Outlook: JJB Sports

THE ACQUISITION by JJB Sports of its rival, Sports Division, seems to have been a deal made in hell. JJB has suffered chronic indigestion since. By February the problems of integration had got so bad that even when there were customers to be had, there was no stock to service them. At Sports Division outlets, popular items like size nine trainers were often not to be found.

However, JJB's problems may be symptoms of a wider malaise. Sports retailing seems to be a market that has gone off the boil. Demand is on the wane. The attraction of replica football shirts has worn off. Price cutting seems to have done nothing to rekindle consumer interest. Even trainers, the stable diet of all sports shops, are being challenged by "outdoor" footwear like Timberland shoes and the smarter, more formal ranges sold in fashion shops.

But there is a much deeper problem. The quality of sports retailing in Britain is, to put it bluntly, so poor that it is hardly surprising so few people want to avail themselves of its services. In terms of price, quality of product, choice and service, JJB and Sports Division are so far behind their American counterparts that there really is no comparison.

Many of these outlets are not sports shops at all, but clothing retailers selling branded T-shirts and the like at high prices. Try buying a cricket bat, or an item of bowls equipment. In the US, the market leaders like Sports Authority sell huge ranges, from canoes to rock climbing accessories. They don't run out stock and the shopping experience is made to be pleasurable.

Fortunately, help may be on the way, although it won't be of much assistance to downtrodden JJB shareholders. Later this spring Decathlon, a subsidiary of a privately owned French group, plans to open a huge sports store in London's Docklands with more openings in the pipeline.

With Wal-Mart executives reported to have met Tony Blair at Downing Street last month, it is clear that international retailers are eyeing up the UK market as never before. Looking at the service provided by some of our stores groups, you can see why.