An iron will for golf retailers

    Despite the explosive growth in single hybrid sales over the last decade, irons and hybrids continue to be sold in sets and are a major source of revenue for golf retailers. Here seven of the leading brands give their response to the issues affecting this important equipment sector.

    First the good news, nearly 30 percent of men aged 36 to 50 bought irons in 2014. And now the even better news: of all players who bought irons, well over half (55.5 percent) did so from an on-course pro shop, a driving range shop or an independent golf shop. Another 16.5 percent bought from one of the big-two multiple outlet golf retailers. Only around 13 percent of iron purchases were made online (see graphic). The reason for this is speculative but probably reflects the growth in custom-fitting.

    Richard TempleLast year the top five brands accounted for 74 percent of sales and the average price of an iron was over £65, with men spending £30 more on irons than women. The top five selling iron models accounted for over 30 percent of iron sales by value – in the top ten selling models one brand had five models!

    Turning to hybrids, 20 percent were purchased via the internet, a much higher proportion than irons. Although five brands accounted for over 77 percent of hybrid sales in 2014, there is greater diversity in hybrid suppliers than irons, with the top four hybrids coming from four different manufacturers and six brands had models in the 2014 top-ten best sellers.

    All statistics provided courtesy of Sports Marketing Surveys Inc.

    1. How can golf retailers better promote sales of irons and hybrids?

    Adams Adams is all about making the game easier, more enjoyable. That’s exactly what our hybrids and irons do. They are more forgiving than traditional long irons or irons sets and pop the ball easily into the air. The products still feature a host of proprietary technologies, but the main message we would urge retailers to get across is that if you just want to get the ball in the air, have more fun and enjoy the game more, then these are the products for you.

    Bridgestone Without doubt, the use of a launch monitor will help retailers generate more sales of irons and hybrids. It helps provide that crucial information to customers which shows just how new technology on the latest clubs, like the Bridgestone J15 range, can improve their game.

    Mizuno Particularly among club pros, wanting to help golfers maximise their potential with their equipment will always pay dividends. Whether it’s by offering club MOTs or explaining that custom fitting isn’t just for better players, there’s a lot that consumers don’t know and will trust their pro to help them with.  The more the retailer is aware of the features and benefits of equipment to the individual player, the more likely they will be to get noticeable results.

    ContributorsNike By helping consumers understand the benefits of modern iron construction, and also by pointing out the benefits of key technologies utilised in the irons. The Nike Vapor irons franchise (Pro, Pro Combo, Speed) features a new innovation called Modern Muscle. This is a modification of a standard muscle-back design that moves the iron’s centre of gravity to the centre of the clubface, crafted to yield more efficient and pure strikes.

    TaylorMade The huge performance benefits now available with the new innovations make a very compelling reason to change. A great example is our recent introductions of ‘SpeedPockets’ and ‘Face Slots’ in our TaylorMade clubs. Hybrid sales are an extension of the iron sale. By promoting a complete bag fitting to help golfers manage distance gapping this will invariably provide opportunities to better configure a player’s bag make up.

    Titleist While growing in popularity, hybrids are the weakest selling of the metal categories. Yet, they can provide multiple benefits to golfers of all levels. Long irons are traditionally the hardest clubs to hit and for many the gapping between irons becomes shorter, the longer the iron and as a result often a three iron goes very little further than a four iron. A hybrid can help to provide consistent gapping as well as offering a club that is easy to use from the fairway and excellent from the rough due to the more fairway like characteristics a hybrid employs. The key is to be custom fit, to work with a player to understand their potential shortcomings with long irons and identifying a clear route to improved sales for hybrids.

    2. With hybrids now so popular, is there any point in producing golf sets with three, four and five irons?

    Nick BonfieldAdams At the end of the day it all comes to down to personal preference.  The great thing about hybrids is that they offer great versatility not just from the fairway, but rough and even around the greens. As such, the majority of our iron sets will always feature hybrids, however we do offer sets in just irons for those who are already benefitting from our hybrid technology.

    Bridgestone Hybrids are certainly more forgiving than the traditional three, four and five iron and they allow players of all abilities to launch the ball higher, plus have more versatility in bad lies or in the rough. However, hybrids aren’t to everyone’s taste. Some feel that you lose workability and trajectory control by using a hybrid against a longer iron. It is very much dependant on the golfer’s ability to strike a long iron, as well as personal preference. Some people don’t like to have a hybrid sitting behind the ball and prefer the iron head because they’ve grown up with the latter. The iron option should always be available – even if hybrids are becoming more and more popular.

