Ready for anything: how GO Outdoors keeps its footing

By: Chris Matthews | Date: 21-07-2015

Tagged as: ArticleGameplanStrategy


From staycation campers to health-conscious cycling commuters, from runners inspired by their sporting heroes to skiers heading to the slopes, opportunities abound in the leisure retail industry. The challenge, says Chris Matthews, CEO of GO Outdoors, is tracking and reacting to trends that can change with the weather

Chris Matthews

Chris Matthews is the CEO of GO Outdoors, a leading retailer of outdoor equipment and clothing. First launched in 1969 in Sheffield, GO Outdoors now holds a portfolio of more than 50 stores across the UK.

Chris Matthews

G004.977 Gameplan Infographic Go Outdoors Lloyds v2

We've built our day-to-day business model to be as agile as possible. In its simplest terms, when our customers are inspired to take part in an outdoor activity we need to be ready to help them do it. The greatest risk to our success is that we are not reactive to their needs.

As might be expected of a company with 'outdoors' in its name, weather is one of the biggest variables in our business. In fact we have designed the company around the inherent volatility of the British climate. We have to be ready for anything!

Inspiring occasions create opportunity

Being agile means keeping a finger on the pulse of changing public trends. For us, that includes monitoring enthusiasm for outdoor activities, which has definitely been fuelled by major events like the London 2012 Olympics and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

For example, we are already a market leader for camping and hiking goods, but to react to market opportunities we've recently expanded into cycling and fishing equipment, a decision informed by staying close to our customers and keeping a close eye on trends. Take cycling: during the recession, more bikes were sold in the UK than cars1 – and the Olympics and Tour de France certainly play a role in its enduring popularity. It's vital that we make the most of growth opportunities like this.

A healthy outlook

The sector also continues to be boosted by an increasingly health-conscious society looking for fun, positive ways to improve their overall fitness. There are trends to be monitored within that broader movement too. Looking at the workplace, for example, I believe that health and wellbeing will become as important to businesses in the future as ethical behaviour and environmental impact are right now.

Demand for more opportunities to promote health will come from employees seeking lifestyle benefits from progressive employers. But companies also have an interest in promoting a healthier and therefore more productive workforce. There's an obvious link between outdoors activity and good health, and we're well placed to capitalise on that demand.

Ready to react

The trick is to ensure your business remains well placed, and able to react quickly when necessary. However, growth brings its own risks – scale is a process that has to be managed carefully. As GO Outdoors has grown, we've developed new IT, logistics, supply chain and data infrastructure to mitigate the risk of being unable to meet increased customer demand. We also launched our own-brand line of goods to let us ship goods out faster in line with that demand.

As a retailer, we have also invested in ensuring we are flexible to the way our customers want to shop. For example, a new platform means customers can order as late as 8pm for next-day delivery and we're also upgrading all our tills to be much faster and more customer-friendly.

Our staffing model is also built around agility and scalability. We invest in taking on staff when customers need us to – for example on weekends – and using flexible contracts. You have to match your business model to your customer, rather than the other way round. That simple principle is often overlooked.

Agility from shop floor to Board

Investing in our own agility has allowed us to respond quickly to the peaks and troughs in customer demand that any retailer knows to expect. But more formal, structured risk management processes are also crucial over the longer term.

"Health and wellbeing will become as important to businesses in the future as ethical behaviour and environmental impact are right now."

We have an annual review with the Board that is focused on the bigger picture, and to keep pace with the rapidly changing nature of risk in our business we also have monthly risk management meetings, where key executives discuss our current challenges. That might range from how the weather is affecting outdoor activities at home and abroad, to competitor activity. All of this means we are less susceptible to impact from the wider risk landscape and can quickly react as the risks inevitably change over time.

Finding a balance

For me, the real risk facing companies in the leisure market is finding the right recipe for growth without losing what makes you special to your customers. It's a competitive market and you do need to be nimble, but you also need to be considered in your choices. Build your business in the right direction and you'll take your customers with you as you grow.

At GO Outdoors we have the capability to react quickly but we are still cautious and patient in our strategic decision-making when we need to be. For example, we've just opened our first store in Liverpool and took five years to find a location that was absolutely right for us.

So what is the recipe for success in a challenging market? To conclude, I think there are five points to bear in mind:

  • Know what makes your business special and be true to it
  • Make your customer focus absolutely relentless
  • Tune into risk and be agile enough to respond
  • Have the courage to do the right thing by your brand, whether that means radical action or a more cautious approach
  • Get a great team on board and give them the space to do what they do best.

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