sales assistant approaches, and asks if I need some help. I tell him that I’ve just recovered from an injury, and am looking to get back into running again.

Upon hearing that chronic shin splints were the cause of my temporary hiatus from the sport, the sales assistant instantly recommends the store’s top-of-the-line shoe, the Nike Air Max2. It takes my breath away – mostly because I spot the $129.99 price tag on the bottom.

When the color returns to my face, he explains that the shoe is extremely well cushioned, which should help protect against injury. Convinced that it will act as an insurance against future pain, I ask to see it in my size, a relatively average six. Alas – they don’t have any more sixes. He recommends the Nike Air Triax, which offers slightly less cushioning, at a decidedly lower price – $89. Another snag – also no sixes in stock. He has run out of options.

I sigh, and begin to turn away when I spot a sign telling customers to call a special 800-number if the store doesn’t have the shoe they want. Too late – I am determined to get out and start running without any more delays.

Leaving Herman’s, I walk across the street and up to the doors of Paragon Sporting Goods, New York’s original “superstore” and one of the city’s preeminent sporting goods retailers. I soon realize that it justly deserves its reputation.

Downstairs at Paragon is an abundant selection of footwear, with most of one wall devoted to women’s styles and a large section of running shoes. Nine brands are spread across the wall, including off-road and racing flat styles.

A sales clerk immediately approaches, and I give him the spiel. He asks more specifically about my injury, how long I’ve been out, when it started, what type of shoe I was wearing before. Quicker than a podiatrist can say “orthotics,” he tells me that I need a shoe with ample cushioning, but also some measure of stability. He recommends the lower-priced Nike Triax, sighting its improved stability over the more expensive version.

While I try on the shoe, this time in my size, he also volunteers to bring out an Asics model for comparison. With a little prompting, he gives me a case history on almost every type of running shoe, which brands have improved cushioning, how the materials differ, what the fundamental features are in each. This man has spent a lot of time studying footwear.

He leads me over to a set of treadmills to let me test out my two selections. I’m satisfied with the Triax, until I realize that my wallet is not, as I had imagined, in my backpack, but instead lying somewhere in my apartment.

Instead of staring me down with a dirty look, my sales clerk very nicely promises to put the bunion shoes in a holding bin until my return. I guiltily turn away, and head back home to search for my missing wallet.

PARAGON

Service                            A

Selection                          A

Presentation                       A-

Product Knowledge                  A

At this point, my feet are weary, and I’ve promised myself a break from the troubles of shoe shopping. But since I also don’t have enough money to hop on the subway home, I begin the trek back uptown to my apartment. On the way, I pass by the midtown Manhattan location of The Sports Authority (TSA).

What the hell, I think, I might as well check out what they have to offer. I probably shouldn’t have bothered.

Even with its somewhat limited city space, TSA offers a fairly cavernous version of its superstore. The footwear department easily takes up a quarter of the floor. Knowing TSA’s self-service approach to shopping, I quickly spot the women’s section, which is somewhat hidden toward the back of the store. There, I begin to scan the stacks of boxes for running shoes.

THE SPORTS AUTHORITY

Service                            C

Selection                          B

Presentation                       C

Product Knowledge                  C

Although there is an ample selection – roughly two dozen types – the majority are again concentrated in a few brands, namely Nike and Reebok. And again, there are some questionable merchandising choices, with lifestyle shoes for high arches like the Reebok Classics mixed in with decidedly more technical running lines.

TSA also makes an effort to break footwear out by brands, with end displays featuring Nike, Reebok and New Balance. Among these, however, it’s difficult to determine which are men’s and which are women’s, and what the fundamental characteristics are of each. Plastic tags make some attempt to explain, but after a while, my eyes begin to glaze over.

Frustrated, I begin to look for some assistance, but there is none to be found. I wait some more, growing increasingly impatient before I spy one “Authority” in another section. I wave him over and ask him what he knows about running shoes, to which he cavalierly responds, “You run in them,” and promises to get me someone else to help.

The second “Authority” who approaches is more familiar with the merchandise. He also recommends the Nike Air Max shoes because of their cushioning, but mentions the store doesn’t have the top-end model. He searches the stacks of boxes for some other selections, pointing out some of the salient features in each brand, but can’t seem to find what I need. Finally, he recommends I try going to a Lady Foot Locker to test out the Air Max 2.

I take his advice, and leave without a purchase.

Freshly armed with my wallet, I leave my apartment and walk over to a nearby Athlete’s Foot store, where I am greeted by a few different sales personnel. Although the store does not have a wide selection of running shoes, they are merchandised together in one column, with a relatively deep assortment of brands.

THE ATHLETE’S FOOT

Service                            A

Selection                          B

Presentation                       B

Product Knowledge                  A

A salesperson volunteers his assistance, and begins by measuring my feet to make sure the size I’ve given him is right. He then offers to bring out a few different types of shoes for me to try out. He also warms my heart by explaining that more expensive doesn’t always mean better, and that if I find a lower-priced shoe that feels comfortable, that’s just as well.

A few minutes later, he returns, laden down with a half dozen pair of shoes for me to try out, explaining the benefits and features of each. Together, we narrow down the choices to the Saucony Shadow 6000, which he explains is an updated version of the Shadow 5000 with improved cushioning and firm stability, and once again, the Nike Triax.

He also extols the virtue of the Nike Air Max 2, but apologizes that the store does not have my size in stock. At this point, the elusive Air Max 2 has become something of a quest, and I am determined to at least try it on before I buy. Sweetened by the store’s service, I promise to return if I go with another model.

SUPER RUNNER’S SHOP

Service                            A

Selection                          A

Presentation                       D

Product Knowledge                  A

Finally, I walk into the door of Super Runner’s Shop, which is something of a nirvana for runners in the area. The small, intimate store features a wide range of styles, but packs them all together in one small merchandising column. Stacked on top of each other are rows of running shoes, but it takes a few moments to determine which are the women’s shoes.

Quickly enough, I am rescued by a sales assistant who, hearing my story, promptly pulls the Air Max 2 Light – an even newer version of the Air Max 2 – from the wall. He declares it perfect for my needs, and once I try it on, I am apt to agree.

Still, I ask for some more choices, and am given a couple of other pairs to try out. I’m even encouraged to take the shoe for a spin around the block, a fairly trusting offer considering the reputation of New York.

We chat some more about running in the city, and about how to train for long distance goals like the marathon. I like the club feeling of the store, and the way the Air Max Light – which still run a hefty $130 – feel on my feet. Declaring my day a success, I pay for the shoes, and head out for an evening run, depositing my old sneakers in the nearest trash bin.