Challenges facing the clubs

    Last year in the GOLF RETAILING Thought Leadership series we got feedback on industry issues mainly from manufacturers and suppliers. This year we get the thoughts of golf clubs pros and managers on the challenges that golf is facing

    How do you compete with internet pricing? 

    David CopseyDavid Copsey: The Internet has absolutely changed the way we all shop, especially for large ticket items. From a golf professional point of view, how we compete with that is on price and on service. I think believing that we can sell a product for more than you can buy it online is mistaken. Realistically you have to compete in price. But adding value to that product sale with our professional input is the key.

    I have a price-match promise this year that we will match one online retailer and the two big multiple retail golf chains. I took that from the John Lewis approach where they price match with their main four competitors, but they add value with a guarantee. Where I add value is from custom fitting. I’ve invested in the Flightscope system. We will charge a fee for an hour’s tuition to fit the right shaft and the right club specification. Should they go ahead and purchase the product we will reduce the price for the fitting session.

    Steve Furlonger: That’s right. PGA pros are qualified for club fitting and with the launch monitors now and how good they are you can be very precise with the information that they give. And I don’t think you have to go to rock bottom prices, I think that you can be a little bit higher because you’re using expensive launch monitoring equipment, to supply the optimum club fitting to the golfer, helping them hit the ball straighter and longer. The key is the unique service offered by the PGA pro to do that.

    Carl Rundgren: It’s also the after sales service, because once you’ve bought the club you may need to tweak it to get it exactly right. A PGA pro can get the club set-up for you exactly as it should be. Once it’s been set-up right, that instils confidence in the player and they’re not going to get that follow-up service from an online purchase.

    David Copsey: I agree with that but I don’t agree that customers will necessarily pay a premium for that service. I still think we have to price match the internet price for the product.

    Carl Rundgren: I think it depends on the venue. Our members are price conscious and aware of market value. At some of the resort type golf courses the prices will be more expensive but the customers there can afford it and are not necessarily concerned with ticket prices if the item is what they want.

    How much equipment stock do you need to hold?

    David Copsey: I think that you do have to hold the product in stock and the customer does want to see and touch the clubs. The level of stock holding you try to keep as lean and tight as possible. But you have to have the equipment available because that’s part of the attraction of a retail ‘bricks and mortar’ premises; that you can walk into the pro shop and you can touch the kit and look at it from all angles. That’s a really important difference to online. I’m not convinced a fitting cart has the same impact.

    Carl RundgrenCarl Rundgren: Sometimes there’s an element of impulse purchase in the mix, especially for some of the guests that stay here in our hotel. They are in ‘holiday mode’ and have some money to spend so if they see something in the shop that they like the look of, like a wedge, they will just buy it. We sell a lot of wedges to hotel guests, more than our members, because they see it and think “that will help me shave off a few shots this weekend”.

    We don’t stock many sets of irons anymore, we stock one set of the main line in each brand. There are so many variables with regard to shafts and it’s not possible to hold multiple sets. But drivers, hybrids, wedges, putters we stock because the market for them is quite fluid and they are within the immediate price range of most of our members and visitors.

    Do you recommend irons or hybrids?

    David Copsey: For me this is where a launch monitor comes into play because it has to be a data led approach. It’s not what it feels like, it’s what the technology actually tells you is happening, what actually works and what gaps you’re getting between the shots, with each club. And then you fit a set around what the golfer’s preferences are for playing.

    Steve Furlonger: I’ve got a Flightscope launch monitor. But when I do a fitting I have quite a lengthy conversation based on questions with the customer. For set build-up and whether we replace a long iron with a hybrid, you have to ask questions of the golfer such as where do they play? What’s the favourite club in the bag? Do they have long par-threes on their course? Would they normally be hitting lots of long irons or fairway woods? You find out quite a lot about the golfer’s needs in the pre-hitting interview. Then you go on to gather the critical data on launch spin, ball flight, and so on and from that you go on to put the right club into their hands. For me that’s the art of fitting, so you have a good idea of what clubs will suit them just based on the interview.

    What’s important about the interview is that while you’re listening to the golfer, you’re building a rapport as well. A good pro should have a good rapport with his members. So coming back to price, I’m not questioned on price, because I have built a good relationship with my customers. When I recommend a change of club for them, they trust that. They don’t go away, find it online and say, “Steve that club you recommended I can buy cheaper on the internet.”

    I don’t charge for a fitting. It’s not something that I’ve felt is necessary as yet. I’m not saying charging is a bad thing because it does take time that could be spent teaching. As a pro and centre manager I see fitting as part of my role, but for a pro that just makes money from teaching, doing an unpaid fitting could mean they don’t give it one hundred percent.

