Monthly Archives: August 2017

More equal than others: the quality of player’s bat often is relative to his place on baseball’s totem pole–the higher, the better

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The next time you see a big-league hitter at the plate, check out his bat. Is it black, which, when used at night, makes it more difficult for outfielders to read the swing?

Is it made of maple, the timber made trendy by Barry Bonds?

Is it 34 inches, 31 ounces, the most common size used by major leaguers?

Does any of this matter? Well, only about as much as a violin matters to a violinist.

Hitters like to say, “It’s not the arrow, it’s the Indian.” They may even believe it. But in a business where failing 70 percent of the time is considered successful, hitters crave every edge they can get. Most are on a never-ending quest for the perfect arrow, a quest that comes with a special set of secrets and superstitions.

The worst-kept secret about big-league bats: They’re not all created equal.

One of the first perks that comes with reaching the majors is being able to order your own bats. This means more than seeing your name burned on the barrel. You choose the length, weight, diameter of the barrel, diameter of the handle, color and company.

But rookies beware: Don’t think for a second that first shipment–12 bats to a box, $40 to $65 each, paid for by the team–will be anything like the bats delivered to Nomar Garciaparra. There are rules to follow when it comes to getting good wood. Rule No. 1: Star players are treated like stars.

“We have a priority list of players”, says Chuck Schupp, the head of the pro bat division for Hillerich & Bradsby, which makes Louisville Slugger models. A lot of it is based on personal relationships. If someone is loyal to us, we’ll take care of them. If I turn on the TV and see a guy who has signed with us using three different (manufacturers’) bats in a game, he’s not going to get the priority of someone who uses our bat 100 percent of the time.”

Sometimes loyalty isn’t enough. “I get bad wood, and I know Chuck Schupp. I thought he liked me,” says Carlos Pena, the Tigers’ second-year first baseman, who is hitting .232 with his Louisville Slugger. Not knowing how much Schupp values loyalty, Pena says, “I’m changing bats all the time, looking for that lucky bat.

“It’s all about status. If you hit well with bad wood for a couple of years, they’ll start to take care of you.”

Not coincidentally, Schupp’s Louisville Slugger “A” list includes many of the game’s top hitters, among them Garciaparra, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi, Carlos Delgado and Ken Griffey Jr.

Easton also gives priority to some of the game’s finest hitters, a list that includes Eric Chavez, Bobby Abreu, Sammy Sosa and Luis Castillo.

Angels shortstop David Eckstein is a loyal consumer of Louisville Sluggers but maintains it doesn’t help him get the good wood. “Look at Nomar. What’s he use, three hot softball bats for a whole year?” Eckstein says. “I don’t get that kind of wood. Most guys don’t. Give me a bat that would last like that, and I wouldn’t have to worry.”

Told of Eckstein’s beef, Schupp chuckles and offers a logical explanation. He points out that Eckstein prefers a big barrel, and Garciaparra is a smaller-barrel guy. “The wood is going to be better in a small barrel,” Schupp says. “It’s not a Nomar/David thing; it’s a nature thing.”

Even the stars sometimes go the extra mile to ensure their spot on Schupp’s “A” list. A-Rod visited the plant in Louisville where his bats are made, a trip that Schupp wishes all his clients would make. It was worth it, says Rodriguez. “I think that once you do that it makes a huge difference in putting a face to a name. It really helps with the wood they send you. I’m really lucky. Chuck takes good care of me. He gives me the best wood I’ve ever seen.”

There is another way to ensure good wood: Make the postseason. Bat makers ship out new orders before the playoffs and World Series, complete with post-season logo and dates. Eckstein certainly noted a difference when the Angels reached the World Series.

“It was funny. In my first at-bat, I hit a line drive that I thought was a sure base bit, and it carried all the way to (Barry) Bonds in left field,” Eckstein says. “I went up to the Louisville guy and said, ‘See, you get me the good wood, and now I’m making outs. Those little bloopers aren’t falling.'”

If you think Eckstein is hard to please, consider the pickiness of Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. He stores his bats in a case to keep moisture from reaching them. Suzuki’s bats are custom made by Mizuno master bat maker Isokazu Kubota. Mizuno makes bats for 180 major leaguers, including Mike Piazza, Troy Glaus and Hideki Matsui. “It’s a sense of feeling,” Suzuki says. “Because of the thin handles I prefer, to keep the bat in balance I need a better quality of wood. When I can see the ball stay on the bat just a little longer, I know it’s a good bat.”

