Cutting-edge retailing at today’s clubs has gone far beyond hoping for quick sales as golfers check in for tee times. Today’s top shops offer a shopping experience that may not even involve golf.
The modern golf club pro shop, much like the golf business itself, has been forced to adjust to the times. Today’s shops must deal with competition from off-course super- and big-box stores, tightening budgets and—perhaps most importantly—changes in customer tastes and behaviors.
Successful shops, particularly those at private clubs and upscale resorts, are a far cry from the day when they were primarily a place for golfers to check in for tee times, chew the fat with golf pros, and do little more than glance at the dusty sets of clubs, boxes of shoes and assorted balls, divot tools and other paraphernalia that was scattered about the check-in desk. Today’s top pro shops, in fact, provide a full shopping experience that often may not even involve golf.
|Shop Ownership: More of a Team EffortJust as the operation of the pro shop has become more professional, businesslike and creative, the actual ownership of the shop has gradually evolved from the traditional setup that was designed to produce incremental revenue for the head golf professional, who would own or lease the shop from the club or course’s ownership.
As the increasing sophistication of pro shop operations, its growing variety of inventory, and its more creative merchandising have led to increased sales and profitability, fewer clubs have been willing to turn over shop ownership to their golf professionals. Periodic surveys by the Club Managers Association of America have shown a gradual but consistent decline in ownership of the pro shop by a club professional or outside contractor. In 2004, survey respondents reported that 41% of their shops were owned by the golf professional. By 2007, that number had declined to 37%.
The survey methodology was then changed, and in 2012, new data was released that showed the percentage of pros’ ownerships of shops, broken down into Small Market, Lower and Upper Mid Level and Large Market revenue categories. This data revealed a distinct correlation between increased club ownership of shops as their revenue levels increased. In the latest (2015) survey, only 21% of shops in the largest revenue markets were owned by the club pro.
While there has been a distinct trend towards club ownership of pro shops, one exception to the rule is The Country Club of North Carolina in Pinehurst, N.C., where Golf Shop Manager Christy Dotson and her husband Jack, the club’s Director of Golf, bought the shop from the club four years ago.
The combination of Christy’s retail background and fashion sense, and Jack’s golf-business knowledge, has earned their shop recognition as the Carolinas Merchandiser of the Year two years running, along with an annual spot on the list of the Association of Golf Merchandisers (AGM) Platinum Award winners. Most impressively, the Dotsons have doubled shop sales since taking ownership.
One reason for that success, Christy Dotson says, is how the staff pros in the shop have developed a fall-back position in retail sales management if their golf careers don’t pan out.
“Our golf pros not only know how to sell clubs and equipment, they know how to sell ladies’ clothes, lotions, jewelry and watches,” she says. “We teach them a lot about merchandising, such as display, colors and trends. We carry a lot of high-end golf lines like Peter Millar and Polo, but we carry a lot of non-golf lines too. We’ve brought in a number of different types of belts we can logo.
“It’s all about change—we constantly move inventory and keep it fresh, or find new fixtures for it,” she adds. “We do a lot of fun stuff to promote the shop, like event shows or fashion shows. Last Christmas, we did a ‘Putt for More’ event in the shop where people could putt for additional [discounts on purchases]. It was a little different, and very popular.”
Jason Epstein, Director of Golf at The Club at Las Campanas in Santa Fe, N.M., is the 2015 PGA Merchandiser of the Year. He modestly attributes his club’s golf shop success to a team effort, which in turn generates more customer touch points and improves relationships with the club’s staff.
“The key is that we involve the whole team in the golf shop and the process, to get the staff out from behind the counter,” Epstein says. “The staff is directly involved with ordering, merchandising and sales. It’s all about how members are engaged and made to feel welcome, and [shown] that the staff is trained in more than the game of golf. Member satisfaction has gone way up with that approach.”
Like the Dotsons at The Country Club of North Carolina, Epstein asks his staff to expand their reach from golf equipment and accessories to a more fashion-conscious sales presentation. While 40% of the Las Campanas shop’s business still lies in hard goods such as clubs and golf balls, growth has come from placing equal emphasis on apparel.
“Our guys are much more fashion-aware,” Epstein says. “They can match belts and shoes, pick out button-down shirts and help members select things that both look good and work well.
“Recently, there’s been a huge shift to tech wear, but I think the pendulum will go back to cotton with some ‘tech’ characteristics, such as cotton with no ironing and moisture-wicking features,” Epstein adds. “For ladies, it’s about functionality for [clothes that can be worn] in town, in the clubhouse or on the course. We find that people are willing to spend a little more for quality.”
When it comes to pricing, Epstein is adamant that even in a private-club environment, shops should resist the temptation to assume that members will always prefer to buy from their home club, and that the cost of what’s offered in the shop will not be their primary concern.
“Our soft goods are priced competitively with the big-box stores, and in clubs we compete with the wholesalers and discounters,” he says. “There’s not a lot of markup on golf clubs, but we get relationships out of those sales that turn into future sales.
