“Our first store had to be in our hometown,” said Gordon Devin, president of Wilson Sportswear and Retail. “We look at it as a love letter to Chicago.”
Wilson, which historically has sold its products through other retailers or online, is expanding into physical retailing at an uncertain time for brick-and-mortar stores. Many big brands, including Vineyard Vines, closed stores permanently during the coronavirus pandemic, an especially difficult period for the business as consumers stepped up their online purchases.
But Wilson’s new stores will allow the company to showcase its new Wilson Sportswear apparel line, a foray into fashion for a company better known for making tennis rackets, baseball mitts, footballs and other sports gear. The new line includes men’s polo shirts for $68, women’s skirts for $58 and windbreakers for $88. Wilson’s stores will also feature an “edited collection” of sporting goods, Devin said.
Wilson unveiled its plans for Wilson Sportswear and its retail rollout in May. Devin declined to say how many stores the company plans to open, but said the number would not reach into “the hundreds and hundreds.” He expects Wilson to open multiple locations here.
“I can see a future where we have more than four, less than eight” in the Chicago area, he said.
Stores serve a key branding purpose for retailers, especially for companies trying to reposition themselves in the marketplace, allowing them to connect directly with consumers. A store in a high-traffic location can serve as something of a billboard, sometimes more valuable as a marketing tool than a sales generator. That’s not Devin’s goal.
“Of course, retail stores play a role in the marketing and storytelling of the brand,” he said. But, “ultimately it’s about creating a highly profitable channel.”
How profitable will depend on the future of brick-and-mortar retailing. Online shopping has siphoned sales away from stores, a trend that accelerated during the pandemic. Shoppers are returning to stores enthusiastically amid the easing pandemic and booming economy, but the e-commerce threat has not gone away.
In Chicago, the pandemic has been especially cruel to landlords on North Michigan Avenue, where the retail vacancy rate is hovering around 20 percent. The Oak and Rush street shopping corridors have held up better, one reason Wilson picked the area for its first store, Devin said.
In recent months, Dior has leased more space to expand its store at 931 N. Rush, across the street from the new Wilson location. And Veronica Beard recently opened a store at 11 E. Walton St., just around the corner.
“This particular neighborhood has been far more resilient,” Devin said. “We felt it was a little more protected.”