When Ichiro’s teammate Edgar Martinez gets a new box of bats, Martinez immediately pulls out his high-tech scales and weighs every one, recording the weight to a tenth of an ounce. Martinez has been known to drive bat makers batty by ordering a 31.2-ounce bat. Schupp says that’s not easy; it’s tough enough to make a bat to half-ounce specs.

But who can argue with success? Martinez, a .317 career hitter, keeps three 30- to 32-ounce bats in his rotation and decides which one to use based on who’s pitching, the time of year and how he’s feeling. The faster the pitcher, the lighter the bat. If he’s facing a power pitcher in the late innings of a late-season game, he turns to the lightest bat he has, even if it’s just a tenth of an ounce lighter.

Schupp, however, is used to the demands of the hitters. He is like the good-natured sales clerk at the return desk. He deals with all 220-plus big-leaguers he says use Louisville Sluggers. If something isn’t right with a shipment, Schupp is likely to have a message on his bat hotline. For several years, players have been going toward bigger barrels with smaller handles, which are easier to break and more difficult to make. “We try to do what the customer wants, but they’re getting harder to make the way they want them. They get so finite in their orders,” Schupp says.

At least he knows a hitter’s bat will be taken care of. When Schupp says, “Yes, we make bats for pitchers,” he sounds like a grill master who has to cook for a vegetarian. It has to be done, even if the effort mostly will go to waste. But pitchers actually get good wood. Because they favor smaller barrels, their bats are made from a heavier billet–the cylindrical piece of wood from which a bat is shaped. The heavier the wood, the better the bat. No wonder there are so many stories of slumping position players finding a few hits after borrowing a pitcher’s bat.

Hitters want good wood for more than adding distance. Eckstein, for one, is more concerned with the durability of his bat. He says his bats frequently start flecking and chipping after one or two batting practice sessions, and usually he’s looking for a new game bat every two weeks. Even though he has been approached by other bat makers, he sticks with Louisville Sluggers. “Louisville has so many players, and there’s such high demand, it’s not really important to them to make a quality bat,” Eckstein says. “But at the end of the story, I’ll still end up using Louisville just because I’ve always used them, and I hate change.”

So check out Eckstein the next time he bats. He should be waving a Louisville Slugger CS43, the quality of which only Eckstein knows for sure.

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Market strategy shifts work for 3 big chains

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Retailers today must cater to customers who are skeptical, self-indulgent and quality-conscious. They must compete in a market consumed by “markdown madness,” and whose demographics have forced them into a “no growth” position.

But even faced with a poor economy and a footwear market with a 200 million pair glut, some retailers are reporting double-digit increases. Executives of three successful companies — Kinney Shoe Corp., Shoe Town, and Wal-Mart — spoke at the recent National Shoe Retailers Association board meeting here.

All three credited their success to modifying their marketing strategies, based on the changing needs to their customers, and to emphasizing value, not just price.

Cameron Anderson, president of Kinney, a subsidiary of F.W. Woolworth, said that, by setting market strategies, Kinney had been able to raise its volume from $800 million in 1978 to nearly $1.5 billion in 1984, and to open 351 new units in the U.S., Canada and Australia last year, close to the combined total opened by four of its retail competitors — U.S. Shoe, Brown Shoe, Melville and Edison Bros.

Kinney had a total of 3,283 units at the end of 1984, and Anderson said it was “probably the second largest shoe company in the free world, behind Bata.”

Kinney’s success has come from developing specific niches for itself, and not trying to be all things to all people, according to Anderson Kinney uses an independent company to conduct exit studies in competing footwear stores throughout the country, ranging from independents to chains such as Thom McAn, and to determine certain price levels that should be met.

The company’s primary market strategy, since the mid-’60s, has been to open in every major shopping center in the U.S. and Australia. It is now represented in more than 1,200 malls, and intends to enter the rest. Kinney’s original game plan had aimed at downtown locations, “but the rules of the industry have changed. If you’re going to grow, you have to eat someone else’s lunch.”

Kinney has done just that, going up against what Anderson described as five general categories of footwear retailers: discount, such as Meldisco; self-service, such as Shoe Town or Morse; full-service, moderate price, such as Kinney, Edison or Scoa; shoe manufacturers, such as Brown or U.S. Shoe; and independents, “our toughest competitors because of the personalized nature.”

To compete, Kinney operates eight different types of stores. The main thrust is Kinney’s family shoe stores. The 1,537 stores in the U.S., 200 in Canada and 126 in Australia reported volume last year in excess of $700 million. According to Anderson, these full-service, moderate price stores, whose primary growth is in shopping centers, “are a strong and vital element of retailing that will continue. We see no diminishment.”

