As companies look to court more Gen Z customers and pursue a direct-to-consumer strategy, many are also opening up retail stores to fully bring their brand experience to life. For example, Amazon plans to open a clothing store called Amazon Style in Glendale, California this year. And Glossier bet big on experiential retail adding two physical stores in 2021. Chicago-based Wilson Sporting Goods Co., is no exception. Just a few months after the company revealed plans for a DTC approach, it has already opened up two retail stores, with more on the way.
As the world’s leading manufacturer of high-performance sports equipment, apparel, footwear, and accessories, Wilson brings more than a century of innovation, history and heritage to sports. Of all the company’s products, it was the sale of golf equipment that first catapulted Wilson Sporting Goods into a place of prominence within the sports industry. Today the company has lines of equipment and apparel, and is extended into verticals from racquet sports to football, basketball, volleyball, soccer, and beyond.
When we think about retail for sports – and more specifically basketball – stores such as Nike and Dicks’ Sporting Goods spring to mind. As just one example of a modern experience, Nike Soho — a five-story, multi-sport, 55,000-square-foot retail space in New York City, has made its mark as a place to both play and purchase.
The Nike store was designed to provide a seamless personalized experience, using tons of digital technology to bring it to life. To that end, it features a basketball half-court, a soccer trial area with synthetic turf, a treadmill in front of a jumbotron that simulates outdoor runs, a customization shoe bar where shoppers can fully personalize a pair of Nike Air Force 1s, touchscreens throughout, and an easy Nike app checkout.
Furthermore, the in-store tech is designed for customers to be able to see and learn from their sporting performances. For example, around the basketball court, cameras are set up to record the action from multiple angles, and the hoop is equipped with Kinect sensors that capture body movements and display them on the massive screen in front of players. With Nike’s unique model having set the standard, Wilson is following in big footsteps.
So today, we explore the unique ways Wilson has customized their physical locations, incorporating their heritage, as they look to reimagine the future and make their mark on the wearable goods category. Have they created a new hoopers’ paradise? First, we’ll take a quick walk down memory lane with some Wilson Sporting Goods history to set the stage.
Wilson Sporting Goods started in 1913 as the Ashland Manufacturing Company, with the unsexy – but resourceful – goal of using the byproducts of a nearby meat-packing firm. By the following year, the company was producing tennis racket strings and violin strings, and had even expanded into baseball shoes and tennis racquets. A year later, Thomas E. Wilson was appointed as president and pivoted the company’s focus entirely to manufacturing sporting equipment.
The company quickly got into baseball and football, acquiring Chicago Sporting Goods Company, a manufacturer of baseball uniforms, and hiring Arch Turner, a leather craftsmen who’s innovative designs for the football went on to have a huge influence on the development of the game.
In 1922, Wilson established its first advisory staff of athletes – a method the company still employs today. The famous golfer Gene Sarazen was its first member. Though the football coach of Notre Dame, Knute Rockne, proved to be the most influential, helping to develop a new double-lined leather football, and the first football that was valve inflated, fueling the modern passing game in college football.
The company next turned its attention to golf, and remarkably prospered even through the worst years of the Great Depression. In 1932, Wilson developed the R-90, a sand wedge golf club inspired by Gene Sarazen’s victory in the 1932 British Open, selling over 50,000 that year alone. In 1937, Wilson brought on Sam Sneed as a member of the advisory committee, and later achieved a major innovation for bonding wood in golf clubs for superior performance.
Domination in tennis was up next. And in the 1930s, Jack Kramer joined the company’s advisory board, collaborating with Wilson to design new tennis equipment. More than 10 million autographed Jack Kramer tennis racquets went on to be sold. And Wilson’s rise continued from there.
Decades later, during the 1970s, the company made its first worldwide impact after being chosen as the official basketball of the National Basketball Association; the official football of the National Football League; providing almost all of the uniforms for teams in Major League Baseball; and outfitting the United States Summer Olympic team with all of its official uniforms and clothing. In terms of their impact in the basketball category, Michael Jordan, continued to promote his own line of Wilson signature basketballs, selling over one million annually for nearly 14 consecutive years.
But after being acquired by PepsiCo and then by WSGC Holdings, Inc, in the late 1990s, the company had some rocky years. Since then, it has been mounting a decade long turnaround push, reinvesting in heavily research and development. Today, Wilson is best known by modern consumers for its tennis, volleyball, and golf products. With that in mind, let’s explore how they’ve reimagined their new retail environments.
Recently Wilson Sporting Goods opened its first flagship store in New York City, located in the heart of SoHo (sound familiar?). The grand opening celebration featured local NYC athletes and advisors such as pro basketball trainer Chris Brickley, WNBA guard Betnijah Laney, NFL quarterback Mike White, MLB infielder Andrew Velazquez, and musician Kelley James.
