Sportler Milano intervista Jakob Oberrauch

Sportler opens in Milan: interview with CEO Jakob Oberrauch

On the occasion of the opening of the new store Sportler a Milan, we had a word with Jakob Oberrauch, CEO of Sportler, and Florian Dusini, CSR Manager of the company, to understand the motivations behind this choice and discuss Sportler’s vision and mission from here to the coming years, with a focus on sustainability.

Sportler Milano Carugate
Sportler Milano Carugate

Jakob, in a store like Sportler, what does a figure like yours deal with, concretely?

Jakob Oberrauch: I am responsible, first of all, for creating the strategy, and then for all the monitoring. Because if you have a strategy you must also have certain measurable values, you must be able to measure your impact. Then I am in charge of reporting, and the first report in this direction will come out this year. And then mostly I am involved in the implementation of these different projects in the different departments. It’s a very 360-degree thing, starting from logistics and ending in the store and continuing with the customer.

So can we say that part of your job is to make sure that stores like this have as little impact on the environment as possible?

JO: Absolutely. A store like this starts with the way you build the store itself, what energy you use, and ends with the product you sell and the services you give customers to support its life cycle and to even succeed in extending it.

Does that also come through the choice of brands you sell? Are they brands that maybe have a certain kind of quality, a certain kind of ethics?

Florian Dusini: So for the choice of brands we started last year to do a very technical thing. We do an ESG assessment, on the environmental and social governance impact of our brands. So first we look at what a company does, not just its product. For example, we highlight certain products as sustainable. These products belong to those companies that also score quite high in the ESG questionnaire. So the choice is not only on the basis of the product, but also on the company, which really is committed to environmental protection.

Sometimes, seen from the outside, it is hard to understand why a store would talk about sustainability and extending the life cycle of products; in fact, it might seem to go against its interest. For this reason, I am interested in better understanding Sportler’s message….

Florian Dusini: We want to position ourselves close to the customer as a partner that follows their product throughout its life cycle, so it’s not strictly a linear thing that follows the sale of a product and that’s it. We want to offer all those side services, but equally important, to enjoy a product for as long as possible.

Concretely, can you give an example of some support activities you have given to the customer for garment repairs and use?

FD: We for repairs have a partner who is also one of the few who can officially do Gore-Tex repairs, and they are only two in the Italian territory. Through them we develop all repair requests, especially on technical garments, where it is far more difficult to intervene and you also need the proper machinery. They also do the prototypes for certain brands that we have in the assortment and are now focusing so much just on repair.

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Where did the decision to open a store in Milan come from?

JO: It was born more than sixteen years ago when I studied in Milan. I studied three years here in Milan and fell in love with it. At that time, a dream was born to open, sooner or later, a large Sportler store in or near Milan. Ten years ago I joined the company, and luckily I was able to convince the whole Sportler team of this vision of mine, and from there we started looking for the right location. We searched for years and years before we found a position that felt right and with an interesting pool. We found it here in Carugate, on the outskirts of Milan, and it is a great dream that was born many years ago and that we have been diligently trying to realize over these ten years. So today is a big day for us and also a big milestone as a family business. This is our first store in Lombardy, with a very interesting catchment area, and we decided to arrive here with the assortments that we know well and that are our strengths, that is, all mountain sports: mountaineering, biking, trail running, and in winter of course we will also have a very large ski department, for all winter sports expertise.

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In this area I often pass by because we have the editorial office in Cuneo but we are often on Milan, and they tell me that here, willy-nilly, if you go to Grigna you always pass by. I was told that a smash-up of people goes by, and I read that they are talking about 500,000 people a day, something like that….

JO: Well that one I don’t even know… Obviously we’ve done a lot of studies of the market, and it’s one of the historical squares in the hinterland of Milan in the commercial sphere, because we have the Carousel, one of the most important, largest, most historical shopping centers. We also have the first Ikea, which opened many, many years ago here in Milan. We have a context that is very commercial and very well trafficked.

Also because an 80-square-meter was not enough for you …[ride]

JO: [ride] No, we wanted to do a major, serious project to also express the expertise we have in assortments.

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Let me ask you, let’s say you come to Milan for a passion of yours, to have a store in an important place, but what do you plan to give to the community?

JO: Well let’s say the idea works well strategically. Milan today is the most economically important city in Italy, but also and especially where all the big brands are. We have always said, “We don’t just want to be a retailer, we also want to become a brand for our consumers,” and that is why we have always maintained that we also need to be in Milan and have an important flag in this area. So even from a strategic, branding and marketing point of view, we have always said that we want to get here to bring mountain air and to convince and enthuse as many people as possible for mountain sports. We are mountaineers, we are mountaineers, we love and live the mountains, it is our school of life and we want to transmit this passion to all the people of Milan to convince them to go to the mountains, because there is nothing more beautiful than spending time outside in our beautiful mountains here nearby, just an hour’s drive away.

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Then Milan of its own is a very contaminated city (outdoor, running), it is a city that likes to experience mountains. Instead, at the business level, did this choice also stem from a discourse of expansion to the west, to France, to Europe? Because until today Sportler was very much in the east, northeast….

JO: We for several years have had a strategic plan that well defines an expansion, still with a few major Italian locations. In the coming years we aim to open in both Turin and Bologna, which are kind of the important cities we still lack in northern Italy. We believe so much in physical stores, so we’re investing a lot, even though we know that online plays its key part. So investments go into both online and offline outlets, and we see precisely in omnichannelity our strength and also the future success of our brand. We already find that the combination of channels works. In a physical store, customers have a unique experience: they can try on and touch products, receive certain services. But the customer also has a digital experience that is critical today, and the combination of these two channels, in which we are investing, is what we believe is the future.

