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SCHEELS: Conservative Company, Wild Ride

by Nate Hunter

Ferris wheels, bowling alleys, shooting galleries and NASCAR simulators aren’t typically associated with a trip to the sporting-goods store for a fishing reel or a snowboard.

Ferris wheels, bowling alleys, shooting galleries and NASCAR simulators aren’t typically associated with a trip to the sporting-goods store for a fishing reel or a snowboard. But mixing diversions into the shopping experience is an important piece of SCHEELS’ retail philosophy.

The stores offer a selection of popular and specialty sporting goods with a deep inventory to ensure a variety of items are available to take home on the same day they are purchased. The 24 locations are strategically spread throughout 10 Western and Midwestern states to attract customers from approximately a 150-mile trade area in multiple directions. Most notably, the stores boast sizes ranging from 30,000 to nearly 300,000 square feet. The average size is around 120,000 square feet.

Each store is uniquely designed and varies by merchandise specialization as well as by the attractions the store has become famous for. In Springfield, Illinois, there’s a bowling alley. A buck-hunting simulator and an archery range will await shoppers at the Grand Forks, North Dakota, location, opening in 2014. A live maple tree grows into the atrium at the SCHEELS in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

“Our stores go way past retail,” says CEO Steve D. Scheel. “We look at them as almost the Disneyland of sporting goods.” At 240,000 square feet, the Sparks, Nevada, store is billed as the largest sporting goods store in the world and includes an 800-square-foot wildlife taxidermy mountain, a walk of presidents, Gramma Ginna’s Restaurant and Fudge Shop, two 16,000-gallon fish tanks and a 65-foot-tall, 16-car Ferris wheel.

“There’s no question we’re building the most expensive sporting goods stores in the country,” Steve D. Scheel says. “Our Reno store is one of the most expensive retail stores that’s ever been built.”
The company does not report or comment on financial data. It’s a private ESOP with low employee turnover, an extensive training program and the reputation for staffing knowledgeable specialists in the stores’ separate departments, says President Steve M. Scheel.

The company also has a long family connection dating back to 1902, when Frederick A. Scheel, a German immigrant, opened a hardware and general merchandise store in Sabin, Minnesota, using $300 he made from selling 3 acres of a potato crop. The store added sporting goods to its mix of hardware in 1954. In 1989, the Grand Forks, North Dakota, location opened as the first store with a 100 percent sporting goods inventory.

In addition to a deep inventory covering numerous athletics and outdoor sports, including golf, biking, skiing, hunting and more, the stores are also diversifying with newer selections, such as home décor items and fresh gelato. But its survival in rough economic times isn’t based so much on what can be purchased at SCHEELS, but the experience of being in the store.

“Unfortunately, in the retail world, today there’s very little you can do to separate yourself as far as the merchandise goes, so you’ve got to find other ways to separate yourself,” says Steve M. Scheel, who joined his father, Steve D. Scheel, in the family business after working at the Grand Forks store in high school.

“We pride ourselves on customer service first and foremost, but these attractions that are going in the store — they keep people in the store. There’s a restaurant so you don’t have to go somewhere else and eat. A Ferris wheel so you can have 5 minutes with your kids occupied so you can shop. The idea being that we’re really a family store,” says Steve M. Scheel.

SCHEELS offers tourist packages including gift cards and hotel deals near some of its  locations. “We’re very much a regional draw with many of our newer stores,” Steve M. Scheel says. “So that tourism portion becomes a much more important piece.”

The company expands carefully and deliberately. About one new store is opened every year, and most of them are only located in climates with four distinct seasons. Construction of a new SCHEELS can take up to 2 years.

“We’re very slow. We’re very conservative. We’re a very private company,” says Steve D. Scheel. “We don’t have much debt. We upgraded all of our stores in the past 10 years. We’re upgrading a lot of our stores in the next 2 or 3 years. We’d rather have what we consider to be the premier facility in each market than just more markets.” Continuing to develop the different ways that buying a soccer ball can also be a physical and sensory experience is a significant part of the company’s objective to be a top sporting-goods facility.

“We try to make it more than retail, whether you’re a 5-year-old kid or 85 years old, you really enjoy yourself and have fun in the store,” says Steve D. Scheel. “We’ve found that even though it’s expensive to do the stores this way — with the Ferris wheels and deluxe delis and the aquarium — the customers really enjoy coming in and every part of the store has something beyond retail. People will drive past the competition just to get to the stores because they’re so unique.”

— Lynn Peisner

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