    Mizuno Absolutely, yes!  There is still a good proportion of golfers, some better players and some traditionalists, who prefer longer irons to hybrids, which is why we have reintroduced and are having success with a one iron. By having your clubs properly custom fit they will be easier to hit, and if you can match your irons through as much of the set as possible it can only be a good thing.

    Nike We believe strongly in helping the modern golf athlete to get the right set constitution to help them improve both their enjoyment of their game and their scoring too. By having hybrids in a golfer’s set, they will benefit from more forgiveness and a higher launch, but will not have the same workability offered by longer irons. Not all golfers want hybrids to replace their longer irons, especially better players, so we definitely think there is demand for both. A good custom fitting session will help golfers to see what works best for them.

    HybridsPing This certainly depends on the golfer and their swing characteristics and skill level. For most golfers, hybrids indeed have steadily increased in popularity, but long irons are by no means dead. Why – because we have implemented, and will continue to pursue, an increase in the design and implementation of distance technology from metalwoods into long irons. Long irons of the future will more than likely give the distance and trajectory height of hybrids, but the distance and directional control of long irons, so we see both hybrids and long irons having a place in the future as part of the fitting optimisation.

    TaylorMade Without doubt the success of the hybrid club has been a real game changer. However there is still plenty of life left in the long iron. Whilst the two and three irons are on the wane for the masses we are investing a huge amount of energy in designing our iron sets packed with technology that have made the longer irons so much easier to hit than in the past. From a gapping perspective for some golfers retaining some of the long irons in your bag is the preferred option whilst for others introducing more hybrids is their best solution. As always this is where good fitting and advice comes into play.

    Titleist There are still many golfers out there with a traditional set of irons with some clubs in the bag offering little or no benefit to their game. This is where a good custom fitting and the trial of hybrids can truly make a difference. However, every golfer is different and as such a well fitted set of irons including a look at hybrid and perhaps even fairway options will ensure that the consumer walks out with the most productive set of clubs for their game. For some the three, four and five iron will still have a part to play. For others, the transition to hybrids and fairways will provide better options.

    3. Now that steel shafts are so much lighter is there still a need to offer graphite shafts?

    Adams While there is no doubt that steel shaft technology has improved, a lot of our customers are seniors and ladies and so we will continue to offer graphite shaft options. As mentioned, it’s not always just about the weight of the shaft, but also about the kick-out and torque and for Adams that is about making it as easy as possible to get the ball in the air and keep it there for longer.

    Bridgestone There’s still a need to offer both steel and graphite shafts. A custom-fit session will prove that some players are still better suited to graphite even though steel shafts are becoming lighter. Again, personal preference plays a part – some golfers will have grown up playing graphite shafts and will always look for something lighter to help them generate faster swing speeds. Some will like the slighter stiffer feel of steel shafts.

    IronsMizuno Yes, even though some steel shafts are now very light, there are still more lightweight options with graphite.  While we do also offer hybrids with steel shafts so they can match the rest of the iron set, some players will always need a slightly lighter shaft for club head speed to help get the ball in the air, and they shouldn’t be limited by only having a few lightweight shafts to choose from.

    Nike Golf is a game for everyone and by offering as many shaft options as possible – especially through custom – we can cater for a wide range of ages, abilities and swing speeds. The lightest steel shafts are 80 grams but expensive, most steel shafts range from 95 to 120 grams. Graphite iron shafts are mainly 50 to 80 grams so still lighter than steel and permit greater variance in bend profiles and standard flex and torque properties.

    Ping Graphite shafts still offer some significant differences as compared to steel shafts. First, they can be, and still are, designed much lighter than steel. This is because carbon fibre has a substantially higher strength to weight ratio. We can design graphite irons shafts below 50 grams, steel shafts are still all over 75 or 80 grams. Secondly, when steel shafts get light weight, they have poor vibration damping characteristics. Many golfers who choose graphite do it to ease the wear and tear on their joints, tendons, and soft tissue.  We also have a lot more design freedom with graphite because of the non-isotropic properties of the fibres themselves.  For example, we can design stiff flexes with soft torques – which helps with vibration damping.

    Brian KarlTaylorMade There is still definitely a market for graphite shafts but the lines between the two have become more blurred by the recent technology advancements. Again this is where fitting is so important. Performance is not all about weight, it is also down to the feel, loading of shaft through the swing and multiple other factors. For some just the classic look of a steel shaft will be their preference whilst for others the vibration-dampening properties of some graphite shafts and extreme lighter weight options make them a better fit.