What do you think Sportler can bring to the product level, to the store concept, to the store level? What do you think is missing? What was missing? What can you bring in addition to what was already there by talking about the hinterland?

JO: Certainly we have first and foremost a mountain department, a bike department, and a ski department in the winter that, at least as far as I know the area, you don’t find of this size and expertise. The difference at our place has always been made, throughout these 45 years, by the people who work there, because they are people who have the same enthusiasm as we do, who practice these sports actively, who are authentic and pass on this passion, but above all also their expertise, to our clients. And that’s what also ensured that we got to some leadership, especially in mountaineering. Let’s try now to take the next step with our community, and here in Milan we still have to build it. In the other stores we do, almost weekly, bike rides or jogs, as well as mountain testing events (ski testing, climbing testing, and so on). We want to go in this direction, going out of the store with our customers and doing the very sports we offer with them. That’s what we want to do here in Milan as well: a step by step, building a community that recognizes us a bit as the benchmark for mountain sports.

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What I notice, even though it is a very big store, is that we still talk about mountains and normally instead you happen to find padel, tennis, soccer among the many sports. So as a mountain enthusiast you feel like you are not at home. I also often come to your stores in Bolzano, and the great thing is that we talk about the mountains, from A to Z….

JO: Let’s say we want to become the one-stop shop for all those who are mountain enthusiasts and who can recognize from us a store where they can stock up finding, as you said, everything for their mountain adventures, from A to Z.

In this also falls the choice of personnel who have to be competent or let’s say there are various levels?

JO: Absolutely. The people who work here were chosen because they play these sports and are enthusiastic about the sports they offer.

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Returning instead a bit to the expansion talk, can there be and eventually will there be a prospect of European expansion? Because they are very different markets anyway.

JO: Currently our strategic plan looks up to 2030. In a few years we will then see what the plans will be from 2030 to 2040, but, at present, for the next few years we want to focus here in Italy to still do one or the other expansion, always of a major size. We want to invest a lot more in online and after that yes, in the corporate group of course there are also other companies with whom we are already operating outside Italy (in Germany, Austria, Switzerland) and with whom we have also major expansion plans. But now, talking about the Sportler brand, we primarily want to focus, in the next 4-5 years, still on Italy.

Instead at the level of how is the outdoor market right now, how do you see it?

JO: Outdoor had a crazy boom during Covid because people there really needed and wanted to go out. After the lockdown there was just this urge to go outside, into the mountains, and experience nature. However, this boom has implied that, as usual, for every peak there follows a downturn. We have experienced it a little bit in this last year, but in the long term I am confident that this sector can only grow, because, as I said, there is nothing more beautiful than going to the mountains, and more people are discovering this. More and more people live in cities, which are chaotic, which are messy, so people on the weekend really need to get out, to experience nature. This trend of people going to the mountains in my opinion can only increase. Therefore, I am hopeful for our entire industry.

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Do you see a particular trend that is on the rise, such as could be trail running, running, mountaineering?

JO: One of the trends is definitely climbing, which has been booming since it became an Olympic sport and will grow again, especially also the whole bouldering part. Just look at how many gyms have sprung up here in Milan in the last ten years. So this is one of the trends that will continue to grow. You mentioned trail running, which has been growing strongly for years already, and it’s a trend that continues because it also somewhat offsets the classic running market, so a lot of people are moving right into trail running. And after that, mountaineering in general. Above all, however, what we see is that cycling is an industry that in the long run, in all its various types, has tremendous growths; because cycling today is not only mountain biking and running, but it is also using the bicycle as urban mobility. These are macro trends that we think will explode even more in the coming years.

There is a question for you Florian. I ask you, how do you see outdoor brands, especially clothing brands, on the other hand, in terms of sustainability, fabric use, etc.? How careful are they about pollution? Do you see that there is a general growth?

FD: Yes yes, absolutely. I see that in other sectors they are still a bit further behind on these issues, while the outdoor world is way ahead. There is a lot of experimentation with materials. Circularity, measuring what impacts these clothes have, is also a central theme. Now especially we talk about life-cycle assessment, the impact of the garment in terms of CO2 and so on. So these are issues that are felt so much today. Certainly the outdoor world has always also been driven by a certain responsibility, because it is experienced by people who are so much in nature and therefore also want to protect this nature. Still, though, you are seeing from the legislature some push in that direction, and that is also right.

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Do you see any brands further ahead than others? Is there any brand that you think does a better job in this respect?

FD: Mah in my opinion there are the classic brands that, you know, already for many years have had this a little bit in their DNA. One is definitely Patagonia, but I am also very much in touch with Oval, because they are quite active in experimentation. In general, I have to say that there are a lot of brands, which we also have in the assortment, that are already very much pushed forward on these issues.

Jakob, you were telling me about the online. For greater sales and recognition of the online, how important is the offline, which is the physical store, as well?

JO: For me it can work just online, as well as just a physical store. But I say, nowadays if you really want to bring home the full potential that the market offers, you have to combine the two channels. And we really see that even the best customers are those who use our online channels, who have our application, and who maybe check out the other online stores as well, and then come to the store doing the combination of both channels. So we strongly believe in omnichannel, partly because we have already experimented with it in recent years and we see that it really works great. Today, online channels give you crazy visibility, because you immediately have not say international but big visibility, which then also helps you in the physical store.

In turnover issues, how is the online part divided from the offline part? What is the percentage, if you can give it, between online and offline sales in a group like yours?

JO: That depends on the market. We as a business group that started in Italy, Germany and so on, are right at the half-and-half. If I am only talking about the Sportler brand, we are 80-20: 80 physical stores and 20 online.

So anyway there is still this desire for the product, to see it, to touch it. And then one thing I really believe in is the potential of a store in creating a local community of enthusiasts and supporting them in various things.

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