Burnt yet unbowed – Iain Darroch of West Kilbride

Not every pro shop in the UK was buzzing this summer. At West Kilbride a fire at the end of August forced the pro shop to close for nearly a month, to bring the best spell in golf retailing in years to an abrupt halt for club professional Iain Darroch. Resolute and restored to his rightful place, the Glasgow pro spoke to Robin Barwick.
What is your career history in 50 words?

I was assistant professional at Eastwood Golf Club in Glasgow for five years, before I spent two years working at Golf Academy Bodensee in Germany. Then I was head professional at Eastwood for seven years, before coming to West Kilbride in 2007.

What has been your professional highlight so far?

I taught my dad to stop shanking the ball, twice.

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What is a unique selling point of West Kilbride to golfers?

The views from the golf course are absolutely stunning, so once golfers see the place with their own eyes they don’t need more convincing. The course is also very enjoyable, and while it can be a challenge on windy days, the best part for me is that all golfers, of all levels, can come here and enjoy themselves. We don’t get visitors coming off the 18th here without raving about the golf course.

There was a fire in your pro shop in August. How did it start and how bad was the damage?

West Kilbride Fire 1

The forensic report has not been released as yet, so I don’t know the full details, but the fire started in the kitchen of the flat above the shop. The flat was completely gutted, and while the fire itself did not reach my shop, the ceiling was brought in by the amount of water the fire brigade used to put the fire out. The damage to the shop and my stock was through water and smoke.

How long did it take to get the shop fully functioning after the fire?

The first problem was that the fire was the night before a member-guest day, and we have 200 golfers coming in that day! We just had to make do and we set-up in the spike bar and snooker room, and remained there for the three and a half weeks that the shop was closed. In that time we were very limited in what we could achieve in terms of retailing, which was frustrating, bearing in mind how good the weather was.

My insurance is with OKD, which has a partnership with the TGI Golf Partnership, and they have been absolutely brilliant. It was great to get back into the shop and to have our own space back.

How is trade in 2013 comparing to 2012?

Effectively we lost most of September due to the fire, but overall trade has been okay. It has been an unusual experience since the fire because trade obviously dipped, but then we held a ‘fire sale’ in the clubhouse, which gave us a brief peak. Until the fire, we had been carrying on at a similar level to 2012, which was fine.

What specific targets did you set for your business this year?

Our main target was to do as much coaching as possible. With price wars going on between a couple of the bigger online retailers, we decided to work on selling coaching to golfers, and on-course lessons too, and to offer special days that bring both instruction and equipment into an event, such as ‘Short Game Sundays’ and ‘Wedge Wednesdays’.

On a Short Game Sunday we would talk to golfers about helping their game, but also about what all the different wedges could do to help, particularly given that we have a links golf course here, and a lot of people don’t have the right wedges for this kind of golf course. We would charge golfers a fee for the clinic and we would have around six golfers to a 90-minute class.

It’s been a bit like a ‘back to basics’ campaign. As PGA professionals it is sessions like this that we are good at, and it’s something golfers can’t get online! You can get distracted as a club professional by trying to stock all these different brands of hardware, but that is an area where it is hard to win because of the online prices, so we are better off offering something different to golfers.

Which brands of hardware and software get the till ringing in your shop?

Iain Darroch - West Kilbride

I have always done well with Ping here – that is definitely the best company in golf for me. Ping is the best to deal with and I think the company is a ‘must’ for all pro shops. I have also done well with Callaway this year – a lot better than last year – and in clothing, Galvin Green always does well, particularly at this time of year, and Oscar Jacobson has been pretty good. What we find with Galvin Green is that once golfers have bought into it, they won’t consider buying a different brand again. Callaway clothing has been good as well.

What is your opinion on pro shops entering into e-commerce?

I don’t think it is an area for me. The only reason I would buy anything online is because of the price, so if you are going to retail online at anything higher than the cheapest prices, how are you going to sell it? I don’t see how we can make a profit when the margins are so low on high-end products.

How important is custom-fitting to your business, and what kind of fitting facility do you offer golfers?

I don’t have a launch monitor and I don’t have an indoor area – I think you would need an indoor area to get the return on the investment in a launch monitor – but we have a great practice area, and I just use the Ping fitting cart and the Callaway Opti-Fit system. So we take golfers to the practice ground, fit the clubs there and then, and then let golfers take the clubs out onto the course. I don’t push the clubs onto golfers. I fit them with the clubs I recommend, and then they can take them out onto the course and see how they compare to their old clubs.

I don’t think this job is about hard selling – I would rather our golfers have a good experience. At West Kilbride we are never going to attract lots of passing customers, so we need to make sure we look after our members and local golfers. Hopefully our customers think they get quality service and product.

How do you keep in touch with your members and customers?

I send out a monthly newsletter through TGI, which is great, and we fire out announcements when there is something specific going on, like a demo day. This time of year I send out one or two special offers each week, but I don’t want to overload our golfers because they will stop reading them.

What are you offering this week?

We have a Christmas raffle which is going very well. We have 500 tickets, and whatever ticket number the customer pulls out, is what they pay in pence for the ticket, so they can cost anything between 1p and £5. We have 10 prizes, first of which is a Golfstream power trolley, and we are giving away a Sunderland waterproof suit, and on the newsletter we headlined it: ‘Win a power trolley for a penny’. In the first week we sold around 100 tickets and we will keep going until the prize draw on Christmas Eve.

Did you attend the Golf Show 2013 in Harrogate, and if so, what did you make of it?

Yes, I have never missed one, and for me the show just keeps on getting better and better. Historically I used to do quite a bit of buying at the show, but this year I went down, had a look around and then made appointments with the companies I liked to come up to the shop. There is so much product at the show that looks great, but in the current climate we can’t afford to make any mistakes, and we need to be very sure of what we are trying to do at retail.

The other part of the show that is invaluable is catching up with other professionals, and finding out what they are up to, and what is working for them. I told Eddie Reid [managing director of the TGI Golf Partnership] that the best part for me is learning from fellow professionals.

Not naming names, but what has been the most ridiculous request you have been asked by a golfer?

We had one customer who struggled with the Ecco size chart, and asked me if the 41 was bigger than the 42. I didn’t really know where to go with that! We didn’t get the sale.