With their 1,000 plus members accounting for approximately 25 per cent of all UK golf sales, Foremost have a big influence on golf retail. Andy Brown took a trip down to their head office to meet with Company Director Andy Martin to talk hardware sales, award ceremonies and the evolving role of the golf pro.
When Foremost Golf first formed, back in 1984, the world of golf was a vastly different place for pros – most existed in a separate world from their clubs and in some cases being a handy player was more important than retail skills or working closely with the club. The word of golf has changed considerably in the last 32 years and Foremost have changed with it. From just 11 members in 1984 the buying group now have over 1,000 members and have embraced new technology and the evolving role of the professional.
Golf has struggled with falling participation figures over the last few years – although the numbers now seem to have stabilised – but when I met up with Andy Martin, Company Director at Foremost, he tells me that members have actually experienced growth for a number of years. “We don’t tend to look at just a one year period because it can be difficult to judge when you get bi-annual product cycles, so we look over a five year period,” says Martin. “Irons have been a stand out for us – year to date we are 10 per cent up and that’s on the back of growth on recent years. If you look at iron sales from 2013 then we are 31 per cent up. So that’s good growth over a number of years. Bag sales are also up 12 per cent this year and wedge sales are up 28 per year to date.”
While there a few reasons for these figures, some factors are more equal than others and one of these is how joined up the marketing is at Foremost. One of the company’s many initiatives last year was the Complete Equipment Solution: every customer who purchases a set of irons from their pro will receive a free lesson. As Martin says, they are not just selling golf clubs; they are selling better golf. This focus on the point of different for the golf pro – what they can offer that online retailers can’t – is clearly a major area for the team. “The lesson will make sure that the clubs make the consumer’s game better, increase their enjoyment of the game and get maximum value out of their investment,” he says. “This may well lead to a series of golf lessons for the pro, but that’s not the main reason that we do it – we do it to make sure the customer is happy with their purchase. This is a big reason for why our iron sales are increasing.”
Martin says that almost of all the company’s members are doing well with hardware and rejects the idea that pros would be better off concentrating on other areas. He says that there was a difficult period 10-15 years ago when online sales took off and pros weren’t marketing their expertise well enough, but that is not the case anymore. “In the past we did see racks of irons just sitting in a shop from brand A to F. The customer would ask for a certain set and know what they could get it for online and then the pro was exposed. Now they have a unique proposition; he’s not just selling the product, he’s selling the exact specification. Fitting is where the improvement is coming and this is where the consumers can see real improvements. Two people that are both exactly the same size will have vastly different swings and need different set ups.”
The need for pros to set themselves apart as experts is a good point and one and has led to increased sales of clubs, but another reason is the promotion of campaigns internally. Pros will use social media and newsletters to inform their membership of the latest products, but the degree to which these products is pushed varies on each pro’s membership. Of just over a 1,000 members, approximately 36 per cent are part of the Elite Marketing Programme (EMP), which was been running for a decade, and around 23 per cent have opted for EMP Lite. As Martin says, EMP isn’t for everyone: “As far as recruitment is concerned, we don’t go out and drive people onto this programme. There is a criteria that the pros need to meet and EMP has had some very successful stories, but the most important person is the pro themselves.
“We can provide a lot of support but it is down to the pro to activate it and to communicate it on a first-hand basis. That’s why we try and support them to enable them to get that dialogue with the consumers in store. When our business development consultants talk to pros about being on the EMP we tell them what they need to do; it isn’t just a silver bullet though. They need to work at it.”
One of the initiatives launched this year for those on the EMP are monitors, which brings digital marketing into the shop and is – here’s that word again – joined up marking. Each monitor has a computer which is linked back to head office. This monitor then displays in store whatever campaigns and brands the pro is currently running, so not only are customers seeing this on newsletters, but when they are in the store. Martin says that the monitors are placed in a primary selling spot and helps to, “instigate a communication with the customer when they come in. It is vital to provide a platform where the pro can tell their customers all of the services that they provide. This has been very successful and we have just under a hundred pros with the monitors, but I expect that to double by the end of the year.”
As mentioned in the introduction, the role of the pro has changed considerably over the last 15-20 years and more and more demands are placed upon the professional. This is something which Marin acknowledges and comments: “The role of the pro is very central to the club; perhaps 15 years ago the pro was just in the shop. They have a responsibility to try and provide success for the golf club whether that is bring in new members, retaining members and increasing sales. So many of our members recognise that they have a responsibility to grow the game, whether that’s coaching in schools or putting on ladies’ classes.”
With these increased demands, what is the most important quality Martin sees in successful golf pros? “Planning; we are time poor but you have to find time to plan,” he answers immediately. “This means analysis of your business as it has performed, setting goals for next year and deciding what you will stock, asking how you can market yourself and those new propositions better. For example, we sent out an apparel document for what we call marketing supported clothing for 2017 which went out at the height of the summer for our members to consider their options for next year. Those who are doing well will look at it and plan for next year, look at what has done well for them and what new brands and products they will integrate into their business.”
The company clearly place a strong emphasis on engaging with their pros – for example with their pro and assistants championships – and this November there will be a first when host a Foremost conference. It will be held centrally, at the Hilton Doubletree hotel and conference centre at the MK Dons stadium, and have a strong focus on education. Suppliers to the buying group will be in attendance running retail and sales seminars to help members improve the way they run their businesses. There will also be the Foremost Golf Industry Awards, which for the last few years had been held at the Golf Trade Show in Harrogate and which awards the best pros and suppliers of the past 12 months. The company are also working on a new central invoicing system which Martin says will ‘revolutionise’ the way their pros work and also benefit partner suppliers.
Martin is positive about the future of golf and says that while it remains to be seen what impact Brexit will have on the industry that there is a lot to look forward to. Golf pros have established themselves as a trusted and skilled resource for customers and fitting and customisation have worked well for their businesses. As a whole, increasing numbers of clubs seem to have grasped that they need to be more open and accommodating to all. Golf pros now have more demands on their time than ever before, but this also means that they are more central than ever to a club’s success. As for Foremost, there is a confidence to Martin that the company is well placed to adapt to whatever new demands are placed on the pro, and there will certainly be new challenges – nothing stands still forever.
“I’ve been with the company since 1998 and we had 180 members at that time, so it has been a really exciting time to be with the company,” he says. “Sometimes I think we forget that we are working in an industry and sport that we love, so we are very lucky. There have been a lot of changes and there will be a lot of changes in the future but I think we are well placed to deal with them.”