retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

The New York Times this morning reports that Hillerich & Bradsby is selling its Louisville Slugger brand to Wilson, which is owned by Finland-based Amer Sports Corporation. The deal means that the baseball bat manufacturer that has supplied lumber to the likes of Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson no longer will be American-owned.

The deal is worth $70 million.

The Times story notes that, "created by John A. Hillerich in his family’s woodworking shop in Kentucky, Louisville Slugger bats eventually became one of the most recognizable symbols of the sport. A majority of professional players use them, and the company has sold more than 100 million since the late 1800s."

"”The decision to sell the Louisville Slugger brand was a difficult and serious one to make,” John A. Hillerich IV said in a prepared statement. “The Hillerich family, and those closest to the brand, firmly believes that a new business model is necessary to realize the enormous potential of this brand in the future.”

If there is a good news in this story, it is that Louisville Sluggers will still be made in America: "The company will still manufacture bats, made from hardwood trees in Pennsylvania and New York, in its factory in downtown Louisville."

However...this is not just a story about how yet another American company lost its edge and had to sell out to a foreign company in order to survive.

In fact ... back in 2013, USA Today had a story about how the Louisville Slugger was losing market share: "The Marucci Bat Company, created out of a backyard shed by LSU athletic trainer Jack Marucci in 2002, has emerged as Slugger's biggest rival in an increasingly crowded field of manufacturers," the paper reported, noting that Marucci claimed to be the number one major league bat supplier, though the claim was hard to verify owing to fluctuating tastes.

The story also reported that there was increased competition in the field: "There are 32 companies licensed to make bats for major league and minor league players. That's up from 10 in 1993, according to Major League Baseball."

And what makes the difference? Often, players say, it is bat maker's responsiveness - quickly supplying lumber that is highly specific to the batter's needs and tastes.

In other words, it is just like most other customer-facing businesses. The product has to be absolutely right, it has to be available immediately, and it has to be personalized/customized to the greatest extent possible.

Live up to those demands, and the company has the ability to hit a home run. Disappoint the customer, and the company is more likely to strike out.

It's an Eye Opener.
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