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Dan Rodgers Sports Zone is among the last of a dying breed of mom-and-pop sporting goods stores in Toledo, Ohio. Founded in 1970 by Dan Rodgers himself, the store had been a family owned and operated staple in the Toledo community, offering mainly apparel and sporting goods direct to consumers. They were known for quality and service, with a loyal customer base encompassing three generations and the ability to compete with big box stores that had popped up over the years.
When Ken Rau and his business partner Dan Foster purchased the store from the Rodgers family a few years ago, he knew the value this established business had to offer. However, he also knew that in order to stay competitive, they would have to find ways to diversify and modernize. Since taking over, Rau has added several new areas to the business, such as corporate apparel, heat transfers, promotional products, banners, posters and most recently, sublimated products.
“We are still trying to find our niche, but we have found success in the schools market, providing products with logos that compliment traditional school spiritwear,” Rau said. “We’ve been focusing on flip flops, koozies, mouse pads, phone cases, socks, plaques and things like that. We’re trying to get a feel for it because no one else in town is really doing it.”
Dan Rodgers Sports Zone already had existing relationships with the area schools and sports teams, and began offering phone cases, flip flops and other logo-bearing products to them for sale through on-site and online stores earlier this year. They’ve also been adding sublimated products as add-ons to the spiritwear packages they’ve offered in the past. Rau said the response was enthusiastic, and they are trying to develop more creative products to capture more of this market.
“We took our sublimated products out to some of the teams we’re working with now and handed out some of the stuff for free, and the kids went crazy,” he explained. “They wanted to know where to buy them right away, and this led to us choosing the first few items we were going to offer. It was really great market research for us to go right to the end user and ask what they wanted, and then be able to give it to them.”
Rau was surprised by some of the products that his target markets were looking for.
“Teachers and coaches wanted sublimated lanyards for their ID badges and whistles,” Rau said. “We never would have thought that was something people wanted. And then we were hearing people ask for towels, blankets and items we haven’t really experimented with yet. There is definitely interest in polos and apparel. So we have some direction for where to focus our next steps with sublimation. There’s just a lot of cool things you can do with it.”
Rau was first introduced to sublimation at last fall’s Great Lakes Awards & Personalization Expo. Through seminars, demos and discussions with vendors, he found that this technology he’d seen popping up all around him was something that could provide a new stream of revenue for his business.
“For us, it was a natural fit because we already do a lot with awards and trophies,” Rau said. “It really wasn’t a question of if, it was a question of when. And we should’ve been sublimating a lot sooner.”
Today, less than a year after purchasing a Virtuoso Desktop HD Product Decorating System and developing a production strategy that works, Rau has already recouped his investment.
“Sublimation is a hit in most instances. Showing them the product or the design usually generates a lot of interest. We really haven’t seen any negatives to it.”
Moving forward, Rau plans to keep finding creative ways to grow the sublimation aspect of his business to better satisfy the wants of customers in the schools and sports markets that have been at the heart of Dan Rodgers Sports Zone’s success for more than 40 years.
“Our business model is to be a one-stop shop here,” Rau said. “We’re trying to service not only the schools, the teams, the coaches and the players, but also the parents and the grandparents and everyone who supports them. I would recommend that anyone thinking of targeting the schools market with sublimation to go ahead and do it. It’s easy entry, with potential high margin revenue streams for even a mom-and-pop operation. Do your market research and ask people what they want. Get your samples in the hands of the schools and sports teams, and go from there.”
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