Family firm is big wheel in sporting goods retailing

Sales growing despite increased competition

Small business

Howard Business

October 15, 2001|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

In 1936, Baltimoreans strolling through Clifton Park and Druid Hill Park paid Samuel Davis 25 cents a day to rent a bicycle from Princeton Cycle Co. The goal for the Depression-era start-up: to sell one bicycle a day.

Sixty-five years and two stores later, the company is run by his grandson, Alan R. Davis, who has set the company's sights on a more complex goal: expanding the $6 million company without letting it become unmanageable or losing the personal touch.

"People know they can go in any store and find me or my brother or my father and we'll help them," said Alan Davis, president of the company. "We thought if we get too big, we'd lose the personal service."

With his grandfather's company - now named Princeton Sports and Travel - celebrating 65 years in business and its Columbia store on Little Patuxent Parkway celebrating 20 years, Davis is counting his blessings.

The company has outfitted generations in the greater Baltimore area with skiing clothes and equipment, bicycles and tennis gear, catering to a market that other, larger retailers have begun to target.

Many of these competitors are moving to the area, vying with Princeton for a piece of the $65 billion-a-year national market for outdoor equipment and apparel.

"It's a big business," said Mike May, a spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. According to a market report by the group, the market for outdoor apparel alone has grown steadily over the past five years into a $10 billion annual industry.

Of the top five categories of best-selling sports equipment last year, three were for outdoor sports, according to another report by the group.

But May said Princeton has a key advantage - it's been around longer.

"Anyone who is especially interested in tennis or skiing or biking probably already knows about Princeton," May said. "Any giant or national chain that rolls around is sort of a faceless entity."

Davis said, the new stores have helped Princeton's business.

"While most mass merchandisers don't have the depth of selection, they do have the ability to draw more people into the area," Davis said.

Princeton Sports began in Baltimore with Samuel Davis and his wife, Lucille, renting and selling bicycles from their first store in Park Circle. At the time, ice was delivered from the back of a truck and railroads were the primary form of mass transportation.

In 1970, the Davis' son, Bernard "Sonny" Davis, built a store on Falls Road in Baltimore County. He had taken over the business five years before, after his father died.

In 1981, Sonny called his 23-year-old son, who worked in New York as manager and buyer for a large ski shop, and asked him to run a new Princeton store in Columbia. Alan Davis has been with the company since.

In 1985, the company added a travel agency, which helps customers find locations for enjoying their favorite sports.

Sonny turned over the business to his sons, Alan and Paul, in 1997, but still works at the Baltimore store. Paul Davis, vice president, also works in Baltimore.

"I don't think anyone would've thought this thing would still be going - and going the way it is," Alan Davis said.

Princeton Sports employs about 75 people in its two stores, and the company's sales continue to grow between 10 percent and 12 percent annually, Davis said.

Profit margins also have increased in the past few years, according to Mike Millman, president of Millman Search Group Inc. in Lutherville, a national retail consulting firm that has represented Princeton Sports for about two years.

The store has developed something of a cult following.

"I'm 25, so I've always come in here with my mother to get ski stuff," said Laura Jahnigan, a Columbia resident who was looking for a child's ski suit with a friend.

"Everybody knows Princeton," she said. "If you don't see what you want, they order it for you."

Bob Clark has visited the store three times in the past eight months for repairs on family bicycles.

"You come here, they can fix it for 10 bucks, you're in and out," he said.

Alan Davis said his focus will be on expanding Princeton's reach. The company Web site - www. princetonsports.com - makes communicating with customers easier and allows them to buy gift cards online. Davis said he had no plans for a third store - yet.

I don't think the stores have maxed out what they can do yet," he said. We're still able to give people good customer service. When we can't, I guess we'll look at another store."

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