“Any private club that doesn’t [price competitively] is crazy,” Epstein states. “The incremental revenue [of excessive markup] is not worth it. We ask ourselves to always think along the lines of, ‘How would you sell to a friend or a relative?’“
David Von Hoffmann, Director of Golf at Spanish Oaks Golf Club in Bee Cave, Texas, says his shop does a significant amount of hard-goods sales—approximately a third of total shop revenues—at modest margins ranging from 18% to 23%. But soft-goods margins are higher at Spanish Oaks, Von Hoffmann notes, with nearly 90% of the sales coming from logoed items. He also sees a shift toward non-golf-specific lifestyle products.
“We’re moving further into lifestyle-type pieces,” Von Hoffmann says. “We carry some Nike athletic gear and yoga-type stuff. Yeti Coolers, and things from the woven shirt companies like Mizzen+Main, have also done well.
“We’re looking to continue to grow in these areas,” he adds. “We do focus groups and coffee get-togethers, to find out what our members are looking for. We also offer an app to help market the shop to members, and that’s worked well.”
At Cherokee Town and Country Club in Atlanta, Golf Shop Manager Christina Klejka also reports that, in addition to successful sales of many of golf’s leading apparel brands, she has had success with non-golf items including Smathers & Branson needlepoint in collegiate-branded items and fashion pieces, Sterling Cut Glass, Tervis tumblers, and American Needle hats with a club patch. Klejka also emphasizes the importance of building a good team, which should include a merchandiser who frequently switches out products and displays to keep the shop looking fresh.
At Forest Highlands Golf Club in Flagstaff, Ariz., Director of Golf Matt Bailey oversees two shops for the 36-hole facility. Soft goods account for somewhere between 80% and 90% of sales, Bailey estimates, with hard-goods sales concentrated in the custom-fitting of metal woods and wedges.
The key to success at Forest Highlands, Bailey says, lies in keeping both shops fresh and giving members a reason to stop in. “We change [each] shop out every two weeks, so it’s not stagnant,” he reports. “If we have something that hasn’t sold for two or three weeks, we’ll move it around in the shop and change out the display, and people will then think it’s new and buy it.”
One of the club’s more memorable displays involved a member’s Harley Davidson motorcycle, which was used as a merchandise display that could be moved in and around the shop (see photo, pg. 49). Another time, one of the club’s golf carts was brought in as a display prop for featured items.
Some clubs have the enviable distinction of hosting PGA Tour events and even major championships—and when they do, their pro shops make extra efforts to take full advantage of those opportunities.
In the case of the Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Fla., Merchandise Manager and Buyer Leslie Glover not only has the cachet of an annual Tour stop to sell, but also the enduring appeal of the club’s owner and founder, Arnold Palmer. Virtually everything in Bay Hill’s pro shop, other than golf clubs, bears either the club logo, Arnie’s likeness, or both. This has a positive impact, Glover says, on the club’s ability to mark up soft goods and other logoed items such as divot tools, ball markers, keychains and virtually everything else in the shop.
At Kiawah Island (S.C.) Golf Resort, Resort President and former PGA of America President Roger Warren is well aware that having the iconic Ocean Course among its five resort layouts, with a history that includes past and future PGA Championships and the 1991 Ryder Cup matches, is a contributing factor to the Ocean Course’s annual pro shop revenues of approximately $2.5 million.
While Warren knows that the reputation of the club and resort guarantees a certain amount of member and guest traffic, he’s also learned that industry-wide, the growing trend toward online sales has made the golf pro shop business even more challenging.
“It’s always a challenge managing the shop, because more people are looking at online sales,” Warren says. “On the other hand, we, like many others, offer online sales opportunities, and we’re happy that people want to buy online—because in that case we don’t have to compete with off-course shops and we can get a better margin. It’s a challenge that every ‘green grass’ shop faces, but it can also be an advantage because of logos.”
Head Golf Professional Stephen Youngner, who oversees Kiawah Island’s booming Ocean Course pro shop sales operation, says the shop’s mission is to provide the same level of quality as the rest of the Kiawah Island experience. While Youngner and the shop’s merchandiser, Ashley Agapion, who has been in that position for over 20 years, know what resident members and guests like, they are always looking for something unique that will, in Youngner’s words, “represent the logo well.”
If an item itself may not stand out on its own merits, the shop displays an AHEAD engraving machine on the counter, to promote the fact that the Kiawah Ocean Course logo can be added to virtually any metal products in the shop, and that items can also be personalized with the buyer’s name.
The message for pro shop operators to draw from all of these examples is the same hard lesson that U.S. golf course owners and operators everywhere have learned over the past decade or so: In today’s golf business, it’s no longer a case of “If you build it, they will come.” Just as clubs and courses are having to work harder to retain and grow their customer base through creative marketing and a focus on the overall experience, their pro shops are now encountering greater challenges to give their customers reasons to do their shopping on property. Like full membership rolls and tee sheets, black numbers on the pro shop balance sheet are no accident.