Unlimited Sports Group (USG), the leading Dutch sports wholesaler and retailer, continued to reinforce its operations and management last year, as it tightened its grip on the sports market in the Benelux countries and beyond.

USG weathered a particularly sharp downturn in the Dutch sports market last year. Although the group refused to divulge sales figures, it indicated that its wholesale business had grown strongly owing to new distribution deals, with particularly impressive expansion in Germany. In the last two years it has obtained or extended deals with brands from Le Coq Sportif to Ellesse, Helly Hansen and Champion.

The Dutch group has altered its organization to deal with the growth, splitting its brands into sports, lifestyle and outdoor categories and giving each of them the resources to deploy more focused sales and marketing strategies. Furthermore, USG is preparing to open offices or showrooms in several countries beyond the Benelux countries and Germany, where it is already established. As reported in our previous issue, it considerably widened the scope of its wholesale business again earlier this month by obtaining licensing rights for Pantofola d’Oro in a dollop of markets outside its usual remit of the Benelux and German-speaking markets.

Meanwhile, USG’s retail segment, consisting of the Perry Sport, Aktiesport, Time Out and Primo banners, slightly lifted its sales for the year, against a turnover of nearly €243 million in 2008. The group saw fewer customers in its stores but improved its conversion rate and increased its store count, albeit by just one store.

Perry Sport, USG’s most performance-oriented banner, benefited most from the cold weather, both at the beginning and at the end of the year, which triggered huge sales of skating-related products in the Netherlands. Perry saw an upswing in sales of ski, outdoor, camping, fitness and running products. Its comparable sales increased slightly, and six store openings pushed sales further above their level of €121 million in 2008.

The retailer ended the year with 57 stores including two stores under the Perry for Women banner. USG had previously launched a trial under the Sport and Eve banner, but decided to switch to a women-specific store name using the Perry brand. It has two women’s stores so far, in Nijmegen and Haarlem, and intends to open up to 20 of them in the mid-term. Perry for Women stores are about 300 square meters, compared with an average of more than 800 square meters for standard Perry Sport stores.

Aktiesport, the group’s more price-aggressive store format, couldn’t take advantage of the cold weather to the same extent, as it concentrates on less-technical products. Its comparable sales were slightly down but it ended the year with a turnover just above the €94.5 million reported in 2008, due to 10 store openings.

Aktiesport ended the year with 160 stores, and it also inaugurated a new concept, Aktiesport XL. Not quite like the sports megastores that have proliferated in the Netherlands in the last years, the two Aktiesport XL stores in Amsterdam and Rotterdam are about 500 square meters, but this is still much larger than the average of between 150 and 200 square meters for standard Aktiesport stores.

Furthermore, Henk Knevel was appointed chief commercial officer (CCO) at Aktiesport. In the USG group’s retail organization, the management of each banner is divided between a CCO and a financial officer. Knevel previously held the same position at Primo, USG’s Belgian banner. He was replaced there by Stephan Goeman, former general manager of H&M in Belgium and Luxembourg. Knevel himself replaced Edwin Wielinga, who has left the company.

Time Out Sport, the sports lifestyle banner acquired by the USG group three years ago, was more strongly affected by the sharp downturn in the Dutch fashion and footwear market. Its comparable sales were slightly down but they ended the year much lower due to the divestment of 13 stores, which were either closed down or transformed into other banners, as part of USG’s strategy to turn Time Out into a full franchise. Time Out Sport ended the year with 26 stores, all of them franchises.

As for Primo, it fully benefited from the cold weather in Belgium. Its comparable sales were up slightly and it ended the year with a turnover a little higher than the €27 million reported for 2008. This increase was achieved in spite of two store closures, so that Primo ended the year with 31 stores. This sales hike has enabled Primo to strengthen its market share, since the Belgian market is thought to have declined by about 3 to 4 percent for the year. The market saw yet more concentration at the hands of Décathlon and Sports Direct.

At the end of last year, the group’s board was strengthened with Michel Escribano. He formerly headed USG’s lifestyle and fashion division and was appointed managing director of all brands. The position was previously filled by Pascal Kouwenhoven, who has become strategic marketing director. Along the same lines, the group appointed Len Langenberg as its non-executive strategic business development officer. He was previously joint chief executive with Jos Gillebaard, who remains at the helm by himself. Both Gillebaard and Langenberg are leading shareholders in the group, which is further backed by Bencis Capital.