Second-Hand Rows

Recycling is a way of life here

by Keith Morrill

Duncan MacdonaldIn January 1993, just four years out of college, Duncan Macdonald opened his Play It Again Sports franchise in partnership with his wife, Julia, and his father, Don, who retired in 2010. The store, located in South Burlington’s Blue Mall, sells new and used sports equipment.

The Blue Mall in South Burlington has seen its share of stores come and go, but for more than two decades, Play It Again Sports, nestled in the mall’s back corner, has been there to witness and weather the changes. For owner Duncan Macdonald, 48, change is the name of the game — whether from year to year, or season to season — and since 1993, he and his staff have been providing sporting goods to local sports enthusiasts.

Because Play It Again caters to seasonal sports, the makeup of the store is in constant flux, and depending on the time of year, customers might encounter walls of lacrosse gear, racks of skis, or displays of hockey gear. While much of the gear is new, Play It Again, as the name implies, deals in large volumes of used merchandise. “The franchise was ahead of its time on the whole recycling concept,” says Macdonald.

That concept seems to please Vermont’s socially-conscious demographic, because the South Burlington store deals above the franchise’s average in used gear, which represents roughly 40 percent of the store’s sales. The franchise averages about 28 percent.

Maintaining a requisite level of new gear is as simple as placing an order, but Macdonald looks to numerous sources to replenish his used stock. “We try to buy fleets from some of the local ski areas — mostly Stowe, but also Jay Peak and a couple of others,” he says. He buys used gear from Middlebury College once a year, and other schools less often. Gear also comes from individuals looking to earn both extra cash and a little peace of mind. “A lot of people are really happy that someone else can use it.”

Play It Again’s good sportsmanship extends beyond reducing landfill bulk. “I want Play It Again to be the neighborhood sporting goods store,” he says. That comes in part by creating an atmosphere in which customers continue to return for a lifetime of sporting-goods needs. “It’s really, really neat to watch kids that first came into the store with their parents — to watch their growth and to watch their enjoyment of the sports.”

Community involvement means more than the standard retail commitment to customer service; Play It Again is involved with area youth sports groups. “That’s probably one of the most rewarding things that I do, helping with organizations like that.”

Shelburne resident Glenn Griesser, regional sales director at SymQuest Group and president of Chittenden–South Burlington Youth Hockey, speaks of his long history with Macdonald and Play It Again. Macdonald has helped gear Greisser’s children over the past 15 years. “[Macdonald and his staff] do a great job of helping folks find what they need, and I guess the bottom line is they take the time necessary to work with parents who come looking for guidance or assistance.” He adds, “There are not too many stores you can go into where you can develop a rapport with the owner.”

George Brown, fundraiser for the Burlington Amateur Hockey Association, calls him a vigilant supporter of the organization. “He’s one of our higher-level contributors,” says Brown. “He’s really committed to the community.”

Macdonald supports fundraisers and events as well as providing players and teams the chance to pick up used gear for the season. He used to coach South Burlington Youth Lacrosse, another group the store supports.

His commitment to the community makes sense considering how long he has been a part of it. Macdonald and his wife, Julia, reside in South Burlington, and have raised two sons there — Patrick, 19, and Andrew, 14. He grew up in South Burlington, moving away only to attend Connecticut College, where he graduated with a degree in English and government in 1988.

He then headed west, drawn by Colorado’s mountains, where he lived what he calls the typical ski-bum lifestyle: working as a ski instructor while supplementing his income with stints waiting tables, painting houses, and working retail in a ski shop one summer.

“I didn’t have a firm game plan,” says Macdonald. “A friend I had gone to college with had lived there and told me the folks in the place where she had lived would be happy to give me temporary accommodations while I was looking for a place.” As luck would have it, Julia Smith, whom he would marry in 1993, answered the door.

Even with his brief Colorado foray into selling sporting goods, Macdonald says, his future path was unclear. “I was in the quintessential crossroads of life.”

Direction came in 1991 when his father, Don, saw the daughter of a longtime friend operating a Play It Again store in West Hartford, Conn., and decided it would be a wise venture to bring to Vermont. Macdonald’s parents attended a franchise discovery day as prospective franchisees, meeting with representatives from the company and submitting financials. Subsequently, Macdonald and Julia followed suit. “It was a chance to find out what it involves,” he says.

“Once we decided to do it and were approved, Julia and I went out for two weeks of training.” Called Retail 101, it was a two-week intensive program where freshly dubbed franchisees would learn the ins and outs of owning and operating a Play It Again store. A big part of the training, Macdonald recalls, was discussing used goods, answering questions such as, “How do you value equipment?” and, “What is it worth?”

He and his father secured their Dorset Street location in August 1992. They were originally slated to open in October of that year, but a few issues with occupancy delays at the Blue Mall pushed the opening to January 1993. In retrospect, he says, “It was actually probably for the better, because we would have been like lambs to the slaughter that first holiday season.”

Once they did open, Macdonald found that his time as a ski instructor served him well in retail. “I had to communicate with people, and reach out and have good rapport, and be fairly comfortable chatting,” he says.

Like any good retailer, he stresses the importance of that approach to new employees. “That’s what I tell people I interview: ‘Look, I can teach you anything you want to know about skis. What I can’t teach you is how to relate well with people. Are you friendly? Are you outgoing? If you’re not, it’s going to be really hard to be a retail sales person.’”

Being able to talk to customers didn’t prepare him for all the growing pains of running his own store — what he calls the “blood and guts”: all of the business minutiae his father handled. “He worked in the back and helped me with the books for a long time,” says Macdonald.

For the first six months, Macdonald, his wife, and his father ran the entire operation. They quickly realized they needed more help, and started hiring staff, something they would continue to do as his father gradually phased out of the business (he fully retired in 2010).

Macdonald went from being the floor manager to doing more from the sidelines. In 1997 he hired a full-time manager. These days the store has both a store manager, Eric Small, and an assistant store manager, Matthew Dattilio. Julia is still an officer, but no longer works day-to-day.

Macdonald spent a fair amount of time figuring out which niches the store would fill. When it opened, inline skating was at the peak of its popularity. “We used to have a pretty good chunk of the store devoted to that in the spring,” he recalls. Right before inline skating died out in the late ’90s, he says, it was one of the store’s biggest selling sports categories. Of the sport’s sudden decline, he says, “It was pretty drastic. When inline skating died out, it really died out.” Inline skating equipment still appears among the summer stock these days, though only as fringe-market items.

The store has settled into a fairly defined niche. A few key sports make up the bulk of Play It Again’s stock. Winter sports score big — hockey in particular. Hockey became so popular that, in 2001, Macdonald expanded the store, blowing out a wall into a vacant neighboring unit, doubling the store space and creating what essentially was and remains a hockey showroom big enough to properly display the gear, which captures a lot of space.

Play It Again is again looking to expand — into online sales. “We’re late to that game,” admits Macdonald. “But because [the franchise has] a large number of stores, they really had to figure out a template that worked for all the stores. So hopefully we’re going to be launching into that fairly soon.”

With roughly 300 stores in the U.S. and around 40 in Canada, the franchisor recognized the potential for overcrowding the field unless a solid playbook was mapped out ahead of time. “The idea was to crawl before we walk.” •