    There are still many golfers that don’t understand club fitting, because they have become so accustomed to buying equipment online. They don’t know the options that are available and how much longer and straighter they could hit the golf ball by having a fitted product.

    David Copsey: Well that must be a failure from us to get the message out that custom fitting is going to make you a better golfer and the happier you are with your game, the more golf you are going to play. So they are investing in their own pleasure in the game.

    Carl Rundgren: How long would you say a fitting should actually take?

    Steve FurlongerSteve Furlonger: Well I would say the pre-shot interview not less than 15 minutes and could be as much as 30 minutes, and then depending on how many clubs, an hour or so for taking shots, because you don’t want the player to be pressurised taking shots. If they’re not hitting it that great at first, they can improve as they relax through the session. When you go straight into hitting sometimes they are very nervous.

    Carl Rundgren: So your commitment is an hour and a half, that’s a sizeable amount of time.

    Steve Furlonger: Yes, you’re helping them understand their game and educating them on how the clubs will improve their game.

    What’s the view on manufacturers’ hardware replacement cycles?

    David Copsey: For me it’s a question of inventory control and knowing when in the cycle the time has come to liquidate stock to release the money tied up in that product and move on to the next one. The main issue is not being caught with product you have to sell at cost, because the longer you hang on, the worse it gets. That’s the hardest part for me, not the replacement cycles as such. I see why they replace and that’s never going to change.

    Carl Rundgren: From my perspective, as long as there’s a case for really good technology behind the changes which are going to make a difference to the golfer, then fine launch it. If it’s a small change like a change of head design, is that really going to make a big difference to the golfer? But if it’s going to drop the ball spin so you hit it 15 yards further than the previous driver, then yes, fine. With a couple of the manufacturers there have been a lot of changes in the last year, while the more traditional manufacturers stick to a two year cycle.

    We stock Callaway and I’ve personally noticed an improvement so I’ve switched my driver and three-wood to Callaway because it’s making a big difference to me as a golfer. I kept my previous clubs for five years because the potential replacements I tried were not making a huge difference on the launch monitor.

    Steve Furlonger: It’s a tricky point because I accept that the manufacturers have got to stimulate the market, but it doesn’t make the retailers life very easy. You constantly have to monitor the products that you stock and try to be ahead of the game. That’s not helping price protection because you have to start chopping the price when you become aware that a new replacement is coming out.

    I think the R&A has road-blocked the development of clubs and I think that’s good for the pro tour golf but bad for amateur golf. If there wasn’t this law about the COR of the clubface, there’s no doubt amateurs would be hitting the ball further.

    How many equipment brands do you carry?

    David Copsey: This year only three brands, Cobra, Bridgestone and Benross because I’ve tried to streamline the number of brands but stock them in a bit more depth.

    Steve Furlonger: We stock MacGregor, PGA Collection and we’re just switching our third brand to a new supplier. The PGA Collection was very good for us last year with good margins, but that’s because everything was bespoke and it’s sensibly priced. Sigma Golf is very good and we get excellent service.

    Carl Rundgren: We carry Callaway and Ping, which suits the profile of our memberships here at Dale Hill, where the majority of handicaps are in the ten to 18 bracket. Each director of golf at a Leaderboard club selects the brands which suit that particular venue.

    Do you have to compete with internet pricing on other product categories such as apparel?

    Carl Rundgren: I don’t see a lot of competition from the internet on apparel. For us a lot of the purchases are impulse buys and we stock quality brands such as Oakley, Tommy Hilfiger and Oscar Jacobson. Visitors and members see the quality brands and will treat themselves to a new shirt or jumper, and as long as it’s reasonably priced, cost is not the main issue.

    David Copsey: We sell Oakley and Puma as premium apparel brands and we have lots budget products as well. The main competitor for apparel for us is not online but Sports Direct. We can’t compete with them on price so we don’t try

    Carl Rundgren: We’ve done very well with FootJoy apparel which is popular with our members. Our hotel guests are attracted to the premium brands probably because they are on holiday and spending a bit more freely. So we now display clothing in areas by brand rather than grouping all the shirts and so on together. Regarding other lines, last year we sold a lot of Oakley sunglasses to both members and guests.

    Steve Furlonger: I come from a different angle because we don’t major on top end apparel brands. For shoes we stock Stuburt and we’ve done very well with their pimpled sole shoes with great margins and they are very comfortable to wear. Trolleys is another big sales category for us. The range today is incredible compared to when I started, when there was only the £30 pull-trolley or a top-end electric trolley available. Now you have different types of push-trolleys from a big range of manufacturers. The margins are very good on them. Last year we sold a lot of Sky Golf and Masters trolleys.