Kinney’s retail entry into athletic footwear began with four Foot Lockers in 1974, and now includes 861 Foot Lockers and Lady Foot Lockers, 90 of which opened last year, and 90 Athletic Shoe Factory outlets. The Foot Lockers, which carry 75 per cent footwear and 25 per cent apparel, run about 2,200 square feet, slightly smaller than Kinney stores.

The Athletic Shoe Factory chain, purchased last June, offers promotionally priced athletic branded footwear and apparel, primarily in strip center stores. “We think this segment will be here for some time,” Anderson said. As for athletics in general, Anderson said, “We see it leveling off, but not this year.”

Frugal Frank is Kinney’s off-price mall outlet vehicle, and Fredelle its entry into the women’s high fashion market, aimed at the working woman. But despite having just over 100 Fredelle stores in Canada and about 30 in the U.S., with plans to open 40-50 more, Anderson conceded Kinney has not expanded the two categories “as much as we’d want to. We can only do so much.”

Kinney’s other market strategies in the U.S. are represented by its 73 Gemco leased departments in the Lucky stores in California and its 250 Susie’s Casuals ready-to-wear stores, whose volume increased 16 per cent on a comparable store basis last year, and which are Kinney’s only nonfootwear operation.

Kinney’s market strategies apply to its position as a resource as well as a retailer. Anderson said that the company remains heavily dependent upon brands although it is developing its own. He said Kinney is the fifth largest producer of recommended shoes for plantar fasciitis, with a capacity of 12 million pairs a year, and consequently does not even come close to the 71 per cent import penetration rate felt by the industry in general. Nor does Kinney intend to desert its American manufacturing, although Anderson said he is finding “American manufacturers have to be more attuned to fashion, value, fit and quality than ever before.”

Anderson maintained that “a free market is absolutely essential for our industry, but I wish the domestics would worry as much about fashion and styling as national affairs.” He told the independent retailers in attendance that he dislikes quotas, “which only help foreign competitors. I am convinced that the four years of orderly marketing agreements damaged the competitive posture of the U.S.”

Although Kinney imports merchandise “only if it provides fashion and styling, not just price,” Kinney is expanding its overseas buying offices in an attempt to bypass commissioned agents “and give us more exclusivity and profits.”

However, Kinney’s expansion is tied into its retail stores, and the giant is facing a problem in that only 20-25 centers are expected to be built this year in the size Kinney needs. To combat that problem, Kinney has orchestrated a tremendous amount of downsizing and shifting in mall locations, according to Anderson, with any of its stores able to fit into 1,200-1,700 square feet, although he prefers 2,500-2,600 for the Kinney family stores. Seventy-two of the Kinney stores that opened last year did so in “recycled space.” Another concern is that rents and common area charges are exploding, and, Anderson believes, uncontrollable.

The high cost of regional mall rentals has kept Shoe Town out of them George Kaye, chairman and chief executive officer of the 192-unit chain, whose volume is approaching $140 million, said ShoeTown opts instead for locations in freestanding real estate on major highways, open malls and strip centers.

The chain’s units have gone from an average 6,300 square feet 10 years ago to 4,300 now. Although some are as small as 2,700 square feet, Kaye prefers a minimum 3,500 square foot size.

Shoe Town offers its own licensed brand along with better-grade shoes (with an average selling price over $35), discounted 20-60 per cent and sometimes two to three seasons old. Consequently, Kaye said, “We need a conservative customer not looking for the newest style.”

Shoe Town originated the concept of women’s self-service, off-price branded merchandise at a time when its executives thought consumers were being “turned off by disinterested or pushy sales people.” At the same time, however, the executives thought men customers wanted service and children needed service. Consequently, different concepts existed side by side in the same stores.

HoweeR, Kaye said, “Recently we have found children’s very difficult for us. The quality has suffered.” As a result, children’s departments have been eliminated in all new and remodeled stores, and the men’s departments have been converted from fitted to self-service.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, Shoe Town is, at the same time, realizing that its women customers want more service. According to Kaye, by attempting to fill this need, Shoe Town now has as its major competitor not other self-service popular price and discount retailers, but, rather, successful independents.

The successful independent, said Kaye, “offers personalized service and knows how to sell shoes. An owner-operator has an interest in selling walking shoes for bunions that we’re trying to develop in store managers.”

Kaye sees several problems currently facing the industry. One is the glut of shoes. “In one way it’s a benefit, because it’s easy for Shoe Town to buy shoes, but it’s causing problems because of the high levels of promotion by the department stores. It’s not just at the end of the season, and it’s causing problems for all of us, as well as them. Their margins are getting hurt, and I don’t know how long they can continue to do this.”

