Sports South is Standing Tall Despite Industry Upheaval

How can you be certain if your distributor is on solid ground?

Sports South Fulfillment Center
Sports South uses a state-of-the-art fulfillment system to quickly fill customers' ordersRobert F. Staeger

To run a successful business, you need dependable partners. That’s true of everyone you work with—not just co-owners and store managers, but also the people who supply what you need to operate your business and make your sales.

“In order to sell in any industry, you’ve got four economic utilities,” explains Tripper Dickson, CEO of Louisiana-based shooting-sports distributor Sports South. “You’ve got product, price, time, and place. The manufacturer controls the product and price, and the wholesaler’s there for the time and place. That’s our core competency. It doesn’t matter if it’s the coolest product in the world at the best price available—when that consumer wants to make a transaction, if it’s not there when it needs to be, you don’t have a sale.”

When a distributor declares bankruptcy, or decides it’s time to close its doors for other reasons, it’s understandable that some retailers are nervously waiting for another shoe to drop.

So, how can you be certain your distributor is on solid ground?

There’s no magic formula, says Dickson; just focus on your long-term professional relationships, and be willing to ask questions. “You’ve got to know who you’re doing business with. We’re still a very relationship-driven industry.” The most obvious thing to look for is on the service level, says Dickson. “That’s probably the easiest barometer for this: How many out-of-stock reds are on that screen?” he says. “And if you’re seeing that trending one way or the other, then, yeah, I might ask some questions.

“You can’t hide the service level and the in-stock,” says Dickson. “Is this company putting their money where their mouth is?”

Of course, out-of-stock items might not be an issue with the distributor itself; the logjam might be further up the supply line. “The same goes for manufacturers,” says Dickson. “You’ve got to worry when you see them not building or not shipping.”

Often there’s a good explanation. “It’s certainly not some indicator that you better jump ship if a manufacturer’s service level goes to 40 percent of their catalog,” says Dickson. “But that might be the first indicator that would be worth a further conversation.”

It all comes back to the eternal question: Who am I doing business with?

“That’s where Sports South is demonstrating that, even in this environment, we’re still a house that has it,” says Dickson.

Dickson’s not just blowing smoke. Sports South warehouses all its stock in a central location in Shreve­port, Louisiana, and uses that economy of scale to make use of a state-of-the-art fulfillment system that keeps processing swift and accurate.

“Companies know that if they get an order in by 2 p.m. on Monday, my UPS guy will get it all the way out to Northern California on Thursday. We have to be able to deliver on that consistently,” he says.

“It takes a lot to get an order from the biggest pile of inventory in the marketplace accurately into a customer’s box, and have it be on its way a half-hour after somebody places the order,” says Dickson. “It requires a lot of automation and a lot of robotics. You can’t have college kids pushing a shopping cart around a warehouse.

“I think there’s this doom-and-gloom cloud hanging over everyone when people see folks that they’re used to doing business with faltering,” says Dickson, who emphasizes that there are still numerous reliable wholesalers in the marketplace, even after the recent spate of troubling insolvencies.

“A certain number of distributors are needed just to keep this table steady. Those legs are out there, and they’re under the table,” says Dickson. “And Sports South, I would argue, is an awfully big one. Even with the legs that are getting kicked out, it’s still a sturdy table.”