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Why I am now a Decathlon convert

Written by Fiona February 09 2011

I’d seen the billboards. I’d read the in-paper adverts. I’d had a flier through the door. But for some reason I thought that Decathlon, the French sports retail outlet that  is making itself present in the UK, was a bit, well, how shall I put this “cheap”! Now I’m not adverse to things being cheap. I like a bargain just as much as anyone else, but when it comes to my sports kit I prefer to pay for quality. I have previously found to my cost that the so-called “bargain” running gloves or socks fall apart; the waterproof that isn’t Goretex doesn’t do the job for years to come; and the cut-price sports bra only keeps things in place for a few washes, rather than a year of washing.

Stunning array of colours in Decathlon clothing

So I didn’t even bother to go to the new Decathlon store near the Fort Centre, Glasgow. But then I was invited to Lille, in France, to the headquarters of Decathlon. In France, Decathlon is the biggest employer. There’s a Decathlon store in almost every town and city and everyone wears some kind of Decathlon kit, whether cycling, running, gym/fitness, golf, boating, climbing etc. I noticed that people wore their Decathlon kit with pride. And I quickly realised that Decathlon is much more than a discount sports store.

Decathlon has been going strong in France, and other European countries, for 35 years. Indeed, Decathlon is the world’s largest sports retailer. Decathlon is now part of the wider company Oxylane, which brings brings together two activities, international sports products and brands and local and on-line retail.

The aim of Oxylane – and Decathlon specifically – is to make the “pleasures and benefits of sport accessible to all by making their products extremely affordable to all”. This is a big mission statement, especially when you consider the number of Scots that don’t seem to be interested in doing sport or the health benefits.

So how does Oxylane go about making good quality at affordable prices? They make their own! They design the clothing and kit for a huge range of sports, including road and mountain bikes, gym equipment, ski wear, fitness gear and golf stuff, from scratch. They think very carefully about what customers will want and then they make a range of clothing or kit to suit a range of budgets, from entry level to expert. Because – and this is where Decathlon score highly in my mind – they know that we all take our sports to different levels.

Decathlon footwear in lots of colours, sizes and "levels"

While I like to take my running and cycling seriously, other people simply want a bit of exercise or fun. Others need to be encouraged to even get off the sofa and go for a walk so there is no way they are going to pay top-dollar prices for clothing and footwear. So each level of clothing or kit in each of the sports departments is priced from lower to higher and at each stage of price increase there are extra details.

As an example I spotted a range of own brand Kalenji women’s running tights. The “essential” level tights cost £9.99. These are breathable, supportive and boast a small pocket for keys, etc. These tights offer pretty much all most joggers and runners will need. But Decathlon also sell a higher level of tights for running. The Deefux Stretch Running Tights offer compression support and a more funky design and come in three-quarter length at £12.99 or full length at £24.99. These latter products are still very cheap when compared to brands such as Adidas or Gore, and I couldn’t see  a great deal of compromise on garment make, design and quality. I am hoping to test some of the products to see how they feel when out training.

The others things I found I liked about Decathlon include:

* Shop assistant expertise. There are experts and even professional athletes working in each department so you can be sure you’re being kitted out with the right clothing or sports gear. If you’re buying ski boots and skis, for example, it’s possible to pick these up off the shelves but you will also receive expert advice on fit, design, price etc.

Even golf balls come in a range of rainbow colours

* The colour range of clothing, golf balls and even footwear is amazing, from reds and oranges through to purples and blacks. This is in both men’s and women’s departments.

* Rather like Ikea, Decathlon sell a wide range of useful gadgets that you never thought you might want but when you see them you realise just how fab they are – and immediately want one. (While this isn’t so good for your bank balance it does bring a smile to your face when you sudenly spot something ingenious!)

A man test-drives a scooter in-store!

* Customers are encouraged to try bikes, scooters and moving items in-store. So I took a mountain bike for a test ride over a few made-for-purpose in-store obstacles. I saw others trying a tandem and there were children happily zooming around the store on kids’ bikes. It’s this kind of easy-going atmosphere that should encourage more people to have a go at different sports.

* The children’s clothing and gear is almost as wide ranging as the products for adults. And it’s possible to buy great quality kit at very cheap prices. I picked up a swimming costume for Little Miss for just £6 and it is made very well and colourful. Her new goggles made specifically for children were just £2.99 and apparently they fit brilliantly. “The best ever!” she tells me. We lose goggles in our house all the time so £2.99 is a fab price.

* Decathlon have ensured that quailty kit can come at cheaper prices because they pay attention to the level of detail that we each require. Yes, they sell running tops for £5.99 but they also sell an excellent running top for colder weather at £12.99, a step-up jacket for £29.99 and a full-on windproof jacket with a host of technical details for £49.99. The comparable tops made by other big brands cost a great deal more. I know, because I’ve paid out for such items over the last decade.

To be honest, I hadn’t realised quite how impressed I was with Decathlon until two days into my recent ski holiday when one of the friends we were skiing with, Big G, said: “You doing PR for decathlon or something? How much are they paying you?” It seems I’d mentioned the Decathlon kit my family were wearing just once too often!

Decathlon are not paying me to big them up, although they did pay for me to have a lovely and highly informative and inspiring two-day trip to France. There were o strings attached, they simply wanted to show a few Scots what Decathlon is all about. And  I really like what they sell.

When in the Decathlon store near Glasgow (after the French trip) we bought Decathlon own brand ski trousers for the G-Force; ski socks, ski goggles and a baselayer  for Little Miss; ski mittens, several pairs of silk liner gloves, snow shoes (a review of those is to come), and sports glasses for me, as well as a host of stocking filler gadgets,

Decathlon Pink Rear B'Twin bike light

including the innovative b’Twin bike light. It costs just £5.99 but offers a decent amount of light and simply clips around a part of your bike. They are tactile, fun-looking and highly practical. I told you there were Ikea-like products!

If you need any further persuading that the 40,000 sq ft Decathlon outlet at the Fort Retail Park is worth a little out of town shopping trip then you might be interested to know that the store absorbed the January VAT increase to ensure that price rises did not inhibit customers from getting more exercise. There are also now plans to open a second store at Braehead.

While decathlon kit is certainly as cheap as they advertise in my opinion it’s good quality and ideal for most amateur and wannabe fitness folks.

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