Kaye said department stores might opt for getting away from brands and into private label as one strategy under which the customer cannot compare merchandise.

Another factor of concern is the proliferation of one-price ($13.88) stores started by Shoe World and “imitated widely and successfully.” By getting leather upper shoes in the Orient and Brazil, these retailers “are able to offer real value,” and Kaye said he sees a certain percentage of retail customers being drawn away by such innovative marketers as these.

For the future, Kaye said that “in five years all of these types of operations should still be around, but there will be a falling out of the poor operators — a lot of the $13.88 stores and a lot of independents.

“Unfortunately, the chains have grown at the expense of independents who have not known their niche or utilized modern methods of selling or knowing the trends.”

Kaye also expects to see new types of retailing. “It’s hard to know what they’ll be, but if we don’t stay in front and innovate and change with the times, we won’t be in business in five years.”

Bill Hutcheson is corporate vice-president of Wal-Mart, in charge of high arch walking shoes for the 750-unit giant. For Wal-Mart, whose projected sales for the fiscal year are $6.4 billion, the formula for success is simply stated. “It all boils down to communication,” said Hutcheson. “We have great people and we work at it.”

Hutcheson said that all footwear retailers “are vulnerable to just one thing — the customer wants and offer just price without value, we will not survive.”

Hutcheson told the audience of independent retailers that “the customer perceives us as she feels, not as we really are, and we must be ready to respond. If she’s dissatisfied because someone in your store didn’t treat her right, you’ll lose her as a customer. You have to learn to say things like ‘I’m sorry.'”

Although he wants to see a viable domestic industry, Hutcheson said, “We don’t need quotas. It was reported in the press that customers have paid $15.7 billion extra for cars because of Japan’s ‘voluntary’ quotas. Let’s keep Government out of business.”

Rather than depending on Government controls. Hutcheson would like to see the domestics become viable by creating more excitement. He cited Don Munro, chairman of Munro Shoe, with five factories in Arkansas, who is offering a new contour shoe. “There’s nothing new about the shoe, but it is a new marketing concept,” said Hutcheson.

In a similar vein, he sees a need for innovative, entrepreneurial service at the retail level. “We need to improve the service in stores. It could be as simple as not having old or dusty shoes. We must have superior service, not just adequate.”

During the question-and-answer period, it became evident that, while there was much that the independents could learn from the volume operators, they could not pattern their operations completely after those of their larger peers.

For example, Anderson, when asked how often he updates his stores, explained that a corporate computer program contains input on how much volume is generated during normal carpet wear, and when volume approaches that figure, the computer signals that the carpet should be replaced. (The stores are also updated when management deems it necessary and when leases are renewed.)

The other two executives base their decisions to update on judgments to which the independent retailers could more readily relate. Shoe Town relies partially on field supervisors’ “eyeballing,” and, in addition, plans major renovations every six to seven years.

Wal-Mart remodels after a store has been open four years.

Asked about training, Anderson replied that Kinney has an extensive training program and promotes entirely from within, except for specialized areas at the corporate level.

Kaye said Shoe Town is emphasizing training as it repositions itself in terms of service to customers. “We’re training sales people to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and to use suggestive selling for accessories, hosiery and shoe polish.”

The area of accessories can be an important one. Anderson said hosiery, handbags and findings represent about 12-13 per cent of total sales. “It’s a very profitable element, but I think other areas are more important. We have to remember what we’re there for.”

Finally, asked about how they could help domestic manufacturers, Hutcheson replied that “the days of haggling and working separately are gone. We have to form a partnership.”

Kaye said he “would like nothing more than to work with domestics. They have better delivery and response, but the foreign countries have come in not just on price, but by staying current with fashion and equipment. We have to serve the consumer with the best product we can.”

Kaye said that the four years of quotas “killed American manufacturing in ways no one expected. Taiwan and Korea made $8 first cost shoes instead of $2, and began competing with the domestic manufacturers. As a result, consumers got hurt, and the lower economic groups, who could least afford it, got hurt the worst.”

Anderson replied that part of the plight of the domestics was based on their ignoring athletic footwear, which now represents as much as 30 per cent of the market. “Some manufacturers have to be taken to task for not doing their homework,” he said. “They have to further exploit that area of production and marketing.”

Anderson said, however, that “management’s pressure on buyers to come in with certain purchase markup has isolated the decision from concern for the viability of the domestic market.”

He said that one way in which independent retailers might help domestic resources would be to work with them on private label, an area in which they can offer an innovative product.

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