While Walmart scored the most votes when consumers were asked to pick their favorite retailer for athletic apparel, Dick's Sporting Goods won by a wide margin when the results were indexed to factor in the number of stores, according to a national consumer survey from Market Force Information. Dick's SG also ranked highest for service.

The Retail Trends study was conducted last month among more than 7,000 consumers across the country. Consumers were asked to select their favorite athletic apparel retailer from a list of more than 80 specialty and mass retailers, and to rate the retailers across 10 categories such as value and atmosphere.

Walmart Leads in Un-Indexed Vote Count

When the number of votes was counted, Walmart ranked first with 13.2%, followed by Target (11.3%), Kohl's (9.7%), Dick's Sporting Goods (9.1%), Nike (7%) and Sports Authority (5.9%).

Dick's Sporting Goods Snags No.1 Spot in Indexed Votes

These results were then indexed by each store's total number of locations to level the playing field, since companies like Walmart operate significantly more stores than chains such as Sports Authority. When Market Force factored the number of stores into the results, Dick's Sporting Goods easily jumped into first place with 22% of the vote. Sports Authority ranked second with 15%, followed by Nike in third with 12%, Kohl's in fourth with 11% and Target rounded out the top five with 8%.

Customer Service is King

When consumers were asked to rate the athletic apparel retailers in 10 categories, no all-around favorite emerged. However, Dick's Sporting Goods stood out in customer service, which was obviously a weighty category. It also fared well for atmosphere and the ease of finding specific merchandise, but scored mediocre on price, dressing rooms and ease of returns.

“Sales in the athletic apparel market slipped in the past year, but as consumers are starting to grow more bullish about retail spending, there's a huge opportunity for retailers that can figure out what matters most to consumers and capitalize on it,” said Janet Eden-Harris, chief marketing officer for Market Force. “Our research shows customer service is one area where stores can impact loyalty and drive recommendations, which will ultimately help attain and retain customers in 2011.”

Kohl's also earned high marks for many of the attributes that matter most to consumers, ranking first for ease of returns and parking availability, and second for its value prices and inviting dressing rooms. Nike and Sports Authority were closely grouped with the leaders in many of the categories.

The survey was conducted in October across the United States and Canada. The pool of 7,000 respondents reflected a broad spectrum of income levels, with approximately 70% reporting household incomes of more than $50,000 a year, and a blend of ages from 19- to 70-years old. Approximately three-quarters of respondents are women – the primary household consumer purchasers, and an equal percentage work full or part time. Half of the respondents have children at home and two thirds are married.