Play It Again appeals to budget-conscious shoppers

Sales are going through the roof at Play It Again Sports, a new, used and consignment sporting goods

Categories: Business

Don’t expect Dottie Vonk to sweat the tough economy at Play It Again Sports.

While other retailers are feeling the pinch of lower consumer confidence, the owner of the new, used and consignment sporting goods store on Route 7 is seeing her sales go through the roof. As market analysts were predicting doom and gloom on Wall Street, Vonk was seeing her October sales increase by nearly 22 percent.

And then came Veterans Day, a holiday when many winter sports fanatics stock up on their equipment needs. Vonk said this year’s sales dwarfed all the others in her 12 years running the franchise.

The local Play It Again did more than $1 million worth of sales in 2007 and is on pace to ring up about $1.5 million this year. The marked upward trend in the business prompted Vonk and her husband, Steve, to more than double the size of their space at Peter Harris Plaza.

The reason behind her booming business is simple: More athletes (and parents of athletes) are realizing the value of buying used sports equipment. A practice that was once relegated to penny pinchers has spread to a whole new demographic of cost-conscious consumers born out of the backpedaling economy.

“We provide an easy way out,” Vonk said. “Not only will we buy quality used sports equipment from shoppers, which allows them to make an extra couple of bucks, but we also provide budget-friendly used and new merchandise for them so that they don’t break their bank accounts.”

The demand for athletics hasn’t waned despite the state of the economy, explained Fred Engh, founder and president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports. Even when the outlook is bleakest, parents typically find a way to get their children playing sports.

“One thing that has remained constant over the years is that when the economy goes down the grip of sports is so strong on parents that they will give up a lot of other things before denying their child a chance to play sports,” he said.

Engh said the recent downtrend has likely caused many parents to compromise on the price of the equipment they buy. Instead of seeking out top-of-the-line equipment, they might be more prone to seeking out bargains.

“I’m sure in today’s market parents are trying to get by without having to buy the ‘best’ that’s out there,” he said.

Getting started

Vonk started the store amid her own personal economic turmoil. She was a 20-year employee with the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations when she was laid off by the incoming Pataki administration.

She was searching for a new career when she came across the Play It Again franchise. The mother of two growing athletes, she saw the practicality of having a sporting goods store where parents could exchange equipment their children had outgrown.

“It was a no-brainer,” she said of her decision. “I used to joke that half of the used gear here came from my garage.”

The Vonks started the store in a 2,000-square-foot space, but quickly realized they’d need more room and doubled the size within their first six months of business. Last March, they moved into a 10,000-square-foot space at the plaza.

Owned by the Winmark Corporation, Play It Again Sports is the leading national buyer and seller of used sports equipment. There are more than 360 locations in the United States and Canada.

The location in Latham is among 11 franchise operations in New York and is the only one in the Capital Region. The Vonks’ store achieved the Minneapolis-based parent company’s Gold Standard measurement, an award that is bestowed on franchises with outstanding product quality standards.

Today, Play It Again employs 11 part- and full-time workers in Latham. In addition, both the Vonks and their son work at the store full time.

Popular season

Winter sports are a key part of their trade. Skiers, snowboarders and ice hockey players represent nearly half their annual business.

“As soon as it snows or as soon as the ponds freeze, I make sure to keep extra staff on hand,” she said.

And it’s easy to see why. Brand new ice hockey equipment usually retails for about $500, while Play It Again can outfit a player for as little as $150.

Similarly, most ski packages cost upward of $600. Play It Again has packages that cost as little as $125.

“With the economy, we find more people are looking for deals,” she said.

But Play It Again isn’t just about winter sports. The store sells a broad array of equipment, ranging from exercise machines to water skis to taekwondo pads.

The savings on used equipment is compounded when athletes trade in their own old equipment. Anytime Play It Again accepts an item of equipment, they give the customer a choice to either use the trade-in value for store credit, get cash outright or sell the item on consignment.

Vonk said the condition of the equipment is evaluated when it is brought in and customers are given a purchase price. If the item is sold on consignment, the customer receives 50 percent of the store’s retail price 10 days after it is sold.

Vonk said another appeal of the store is that customers get the same attention they would expect from a small sports retailer. All of the store’s workers are athletes themselves and can readily answer questions about the equipment they’re selling.

Vonk said the business model also appeals to the environmentally conscious. After all, every piece of used equipment sold at Play It Again is one less item to go to a landfill.

“People really like the recycling aspect,” she said.

Other alternatives

Play It Again isn’t the only option for cash-strapped parents looking for an economical way to outfit their child for athletics. Some youth sports have systems where older players pass used equipment down to ones just taking up the sport.

Take, for instance, the Schenectady Youth Hockey Association’s equipment loan program. Older children in the association donate their old or outgrown gear to the league, which then offers it to entry-level players so that parents aren’t saddled with paying retail cost for equipment.

“In general, parents are happy to donate equipment they no longer need back to the association, as opposed to selling it,” said Timothy Canty, the association’s president. “They know it is for a good cause, as opposed to selling it for next to nothing.”

This way, Canty said, the association doesn’t lose the 50 percent of cost they would otherwise pay to a consignment shop. Not to mention, he said, parents using the handed-down equipment can avoid paying large sums for a sport their child might not want to continue after the first year.

“The investment in equipment is particularly high for parents of new players because they are often just testing out the sport to see if their kids like it,” he said.

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