Jim Spring prides himself on being on top of things. "You know the current boom in roller skating?" says Spring, the president of SMART (Sports Marketing and Retail Technology), a consulting firm based in Wilton, Conn. "Well, I predicted that craze four years ago."
By taking daily and weekly samplings of merchandise sold by as many as 300 sporting goods and specialty shops around the country, and then feeding that information into one of three computers, SMART, one of the largest and most complete sports data firms in the world, can predict trends in sports—in participation, equipment and clothing. Spring in turn sells that information back to the sporting goods people, as well as to sports equipment manufacturers, giving them a better idea of what's hot and what's not.
Several years ago SMART helped give the Prince racket a nudge. "We affected not only what was stocked but what was made," Spring says. "Nobody knew how well the Prince was doing. Our data told the manufacturers to keep producing and the retail stores to keep selling. The consumer was loving the racket and buying. We quantified the Prince's popularity. And very soon people said, 'Boy, we've got to get into that marketplace!' "
In 1969 Spring watched as the ski industry boomed. "I figured nothing could grow and grow forever," he says. "I wanted to know where and when it would level off."
Out of that curiosity and what he believed was a need to put professionalism into the retail sporting goods trade. Spring founded SMART. "It started in my living room," he says, "with my son and me fighting over who was going to use the phone first."
As the sporting goods industry grew, the need for reading its pulse did too, and Spring opened an office in New Canaan, Conn. "We had a railroad flat over a liquor store," Spring says. "We used to try to keep our customers away from the office, because they all thought we were a hot computer company."
Until two years ago, when Spring moved his home office to Wilton and before he opened a data center in Meriden, Conn., SMART used outside service bureaus to compile its data. Still, Spring has tried to keep his company personal. "SMART works on all levels," he says. "One morning I made a presentation to the chairman of the board of AMF. Then, on the way home, I stopped at a sporting goods store in White Plains to help take inventory."
So what's the next big craze? For no fee, Spring will give you a hint. He enjoys being able to say, "I told you so" several years down the road.
"The next big boom will be in exercise equipment—jump ropes, punching bags, weights," he says. According to SMART'S polls, the exercise-equipment boom hit California about a year ago, spread through the Sun Belt to Texas and is now moving up the East Coast.
"What athletic footwear stores were to the '70s, exercise equipment stores will be to the '80s," Spring predicts.
But that's not all. SMART'S polls show that wind-surfing will soon die in the U.S.—"Anything that depends mainly on kids is short-lived"—and the tennis market will slowly come back to life.
"In the early '70s an enormous amount of tennis equipment was sold, but by '77 sales had dropped significantly," he says. "Then, last spring, they hit bottom.
"But I see a 50% increase in the market, thanks to the children of all those people who tried tennis but found it too difficult. Those people are now jogging—but they want their kids to learn tennis."
However, Spring doesn't want to sound like a know-it-all all the time. He'll never forget the time SMART looked far less than brilliant—downright dumb, in fact. "The worst mistake I ever made was in 1978-79," Spring says, now able to laugh over the episode. "The ski industry was doing $812 million in retail sales, and I predicted that winter that industry sales would exceed $1 billion. So everyone manufactured skis like they were coming out of your ears, and retailers stocked their shelves to the brim with ski stuff.
"And what happened? The ski industry went the other way. It didn't snow that winter! I sure learned my lesson. Never again will I make another prediction based on weather. It's too iffy."