Otto-owned retailer SportScheck’s new Berlin store successfully combines technology with tradition. John Ryan pays a visit

There remains a certain entirely prejudiced view of Germany as a land filled with outdoor-loving hearties who spend most of their free time hiking, armed with walking poles and stout boots, before returning home to an open fire and a few glühweins. Head for the Alps and that opinion might be confirmed, but for the rest of the country, it’s something of a romantic myth.

That said, enter almost any German sports shop and there will be a fairly large area devoted to outdoor walking, although, disappointingly, lederhosen will be in conspicuously short supply. And glancing around this notional generic store, the impression will certainly be formed that the Germans take their sport seriously, with a premium placed on having the technically appropriate equipment for the sport involved.

This is definitely the case in the four-floor, 48,400 sq ft Berlin branch of Otto-owned 16-store sports chain SportScheck. Open since late last year and managed by Erik Walter, who spent two years working for US homewares sister retailer Crate & Barrel, this is a store that pays a nod to the traditional while using technology to cater for the Teutonic need for efficiency and the modern.

SportScheck, Berlin

  • Location 20, Schloßstraße, Berlin
  • Size 48,440 sq ft
  • Number of stores 16
  • Standout feature The visual merchandising installations on each floor
  • Novelty in-store iPad use for shoppers
  • Owner Otto

It’s located in Berlin’s western district of Steglitz, a location that has a well-defined shopping street that features many of the more familiar German chains. This store, however, is different, both from the outside and within. The exterior is a little Lego-like, with a section of the orange, grey and glass façade looking as if somebody has forgotten a brick when putting it all together. In fact, with so much glass you feel you ought to be able to see everything inside, although this quickly proves not to be the case owing to high levels of reflectivity.

Once inside the initial impression is that you have entered a running shop. The right-hand wall is filled with training shoes and as far as you can see there are brightly coloured jackets and leggings aimed at the dedicated runner.

The store’s athletic intent has already been established by the jogging animatronic mannequin, positioned in the right-hand window, striding endlessly without going anywhere. This is an expensive way of doing things, but it’s a matter of leaving the passing shopper in no doubt about the store’s purpose.

All the kit

The ground floor is narrow and deep and, in addition to the running shoes and clothing, there is a glass-walled room with a running machine, where shoppers can test-drive the stock and then pay at the nearby bank of cash desks. At the back of the floor, on a slightly raised level, the store expands to the left and right and becomes the area where gym kit is housed.

You know this because a pommel horse and athlete’s rings, of the kind used to perform unlikely manoeuvres, are positioned at the entrance to this department. It’s all very functional and clean and, unlike so many German stores, it is not all at one level, with interior landscaping being a feature. Rather more to the point, as this area is meant to make you think pilates, yoga and similar new-age activities, is the graphic on the back wall. This shows a new-age acolyte adopting a yoga pose while knee-deep in water and has a faux-bamboo surround and canopy - this is the traditional part of the department and it is an approach that is mirrored on each floor.

Practically, this means that if you head up one floor, an entire level devoted to ski and snowboard, the skiwear area is denoted, for example, by a mid-shop gondola, of the kind you normally step into as you head up to the pistes. It’s surrounded by sledges and suchlike and in case there were doubts about what the gondola is, backlit panels have been inserted into the ceiling above it depicting clouds and blue sky, with the gondola’s arm reaching up to make contact with them.

Beyond this is one of several more domestic vignettes, with a 3D graphic that fills much of the back wall. This installation is about much that might be considered south German and traditionally Alpine. It’s composed of a plain wood wall with a window looking out on a mountainous snowy scene (another light box), in front of which there are old-fashioned skis, snowshoes and loungers covered in sheep fleeces. There’s even a salopette-wearing female mannequin with her top half peeled off, taking in the imagined rays. The floor of this area is stripped pine, but the stock, also displayed in the space, is bang-up to date branded skiwear.

Modern methods

It’s a mix of old and new and points towards the other element for which this store is noteworthy: technology. Scattered around the store, there are freestanding glass pods containing iPads. These can be used by shoppers, assisted by staff, to find out whether a specific size or colour is available in any other SportScheck store and to order it into the Berlin branch. The whole store has wi-fi and, as well as the iPads, there are interactive panels set into the walls on the top floor that enable you to perform a similar stock-locating exercise. Walter says that although this is a large store, it still cannot accommodate the entire SportScheck range and therefore the iPads are a solution to the problem of giving shoppers access to stock that may not be on display.

The top floor turns out to be the holy grail of German sports: here is the outdoor walking area. That said, this floor is a very broad church indeed, incorporating everything from sensible shoes to sleeping bags displayed full length on mid-floor pine plinths that look rather more like coloured shrouds than something to protect you from the elements. Nonetheless, it’s easy to see how this piece of equipment functions and putting a body inside the sleeping bag sets it apart from the normal manner of displaying this kind of merchandise.

Finally, there’s the basement, which is about kidswear and football. This is, in many ways, standard stuff, with football kit-clad mannequins arranged in a row, catwalk style, and footballs, en masse, displayed on circular shelves that sweep around a mid-shop pillar. And to anchor the store with the local community, there’s a graphic depicting a Berlin stadium. For the kids, there’s a mini-climbing wall and the visual merchandising prop in this instance is a dodgem car, with a child seated on it - for no obvious reason.

The point about this store, as a whole, is that while its aim may be to emphasise merchandise performance, it does so through visual merchandising of a kind that focuses attention on a traditional view of things, rather than any kind of future vision.

As with the best stores of the kind, this is a sports shop that is concerned with putting shoppers at ease with technology. It’s a format that is both modern and comfortable and Walter says that the next store to receive the treatment will be the Dresden branch, which will open in March. SportScheck is owned by the Otto Group, which numbers Crate & Barrel, Baur and, in this country, Freeman Grattan Holdings - the mail order outfit.

Otto must be well pleased with this part of its empire and Berlin represents some of the latest thinking on the business of selling sportswear.