    What are the issues affecting participation?

    David Copsey: There’s several sides to the participation issue. The first is retention. We need to retain our members for longer, we need to encourage them to play more golf and we need for them to enjoy it more. Our problem is that if we are just adding members but not retaining them in the game, we are actually losing more than we gain, so we have a diminishing sport.

    The second issue is getting people to play more golf. If we could elongate the season by two weeks at the start and two weeks at the end, so effectively another month, that would be great for our type of pay-and-play operation with the extra green fee revenue.

    Finally we’ve got to get people to try the game and stick with it. Whenever we run starter lessons, we make it as cheap as possible at £25 which I think is a reasonable amount of money. We promote that across the four leisure centres run by our local authority with fliers and posters. We look to get groups to start and we get them using our driving range, our short course and finally the full course, so they go through the process.

    What is interesting is when you look at the mix of those that start the game, there are more women than men, probably by 60 to 40. But of those that continue with it, the ratio reverses with 90 percent men and ten percent women. So we’re getting women to start and learn how to hit the ball, do the basics and begin to play the short nine-hole course. We’re quite successful at that, but not getting them to graduate to playing regularly on the main course. That’s the challenge.

    So one of our objectives this year is to keep running the ‘Get into Golf’ programme, but get them to graduate to playing on a full 18-hole golf course.

    I think where the beginners fall away, especially women, is the winter. We work very hard to create a very friendly upbeat environment that’s not intimidating because people are paying to enjoy themselves and not to have a hard time. They feel comfortable coming and playing, but then it’s winter and the difficulty is getting them back into the game the next April. If they don’t come back until July, there’s only a couple of months until they stop again.

    Carl Rundgren: We have a very good ladies section with about 100 members. They play as a group on Mondays and in the summer months we can have anything up to 70 ladies playing golf on a Monday morning. And I think for me as a manager it’s up to me to think of ways to keep them here, spending more time at the club. So we are looking to provide yoga and Pilates classes, beauty treatments and other activities, because if they are here for longer after they finish playing golf, they are spending in the club.

    We’re also thinking about having fashion launches for the new season apparel. We have employed a female assistant golf professional on the basis she’s able to connect more readily with the lady members by advising on clothing and also providing lessons for ladies that would prefer that. She also now selects the ladies apparel that we stock and she’s done a great job.

    I think for ladies it’s important to offer a good social experience, because they value that more than the men.

    David Copsey: Creating groups or communities in the club is one thing that we are working on this year. If people come along at a particular time, they will be able to join a welcoming group and that keeps them coming back even in bad weather. I think creating a sense of community is important and can be as important a factor for members as the quality of the course. Friends and the social side are very important.

    How do you get more juniors involved with golf?

    David Copsey: I don’t think price is the primary barrier preventing juniors trying golf. If they are inclined to try it as the professional your role is to facilitate that with coaching and making the experience fun. My idea this year on our short course is to have two pin positions on each green, one with a normal size hole and another with a bucket sized hole for junior beginners to play to. This gets over the issue of juniors five or six putting and becoming frustrated, because that’s not the part of the game they enjoy and want to focus on when starting. They finish the hole quickly and it makes it easier and more enjoyable for them to play.

    Carl Rundgren: We’re trying to build up the junior section which was at ten and is now at 35 but we want 70 by the end of this year. We’re picking up slowly and we need to make sure those juniors are active participants, going to lessons and taking part in junior competitions, because just adding free junior members who aren’t active is just adding names to a list. I think we may need to create a social area specifically for juniors, but we need to build up the base first.

    Steve Furlonger: I have a roadshow and go to local primary schools and give them a day or half day for free, based on Tri-Golf with the plastic clubs and foam balls. I don’t concentrate on technique, the main thing is to get them interested and playing. It’s important to get the group sizes correct at about six to eight. The kids want to keep moving so I arrange lots of games and lots of stations to move between. It’s quick with lots of fun.

    From doing the roadshow I discovered that children responded much quicker using rhymes, so I devised a grip rhyme, a posture rhyme and so on. It works on the same basis that we all remember nursery rhymes. With Philip Swinard, another coach, we brought all the rhymes together in a book illustrated by Jo Patterson called ‘Golf made simple for kids’.

    David Copsey: We have an Introduction to Golf programme that is for adults but we also have a kids programme that is simpler and fun. It’s more advanced than Tri-Golf so that they hit real golf balls. They learn on our short course and it takes just over an hour with the holes a maximum 180 yards long.