The 6,400 square foot retail space reimagines the traditional sports store offering tons of sports products across Wilson’s portfolio, and provides opportunities for play as well. One of the most unique features is the Thomas E. Wilson Park. Named after Wilson’s founder, the unique indoor atrium space features a graffiti mural by local NYC artist, Greg Lamarche, and can be transformed to provide a way for customers to hit tennis balls, demo clubs, play catch, shoot hoops, and test out any product the store has to offer (such as women’s basketballs).
“We are excited to introduce our premium brand direct retail model providing an immersive Wilson experience through innovative products, constant inspiration to play, and sport-specific staff expertise,” said Gordon Devin, President of Wilson Sportswear. “New York is a priority market for Wilson as we continue to expand our retail footprint globally.”
The flagship location offers a curated assortment of equipment across a variety of sport categories including the official basketballs of the NBA and WNBA. It also presents Wilson’s athletic-lifestyle sportswear collection, available for both men and women. And provides in-store personalization services such as a full-time racket stringing maestro, leather ball customization.
Now that it’s open, you can stop by the Wilson NYC Flagship located at 594 Broadway anytime from 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. on Sunday. To catch upcoming events and product drops, check out Wilson on social.
The news of the NYC flagship comes on the heels of another Wilson store – the first of its kind – opening last year in July.
Wilson brought its first brick-and-mortar store – a stunning 2,247 square-foot space – to its hometown of Chicago in the summer of 2021, merging its history and its future seamlessly. Located at 932 N. Rush Street in Chicago’s glitzy Gold Coast neighborhood, the Wilson store is predominantly a way to showcase the company’s recently released sportswear line (May 2021) – a lifestyle-slash-activewear collection.
“Following the launch of our Wilson Sportswear line earlier this summer, it was important that we introduce physical retail locations so that our athletes can experience and interact with our sports equipment and apparel in person,” said Gordon Devin, President of Wilson Sportswear. “Our first-ever retail location centers around Wilson’s heritage, serving as a physical ‘love letter’ to our city.”
Wilson’s history in Chicago is featured throughout the interior decor of the Wilson Heritage Store, giving it a museum-like quality. For example, fitting rooms are papered in catalog images and retro ad campaigns, and leather ottomans bear the same W’s that adorn the brand’s classic footballs.
The Chicago store opened with limited-edition products, such as a Chicago-inspired colorway of the Wilson A2000 baseball glove. And additional exclusives are set to drop seasonally – aligning with key sports moments. For the opening celebration, Wilson brought in many of the athletes and influencers who helped develop the line as part of the advisory board, including former tennis pro Wkwesi Williams, reports The Manual – a consistent ingredient to their retail formula thus far.
Prior to its NYC flagship, the brand also opened up an NYC pop-up store in August 2021 – basically serving as a test lab for its later retail footprints. The Grand Opening was attended by legendary tennis star Billie Jean King, and other notable members of the NYC tennis community. And the museum’s first exhibit, “LOVE ALL: A Wilson Tennis Experience” landed during the lead-up to the 2021 US Open.
The six-week pop-up experience paid homage to Wilson’s long-standing history in the sport of tennis. Fans were able to learn more at the History & Culture Wall, play in the Official Ball Room, check out game-changing technology in the Gallery, connect with fellow athletes in the Skybox, design and create their own racket in the Customization Experience, and shop Wilson’s latest tennis equipment and all-new sportswear in the store, reports RaquetMag.
“We created this experience as an opportunity, specifically around the time of the US Open, to share how tennis is breaking down [its exclusionary] stereotypes, how we are participating in that — whether it be through the story of the first interracial tennis match to Billie Jean’s personal endeavors. When you think about tennis, it was the first sport that had equal pay between males and females,” Wilson sportswear president Gordon Devin told FN.
The pop-up also offered the chance to shop Wilson Sportswear, including its latest tennis-inspired apparel collection for men and women. And highlighted Wilson’s collaboration with Kith, which included the Kith x Wilson Pro Staff 97 tennis racket.
Visitors were also treated to interactive elements, including a “racket maestro” offering racket customization and stringing, apparel personalization, and an Instagram-worthy tennis ball room that featured an immersive art installation.
With the learnings from its first few retail locations secured, Wilson will continue its direct-to-consumer expansion opening stores in Los Angeles, Beijing, and Shanghai in the coming year.
“When it comes to footwear and soft goods in general, we are tiny in comparison to the major players and it is our major focus moving forward,” said Gordon Devin. “That is the transformation that you will see Wilson taking. You will see us go from the brand that everybody uses, to the brand that you wear as well.”
But will Wilson be the brand that everybody loves? “The pandemic has changed the mandate for retail, and it’s not as simple as creating ‘Instagramable’ spaces — it’s about building experiences that make people feel things, foster community and connection, and that live in harmony with the digital world,” said Kristy Maynes, Glossier’s SVP of retail. In that light, outdoor spaces and integrated community building components could be the keys to the successful retail locations of the future. Wilson now has the opportunity to build on its new retail presence for lasting impact.
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Up next, learn more about the art of three-pointer basketball in the WNBA.