In 2017, Sean McNamee became Decathlon’s first Irish employee, working directly with Bastien Grandgeorge, CEO of the French retail giant, to build the website that marked its first presence in Ireland.
Five years later, I met McNamee at Decathlon’s 4,000-square-foot flagship outlet in Ballymun, which has already had half a million visitors that year.
Despite being the company’s Chief Digital Officer in Ireland, he still wears the distinctive vest of a Decathlon sports director in store and breaks our conversation to help with several customer questions as he strolls through the store.
In the early days of Decathlon Ireland, the two-man team was “on a tight budget” and built “from the ground up”.
McNamee took charge of departments like social media, customer service and recruiting, with the site officially launching in 2017.
“It was a complete startup,” he says, looking back at the beginning of Decathlon’s entry into the Irish market.
His first stop was his own rugby club
At the outset, a key element of his role was raising awareness of the French brand by speaking directly to Irish sports enthusiasts themselves.
When he was first interviewed for the job, it wasn’t about technology or retail, he tells me.
“The first question concerned my sport.”
After getting the job his first stop was his own rugby club to see what gear his teammates would be looking for in the shop. He made the rounds of the Dublin Horse Show and the Leinster Loop charity cycle for client insight.
For the uninitiated, Decathlon is a bit like an Ikea for sports equipment – with a huge selection of clothing and gear for almost every category you can think of, from football and cycling to archery and windsurfing.
In Ireland, the strong interest in the online site was the trigger to open a physical store here, but it wasn’t easy.
The Ballymun store was originally scheduled to open from March 2020 but Covid struck.
“We were putting the products on the shelves and word came that we had to stop opening,” says McNamee.
The massive outlet finally opened in June this year, initially for click-and-collect and has since become a magnet for sports enthusiasts, with gear for 70 sports.
Special areas are staffed by experts in their chosen sports, which include traditional Irish sports.
Football and basketball fans can also sign up for free to play in dedicated areas outside of the store, while customers can test bikes on an outdoor track.
Irish consumers have opted for home fitness during the pandemic
When McNamee points out the most important hubs on a Thursday morning, the store is in full swing. A young girl walks away with a pink hulahoop, a couple play table tennis in the back of the store, while two children in life jackets climb onto a large inflatable boat in the workshop.
Water sports are surprisingly big business here. Decathlon Ballymun ranks in top 10-15 of 2,080 kayak and surfboard outlets after a surge in demand during the pandemic.
Camping gear is also a global leader, with tents being particularly popular.
Irish consumers have also turned to home fitness during the pandemic, which McNamee says hasn’t slowed down either in-store or online.
“We’re number one for some products, for dumbbells and home fitness equipment,” he says.
Decathlon’s Irish customers also appear to be more environmentally friendly than their European neighbors. Ireland ranks second in Europe for purchases of the brand’s sustainably designed products.
Another environmental initiative at Ballymun is Second Life, where Decathlon sells returned items that cannot be sold as new at a lower price.
McNamee is now working to bring Second Life online.
He is also preparing to open the second Decathlon store in Limerick and plans to set up a mini warehouse in the first store in Munster, which will ship directly to the Irish consumer.
“25 percent of our sales are done digitally, which is very strong compared to some Decathlon countries,” he explains.
It helps that many Irish customers’ first experience of the brand was online here, he thinks.
The new warehouse will speed up that service, he says.
“Limerick will have approximately 750 square meters available for ship-from-store. They shipped our best sellers, our bulky products that are very expensive to ship from mainland Europe, directly from the store within 48 hours,” he adds.
The Limerick branch at Parkway Retail Park was announced in April and will open in Spring 2023. A store manager has been appointed, with around 60 store employees planned to be hired by the end of the year.
Cork is another area where Decathlon has noticed demand from shoppers for a physical presence, but McNamee is focused on e-commerce expansion for now.
Decathlon Ireland has 400,000 “members” on its website. Ultimately, it is a marketplace model that offers both products for rent and for sale and may also offer sports courses.
Amid ongoing economic uncertainty, many sports brands have been unable to escape the impact of rising inflation. Back in September, Nike warned customers it had to raise its prices due to supply chain challenges, while new Sports Direct boss Michael Murray said in May that prices are likely to rise as the company is “at the mercy” of brand partners .
Decathlon, McNamee points out, isn’t quite in the same position. “Because we manufacture and create all of our products ourselves, everything is made in-house. We’re in control there,” he said.
He adds that despite apparent cost increases “around the world,” Decathlon is sticking to its low-price model for the moment to ensure access to sports, which it sees as a key element of its retail identity.
McNamee quickly brings it back to his own “sports history.”
“When I was younger I played football, hurling, rugby, horseback riding – I did it all and it must have cost a fortune,” he says.
“With Decathlon, you can try any sport you want and if you don’t like it, it won’t cost you an arm or a leg.”
https://www.independent.ie/business/irish/decathlons-sean-mcnamee-and-the-inside-track-on-the-french-firm-transforming-irish-sport-retailing-41837885.html Decathlon’s Sean McNamee and insights into the French company transforming Irish sports retail