Paul Street, proprietor of Golf Gear Direct, has some pretty firm ideas about how to attract the non-playing public to golf, based on a lot of commercial experience in the game. Here he tells Glyn Pritchard about his path to success and what can be done to attract more players to the game.
Paul with his brother started the business in 1991 with their original store in Rainham, Kent. Paul explains, “I’d always had an interest in golf and I could have taken training as a PGA pro and become a club professional assistant, but I didn’t want to go down that route. So we started Medway Golf Centre and it was an immediate success.” Asked why Paul is clear: “We were genuinely interested in the products and the customers. We would always greet people when they came into the shop and try to help without bugging them. I remember going into a pro shop once and the guy behind the desk didn’t even look up from reading his paper! We made people feel welcome and we built up a real community spirit with a very loyal customer base.”
In 1995 Paul diversified into golf course management, taking over the running of the Cobtree Manor Park course for 14 years for Maidstone Borough Council. At the beginning of the new millennium Paul and his team began managing Weald of Kent golf course, south of Maidstone. “Within three years of running Weald of Kent we were offered a twenty year operating lease, which we’re about half way through. We have a hotel there with some lodge style rooms, but we’re just extending the hotel and adding 16 more upmarket rooms. Golf stay packages are a growing part of the business and we work with Golfbreaks and Your Golf Travel. The convenience of online booking means golf breaks are increasingly booked at very short notice and for short stays. People look at the weather and say ‘Let’s have a long weekend playing golf’, and we’re catering for that market.”
Today the group retains the original Rainham store with three online outlets, including ladiesgolf.co.uk specifically aimed at women and acquired in 2012. Total annual group turnover is around £5 million. “Our retail operations generate sales of about £3 million and the rest comes from golf course operations. The original shop now accounts for about a third of retail sales. That grew steadily for 14 years but has now flattened out. Online operations have gone from a third of retail sales five years ago to two-thirds today.” Paul has no plans to expand operations in the high street. “We don’t want a shop in every town. That’s definitely not the way the market is going.”
Online retailing has been the big growth area for the group. “We ship all over Europe and accept payment in Sterling, Euros and Danish Krone. We have two full time web developers, a freelance developer and our hosting company also undertakes some of the major development work on the sites. We get about 100 orders a day, seven days a week and have a picker and packer coping fulltime with that at the warehouse.”
Fraud was a problem, but improved systems have reduced the risk says Paul. “The online checking systems are much tighter now and we only deliver to an address that the credit card being used is registered to. We still have two or three fraud attempts a week and any orders over £1,000 get close scrutiny.” This autumn the company plans to link its websites and store with the warehouse stockholding for an integrated real-time stock system. “A lot of our processes are still basically manual but to be cost efficient we have to automate processes. I’m a great believer in working smarter not harder.”
Paul’s latest venture is a custom fitting centre near the Weald of Kent course. “It’s not going to be a retail outlet open to the passing public. We will do custom fitting by appointment using the latest technology. What we’re trying to do is add value to the sales process through advice and consultancy, something you can’t get on the internet.”
This brings us to what Paul considers to be the real problems facing the industry today and where he sees solutions. “The whole industry has become too inward looking. In retail it’s a straight forward race to the bottom on price. The equipment manufacturers are obsessed with taking market share from each other but they’re making little attempt to grow the market incrementally so it’s a diminishing cake they’re fighting over.”
Paul believes the fundamental problem lies in the low profile golf has in the critical teenage market. “The industry is doing a lot of work with the pre-teens, but the real problem is getting teenagers to take up the game so they are hooked for life. Teenage kids are at the ‘wannabe’ stage in life and they’re looking for role models. Nick Faldo got inspired to take up golf watching Jack Nicklaus play on the telly. He wasn’t into team games but was sporty and highly competitive so he looked around, saw Jack and chose golf. No teenager today is going to channel surf and come across golf, because basically the Open is the only tournament left on terrestrial TV. What we need is fun stuff on TV like short pro-celebrity events with people such as Chis Evans and Ant and Dec. Today it’s a celebrity culture. When Robbie Williams wore a pullover with a golf brand on it, that item sold out everywhere.”
The manufacturers also need to appeal outside the game says Paul. “They preach to the converted and run ads with tour pros that basically nobody outside the game has heard of. They should be running ads with people like Jodie Kidd and Catherine Zeta-Jones, not Ricky Fowler and Bubba Watson. We have to engage with the general public not each other.”
Going forward Paul wants to consolidate operations for what is essentially a family business. “My brother Nigel is a non-executive director in my businesses and I’m a non-exec in his businesses, which are in construction. My father works with me, my daughter is an administrator in the business and my son works here part time. I don’t want to get bigger and bigger. I want to take care of the people we’ve got, so we all enjoy it and the business makes a decent margin. We’re a member of the Euroselect Golf Alliance and we try to price our merchandise sensibly. You can get sucked into a discounting mind-set and focus totally on increasing turnover, thinking we’ve always got to be doing more. But that’s not the way I want to go.”
The PowaKaddy Connection
Golf Gear Direct is a major stockist of the PowaKaddy range and there is a strong family connection between the two companies as Paul Street confirms. “As a junior I played golf at Sittingbourne golf club with David Catford, one of the current owners of PowaKaddy. I knew Joe Catford (David’s father) and John Martin, the two original founders of the company and also played golf with John who was a Captain of the club. So we have a close affinity with the brand and of course geographically they’re very close to us.”
Paul has nothing but praise for PowaKaddy and the company’s new FW series. “For us it’s always been a very strong brand and now again under the leadership of David Catford and John deGraft-Johnson there’s firm leadership and a clear sense of direction with an excellent product development roadmap. The FW series has been brilliantly designed.”
The PowaKaddy FW3, FW5 and FW7 models launched in April incorporate a plug ‘n’ play battery system and a robust PowaFrame. The plug ‘n’ play battery system does away with fiddly connectors and replaces them with a new cassette system, where both lithium and lead-acid batteries slot into the battery tray in one movement. For optimum performance all trolleys automatically adjust their settings to match the specific battery type. Battery options include standard or extended range lead-acid batteries and also a lithium or extended lithium battery choice.
“It’s brilliant for retailers because with four interchangeable battery options across the range you can offer customers a choice of twelve model variants just by stocking the three frames. We are selling at least one model a day. Lithium sales are certainly growing as customers recognise the operational benefits of fast charging and the longer term cost benefit.”
The PowaFrame and low-profile chassis featured on all FW3, FW5 and FW7 models has a compact three-fold system that fits easily into small car boots. A new sealed, easy to clean underside also protects vital components. “The new FW series is sleek and stylish to look at. And of course PowaKaddy have always had the best trolley bags. The latest bags are designed to fit specifically into the frame so they don’t twist and move when being bumped through the rough. The frames, batteries and bags have all been beautifully thought out”, Paul concludes.