Samuel and Lucille Davis started renting bicycles to folks in Baltimore’s Clifton and Druid parks for 25 cents a day in 1936, naming their business Princeton Cycle Company after their New Jersey hometown. They had business savvy, a strong work ethic and a fundamental commitment to customer service.
Eighty years later, their original efforts are reflected in the still-thriving Princeton Sports. The company today employs close to 50 people in two retail locations — Columbia and Baltimore — plus a warehouse. It does between $6 million and $8 million in business a year and has an outstanding reputation in the sports field.
For the last three years, the company has been named one of America’s Best Bike Shops by the National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA).
Committed to the Business
Princeton Sports has grown and evolved, and continued to succeed where many small sports businesses have fallen to the pressures of changing demographics, online shopping and Big Box retailing. The company remains a family-owned and -operated business.
From their bicycle stand, Samuel and Lucille moved to a shop on Park Heights Circle and added toys to the mix. Grandson and now company president Alan Davis has fond memories of visiting the shop and being able to get Matchbox cars. The toy business lasted until the 1960s.
Samuel died in 1963, and son Bernard “Sonny” Davis took over the business, although Lucille, a CPA herself, continued to be deeply involved.
“She had more guts than anybody else. [She was] willing to take a chance; she was an innovator,” noted Sonny Davis, who at 84 still works in both stores.
The same has been said about him. Although Sonny’s sons, Alan and Paul Davis, now run the company’s day-to-day operations, Alan noted, “He [Sonny] was the foundation of the business — one of the smartest businesspeople I know.”
Hitting the Slopes
Sonny, an avid skier, once visited a Baltimore ski shop and found it incredibly busy. He decided, “I’m going into the ski business.” Samuel was dubious, but agreed to lease his son space in the store — as a separate ski business. The rest is history, and today, ski-related business makes up about 45% of the company.
Biking is another 45%, with other fitness sports, including running and tennis, taking the rest. Biking and skiing together mean all-season selling and rental opportunities.
Adding skiing to the mix transformed the company, and it has become a cornerstone of Princeton Sports’ success. At one point the company was known as Princeton Sports and Travel, reflecting a thriving component that grew out of the ski business. However, the travel business changed dramatically after 9/11, driven by the decrease in travel agent commissions and the growth of online businesses, so Princeton Sports discontinued that service in 2002.
Building a Home
The company took a major leap in 1970 when, under Sonny’s leadership, it built its own store on Falls Road, near the city/county line. Many of its customers were from Baltimore County, and recognizing this, the Davises selected a site where they could continue to serve city customers as well as those further out.
For the first 10 years, they rented out the top floors of the building, covering mortgage payments while leaving room for growth. Why own? “You leave too much to risk with landlords,” stated Alan Davis.
Moving to Columbia
Opportunity knocked again in 1981. The late Michael Spear, one of Princeton Sports’ best customers, and then an executive vice president for development at the Rouse Company, developers of Columbia, invited Sonny to take a look at the new community for a possible store location. After rejecting a number of potential lease locations, including the Mall and the soon-to-be-built Dobbin Center, the company ultimately purchased the former Wilson Home & Garden Center location on Little Patuxent Parkway.
As business at the new location grew, the Davises built out the space into what is today’s Princeton Sports. Alan Davis, then 23 and working at a ski shop, was tapped by his father to run the store. Today, while both stores have the same products, the Columbia store does a little better in bike-related products, while the Baltimore location does a bit better with ski-related business.
Keeping the Competitive Edge
Competing with online business has been a particular challenge. Today, people can order skis, boots and bicycles online; often at a lower original cost. But after that, customers are on their own. This is where Princeton Sports’ competitive edge kicks in.
Skis, boots, snowboards and bikes demand careful fittings for maximum — or even useful — performance. The knowledgeable staff, many of whom are sports enthusiasts themselves, work with customers to ensure they not only buy or rent the right equipment to start with, but receive added value from their expenditures. Ski or snowboard purchases come with free tunes (sharpen and wax) for the life of the product. Buy a bike, and they’ll assemble it at no additional charge, provide a 30-day free check-up and one year free labor. The result is customer satisfaction, appreciation and loyalty.
Noted triathlete Jodi Finkelstein: “I purchased my first road bike from them and had it for over 10 years. … They were especially helpful after I crashed during an Iron Girl [competition]. … They fixed my bike free of charge. They asked me to come in a week later so they could check on the bike — and me.”
Bicyclist Anne Towne concurred. “The customer service was related to what I wanted, what I needed. What my skill level was. They helped me put the bike on the car. They tuned up my bike year after year. … It was a consistently good experience.”
Meeting Today’s Challenges
Finding good employees has become more of a challenge, despite good benefits, including “cool discounts.”
Yet, according to Columbia store employee and avid biker Chuck Nguyen, once a customer, who now works in his “play store,” “It’s a great atmosphere, like a team. If you are a team player and like to help people — this is the place to be.”
The company continues to find new opportunities and ways to market itself. It was an early adopter and retailer of Under Armour clothing, and, for the first time this past October, it hosted the Liberty Ski Patrol Ski Swap and Sale.
Word-of-mouth and direct mail are valued avenues of marketing. Social media, including 7,000 Facebook followers, and Instagram, plus email, are increasingly important. The company no longer advertises on traditional radio and TV.
A Community Partner
Princeton Sports is deeply involved in the community, where its commitment also stands out. It supports and sponsors many community and race events, including the Howard County Police Pace, and most recently, Bike the Lights. Alan Davis has served on and been a founding member of many organizations, including the Howard County Police Foundation.
Noted Board President Kyri Jacobs, “When Alan gets behind an event or initiative, he is all in. You never have to worry about him coming through.”
Talk with Alan and Sonny Davis and they’ll agree that while business acumen is important, in the end, customer service is why the company has continued to succeed. As Alan Davis said, “Customers come first. Treat them like family, and they’ll come back.” For 80 years they have.