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August 2006

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The secret of their success

During the past 50 years independent stores have opened and closed in Klerksdorp, sport and discount chains opened and the once flourishing mining town have hit hard times. Yet, after 50 years 20 to 30 people an hour still come and buy their sporting goods from this high street store. Why?

  • Service is everything for the Fontaines. The secret of retail success is offering good products and service — not to sell on price, says Des Fontaine. "You need to know what you are talking about. Service means offering value for money."

  • They make sure that they carry specialised equipment for which there is a specific demand — they stopped stocking fishing equipment, for instance, because they could not compete against Game and Midas when they opened stores in town.

  • They can sell specialised equipment with insight and technical knowledge that the chain stores can not match. Fontaine can, for instance, advise a Grade 8 pupil that his rugby coach would prefer him not to buy a pair of boots with screw-in studs.

  • They offer add-ons like a knocking-in service for bats and a racket stringing service … although they draw the line at stringing rackets bought at other stores.

  • "It is important to carry enough stock and have available what your customers ask for," adds Des. Their multi-storey storeroom is an amazing treasure-trove for sport historians.

  • They are far from suppliers, and therefore have to ensure that they order stock well in advance. "Experience teaches you to look at an article and to know immediately if this is for you. You learn to know what works," says Des Fontaine.

  • Des Fontaine Sports: Enduring values

    Des Fontaine opened his Klerksdorp sport store 51 years ago with ten of the most illustrious tennis players of the time in attendance, including rivals for the top spot Pancho Gonzales and Ken Rosewall. Since then, he has seen many sport stores open and close in this North West mining town — but Des Fontaine Sport remains packed with youngsters and their parents buying sporting equipment. Many drive from neighbouring towns to shop there

    That, despite defying many of the rules for running a modern day store: they are not situated in a mall, the store layout is more ‘50s retro than 21st century modernism and Des relies on memory rather than a sophisticated computer system to keep track of stock.

    "If you’ve paid for something, you remember where you put it," he says, whilst taking an item form the shelves with unerring accuracy. Bruce, who now runs the store, does make use of a computer.

    During WW II Fontaine had been a telegraphist and radio communicator, stationed in De Aar, keeping the lines between Windhoek and the Cape open. After the war he spent two years on the road for a clothing company, but when his tennis partners, the Hamill brothers, opened a sport store, he did not think twice switching jobs for a princely sum of £50 per month.

    When the building where his current store is located was built in 1955, the then owner asked Fontaine if he wanted to open a sport store in the complex … an offer which he accepted. He now owns the building.

    In those days his monthly rent was £80 and on a good day sales amounted to £100 he remembers. Rackets were strung by hand.

    But he found time to fish, play tennis and badminton – aged 82, with a bad knee and after a triple by-pass operation, he regretfully can no longer participate. Bruce played club hockey and soccer, but now love canoeing and long distance running. He has done the Dusi 4 times, the Midmar Mile 10 times, ran the Comrades and cycled the Argus. He also enjoys sailing on the dam in Potchefstroom.

    Bruce has been with the store since 1987 … he worked there while at school, then obtained an accounting degree at Potchefstroom University and did his compulsory army training, before joining the family business.

    While many independent retailers have shrunk, they expanded floor space. There is a shooting range next door where they send people for competency testing. Sales of ammunition, air rifles hunting knives and adventure equipment are good, but they do not put out firearms any more.

    "We also stay away from clothing," says Bruce, "we are a sport shop, we don’t cater for fashion."

    There is, however, a big demand for specific sport and technical shoes, and they know exactly what the local teachers prefer their pupils to wear at which stage of their playing careers. They therefore make sure they have the models and brands the youngsters ask for.

    It has always been so, as the late 50s Jackie McGlew cricket boot, or Eddie Barlow boots, in the store room can attest. "My father does not believe in throwing anything away," says Bruce with a wry smile.

    The front store space is limited so that customers mostly ask for certain items that the staff fetch from the store room, giving them the opportunity to advise customers about the product best suited to their needs. They carry stock for a very wide variety of activities: cricket, soccer, golf, rugby, tennis, squash, snooker, hiking, diving, hunting and anything their customers might need.

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