    Titleist While there are many more light weight steel options available now, they are still in the region of 100 grams. Graphite can give players the capability of shafts with perhaps as little as 50 grams of weight. As such, graphite will always provide the ability for longer lengths, more speed and potentially more distance. On the flip side, steel is preferable for many players as it’s more controllable. Again, a good custom fitting will identify if steel or graphite is the best option for the individual player.

    4. Is there still a demand for blades from better players?

    Adams The blade market is just not something that we will actively target with the Adams brand. It simply doesn’t fit into what the brand is about.

    Mizuno Yes, whether it’s for a full set of blades or a combo set across different models of our irons, a fair proportion of our custom fit appointments are for people after blades. There’s a lot of marketing around how forgiving new game improvement irons are, but advances in technology have also led to blades being easier to hit than they used to be, so the demand is still quite strong.

    Nike Yes, absolutely. We’ve made blades more forgiving, through the use of innovations such as Modern Muscle mentioned earlier. But at the same time, the Vapor Pro blades provide the ultimate in feel, workability and control not to mention pure aesthetics and thin top lines that frame the ball and focus the mind.

    Ping The key to answer this question is the definition of a ‘blade’ iron.  If we define this by the size of the iron in the playing position, then yes, there is a demand for small sized irons. Our S series iron, the S55 offers forgiveness of a large cavity back iron, but the size and workability of a small blade. Because of irons like our S55, typical ‘blade’ players are now demanding more out of small irons, but are more open to seeing some more technology, multi-materials, or cavity shapes to help them when they miscue on their swings a little bit.

    Taylor Made In the design of modern golf clubs the true blade is becoming a rarer thing. Whilst there are some golfers that still prefer the classic blade look and indeed some tour players that feel as though they benefit from the natural CG characteristics of a blade we continue to see a shift into the next generation of ‘players’ irons. The birth of more ‘better player’ friendly cavity backs packed with technology are becoming increasingly popular across the global tours. A great example of this innovation in practice is the launch of our latest RSi TP irons. They retain the look and shape that is instantly appealing to better players whilst giving the feel and workability that golfers expect from a forged product.

    Titleist Within the Titleist line, we continue to provide a pure muscle back blade as well as a cavity back offering. Whilst they comprise a small percentage of our iron sales, inevitably there are golfers who continue to prefer the look, feel and design of these blade-like clubs. At the tour level, around two thirds of our staff continue to use MB or CB models.  However, the performance of irons like our AP2 which have tremendous technology benefits in a compact chassis design will offer golfers of all levels more forgiveness.

    The Pro’s View

    Dean Beaver of Ingol Village GC professional shop gives his view on the market for irons and hybrids.

    1. What factors are most important to your customers when buying irons or hybrids? Quite simply, does it perform better than what I have currently and secondly what can these new clubs offer the customer that his current set can’t in terms of out of the rough, distance, forgiveness and better yardage gapping.

    2. Is price the main factor? Price is a contributing factor but not always the main factor. I choose brands that offer value to the customer but don’t lack in quality, for me this works well for our members.

    Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 14.50.303. Do they generally buy on familiarity with a brand? No, when I buy products in I think in three stages: can my customer buy these products anywhere? Do these products perform? And finally is the product offering good value? I offer brands here that you don’t see splashed in all shops, that offer value without scrimping on performance.

    4. Do you sell off the shelf clubs or will you only sell custom fitted clubs? You can almost not buy a single product off the shelf here. I keep the odd standard wedges and putters here. It’s not the way I operate, I want each customer to have an experience when purchasing. I want my customers walking out of the door thinking I’ve been dealt with individually. Custom fitting is the only way for me, it helps the customer to purchase the best clubs for their game, it gives them confidence and it solves a lot of headaches with stock maintenance in store. I don’t need to keep standard clubs (my money) on the shelves gathering dust.

    5. How do you custom fit? I’ve recently created an indoor studio in one of our squash courts and use Flightscope, video analysis. I even have a 17 foot indoor putting green, this has proven very popular with members and visitors.

    6. Which brands offer you the best customer support? Bridgestone, Srixon/Cleveland, Yonex

    7. What products are the most requested in your shop? I get asked about the usual suspects when it comes to hardware but to be honest if a member sees you champion a company that you stock they find confidence in that brand, that’s why I like to stock products that are not overly exposed. It gives me more exclusivity and more chance of retaining profit margins.

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    Miles is the Owner and Managing Director of Robel Media, and the award winning GOLF RETAILING Magazine. With over 25 years in the media business, Miles has a wealth of experience in magazine publishing, digital media and live events. HANDICAP - 7.2