    How important is time as an issue affecting participation levels?

    Steve Furlonger: The time issue is definitely one of the biggest challenges we face. We are dealing with ‘time-poor’ clients today. One of the reasons cycling has taken off is because you can go out for a ride for an hour, it doesn’t take up to six hours. We’ve got to cut the time aspect. I think we’re making plenty of effort to get new people into the game. I think ‘Get into Golf’ is a terrific campaign and National Golf Month (NGM) is another great initiative and we will be posting up offers for May.

    Carl Rundgren: We have some offers in mind for NGM, but last year the take-up wasn’t good.

    Steve Furlonger: People are working longer hours. People are also being told to retire later and senior golfers has been the major part of weekday golf for decades. We’re all working hard to get new people into the game, but retention is the critical challenge. Maybe we need to start selling time slots on the course instead of rounds? Allow people to pay for an hour of golf instead of 18-holes which will take four hours. I realise that it wouldn’t work for a lot of courses because six or nine holes don’t bring you back to the clubhouse.

    Carl Rundgren: We sell ten holes on our Old Course as that returns you to the clubhouse.

    David Copsey: We will sell nine-hole rounds on our 18 hold course on certain afternoons. That helps the beginners that want to graduate from the short course to the full size course. We see that as a way of building their confidence.

    Steve Furlonger: At Redhill & Reigate Golf Club we offer a flexible membership that allows them to play nine holes, 13 holes as well as 18 holes which bring them back to the clubhouse. I also do a playing lessons which are a five hole loop coming back to the clubhouse in an hour. So we’re lucky in that the course flows that way, but constructing courses that way needs to be explored. To retain people that are starting out, we have to fit golf into their busy lives. When they enjoy it, they will make the changes to their routine to make more time for a full round of golf.

    Teeing positions is another area that can be looked at. I think we should describe the ladies tees as just the forward tees. I think we should also have teeing grounds at 150 yards on each hole.

    David Copsey: When you play in the States there are always five tee positions and you can play from any of them and choose to play a 5,000 or 7,500 yard course.

    Steve Furlonger: Yes, in America they have ‘tee it forward’ days and we could have red tee days here.

    Carl Rundgren: It would make sense for winter golf here when the ball isn’t travelling so far. Most of the members can’t reach the par-fours in two during the winter, so why not play off the red tees? Tee off from where it suits your game of golf.

    Steve Furlonger: Plyers should choose a tee that is a challenge, but not too hard for their skill level.

    How do you cope with green fee discounting?

    David Copsey: We are very competitively priced on green fees. The prices are set by our charitable trust and they are non-negotiable. We have off-peak times, but we don’t get into discounting. The discounting of green fees is one of the challenges created by the internet., It’s a destructive cycle because if you discount your green fees by ten percent you have to sell ten percent more green fees, so it’s a downward spiral.

    I’m very wary of the websites that offer the two-for-one deals and off-peak times, because I don’t think they are doing the golf industry any good. It doesn’t create more demand, in that people who weren’t going to play golf are now going to.

    Steve Furlonger: That’s right; you end up stealing form yourself.

    Carl Rundgren: The playing habits of members are puzzling. I can’t understand why they all want to play early Saturday and Sunday morning, instead of in the afternoons. I know people have family commitments but why can’t they flip it and do the family things in the morning? There isn’t much afternoon golf played, especially at membership based clubs.

    That’s why with our flexible membership, points are very cost-effective when used for off-peak times to try to drive usage of the course on weekend afternoons. But people will still use three times the amount of points to play in the morning than the afternoon.

    David Copsey: We used to have a situation where people would queue before dawn in the summer months for the first tee-off time, but that has changed. Part of the issue is that if a group of golfers always play in the morning then individuals stick to that to remain part of the group, even if it costs them more per round. It’s about being with your mates and having a good time.

    Carl Rundgren: We have people queuing at five o’clock on a Saturday morning to book the first tee times two weeks ahead. It’s changing that mind-set, that you have breakfast, play golf, have lunch and then go home. But why not have lunch, play golf and get home for dinner?

    David Copsey: Our job is to give the customer what they want, not to tell the customer what to do. We should encourage customers to play at other times and maximise our revenue for the available tee times. That may mean a two tee start, or arranging an activity in the afternoon that gets them to play later, like a nine-hole golf event combined with a social activity.

    Thanks to Carl Rundgren and his team at Dale Hill Hotel & Golf Club for hosting the Thought Leadership event.