Open For Business

When It Comes To Servicing The Local Hockey Community, Mom And Pop Pro Shops Still Have Their Place
Brian Lester

Lenny Grigorian’s first job growing up in South Windsor, Conn., was working at a full-service gas station. It was a place where customers could get their car windshields cleaned, fluids checked and gas pumped without leaving the comfort of the driver’s seat. It was also a place to go to get a tire changed or more extensive auto repairs.

Before long a self-service station opened up down the street offering gas for a few pennies cheaper, and almost overnight the full-service station was out of business leaving customers searching for a garage to get services they’d grown accustomed to.

Several years later, Lenny joined his brother Steve and their father running the family business, the South Windsor Arena and adjoining pro shop. Over the course of more than 40 years in business, the Grigorians have been a staple of the community, serving generations of hockey players.
“About 10 or 12 years ago there was a 6-year-old kid sitting in a chair in front of me and I was putting him in his first pair of skates. His dad was standing behind him and I remembered putting on his first pair of skates when he was 6 years old,” Grigorian said.

“There’s this long-term relationship where you’ve almost become like the family pediatrician where people have a good experience and they trust you and they trust your judgment.”

In today’s ultra-competitive hockey marketplace, those mom and pop pro shops are feeling the squeeze from larger online retailers who can often offer a better value and more variety. But according to those in the rink business, there’s something to be said for personal services that go beyond dollars and sense.

“I don’t really think people understand how important the support that these small mom and pops provide,” Grigorian said. “But when they have an issue who do they go to? You break a blade on your skate or the toe buckle comes off your goalie pads, who’s going to fix it?”

Pat Ferrill runs a pro shop in the Philadelphia area at Flyers Skate Zone. His shop has done well, he said, in part because the customers can count on getting great service, whether it’s sharpening a pair of skates or replacing a broken stick in a matter of minutes.

“Our customers are accustomed to us being here,” Ferrill said. “We take a significant burden off of them by being right here in the rink. Our focus is on great service and making sure customers get what they truly need.”

He pointed out that closing up shop would not only take away a service to customers who have come to depend on it, but it would also cut into the profits of the rink.

While large Internet hockey companies can offer their customers a larger variety of products at good prices, local rink pro shops serve their customers with excellent service provided by a knowledgeable staff of committed hockey professionals.While large Internet hockey companies can offer their customers a larger variety of products at good prices, local rink pro shops serve their customers with excellent service provided by a knowledgeable staff of committed hockey professionals.

“When a pro shop is vibrant, it serves as a profit center for the rink,” Ferrill said. “If the profit erodes then we break even, which is a situation we could run into at some point, but we aren’t there. The revenue needs to come from somewhere, and having the pro shop helps keep the cost of participation from increasing.”

Jeff Campol echoes those thoughts. His pro shop inside the Panthers IceDen in Florida has long been a staple in the Coral Springs hockey community.

“We’ve been here for 19 years and we are pretty entrenched in the market,” said the long-time vice president/general manager. “We’ve done a good job of developing a rapport with the customers, and we take pride in being able to provide the best customer service. We offer a great selection and we match prices. And only our best employees work in the pro shop.”

But there are challenges from the online market and the fact that many of those online retailers are opening up brick and mortar stores.

“It’s changed a lot in the last 10 years with the Internet so we’ve had to find ways to work harder and smarter,” Ferrill said. “The big misconception people have with buying products online is that the price is better. Our prices in the shop are the same if not better.”

Shopping at a pro shop also gives customers an opportunity to deal with employees who can provide sound advice and personal friendly service.

Customer service is indeed what rink pro shops bank on. Tim Burt, the manager of retail operations at the Panthers IceDen, compared pro shop service to going shopping for a suit at a tailor rather than off the rack at a department store.

“We do feel the pressure from online retailers, but service is key,” Burt said. “Going to a store where employees have experience and knowledge about the products they are selling is what makes going to a pro shop a great option.”

In many markets, the rink pro shop may be the only game in town. T.C. Lewis runs the Aerodrome Ice Skating Complex in Houston, and in an era when hockey superstores have a huge online presence, his shop continues to serve its customers by staying true to its roots.

“When it all first started up about 10 years ago, we did get a lot of competition from the Internet,” Lewis said. “But there isn’t as much now. I think part of it has to do with the fact that the hockey community realizes we provide a service to them and they appreciate it. They want the rink to survive and they know buying from us will help that. There is a community feel to everything, and I think that is something that is prevalent in a lot of rinks.”

Ferrill continues to find ways to keep his pro shop on its feet and has no intentions of giving up because of the vital role it serves.

“We truly believe we have to offer the service to our customers,” he said. “We feel very strongly about having a pro shop in the rink and we continue to find ways to keep it going.”

Brian Lester is a freelance writer based out of Pensacola, Fla.


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