How Academy Sports Is Prioritizing Footwear in Its New Store Designs

As Academy Sports + Outdoors leans into a robust store expansion plan, the company is prioritizing footwear as a key growth avenue in stores.

The sporting goods retailer recently announced that it plans to open between 160 and 180 stores over the next five years, up from a plan issued last April that outlined a strategy for 120 to 140 stores in that time frame. These new openings — as well as other new stores that have launched since 2022 — feature a new design layout that emphasizes the chain’s broad footwear assortment.

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According to Academy’s chief merchandising officer Matt McCabe, footwear is now typically featured in the back of an Academy store with a large center aisle that is visible to customers when they enter. The footwear section itself features shelving units of varying heights to feature different brands more effectively as well mannequins to help tell different brand stories.

“[Storytelling] is an extremely important part of what we do,” McCabe told FN in an interview. “I wouldn’t say that we’ve always been great at it, but it’s a new muscle that we’re starting to flex. Our vendors are supportive in helping us get those stories out there.”

For example, Academy partnered with Adidas to create small “soccer shops” that feature cleats and has worked with Nike and Brooks to showcase their strong selection in the fast-growing category of performance running.

“We’ve also set up free standing fixtures that we didn’t have in the past with brands like Hey Dude to draw attention to trending categories like theirs,” McCabe added.

Academy said that it opened seven new stores during the fourth quarter for a total of 14 stores in 2023. In 2024, the company plans on opening 15 to 17 new stores.

Footwear makes up about 20 percent of Academy’s overall business. The category was down 8.8 percent in Q4, largely due to weakness in the company’s cleated shoe business. However, brands like Brooks Hey Dude, and Nike stood out. In addition to its athletic assortment, Academy has also expanded its selection of Birkenstock, positioning the sandal brand as a recovery option. (The chain carries recovery slide brand Oofos at all stores as well.)

“[Recovery] has always been an important part of what we do,” McCabe said. “We sell so many cleats and basketball shoes and that athlete is always looking for what they wear to and from the field.”

Academy sees opportunity to grow its women’s athletic footwear business.

“Women have a lot more options in the footwear marketplace than than men do,” McCabe said. “And so when there’s a swing back towards more dressy styles, we have to work harder to make sure that she comes to us for more athletic styles.”

Academy also operates a portfolio of private label shoe brands that mainly live in the work, hunting and rubber boots category — and includes summer seasonal products like flip flops. Growing private label is a priority for Academy overall, though footwear will not be a major contributor to that story.

“We’re not looking to do takedowns of national brands,” McCabe said of Academy’s private label footwear business. “We’re really using our private brand to fill in whitespace that we don’t find in the market.”

For the full year, net sales at Academy fell 3.7 percent to $6.16 billion, down from $6.40 billion in 2022. Net income for fiscal 2023 was $519.2 million, down 17.3 percent from $628 million the year prior. In the fourth quarter, however, Academy made some gains with net sales in the period up 2.8 percent to $1.79 billion, up from $1.75 billion in Q4 2022. Net income in the quarter was $168.2 million, up 6.7 percent from $157.7 million the same time last year.

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