published Friday, March 9th, 2012

Golf superstore bucks retail trend

IF YOU GO


What: Golfsmith grand opening

Where: 2100 Hamilton Place Blvd.

When: Today-Saturday

Why: $10,000 in prizes

Source: Golfsmith

Lance Hedrick watched as his father, Kyle Hedrick, lined up a critical putt.

The green was flat, the wind was calm and the afternoon sun glinted off the shaft of the putter as its head shifted rearward, then drove forward into the small white ball.

A second later, the ball found its home.

Lance's father looked up, glanced at his son and smiled.

But there was no applause, because this was no tournament on this day in Chattanooga.

The streaming sun was merely filtered through glass windows, and there was no wind because the putting green isn't part of a course. It's indoors.

The green, much like the virtual driving range a few yards away, is how Golfsmith gets its products into customers' hands, allowing them to try before they buy.

That physical connection between customer and seller is an advantage that the traditional retailer has been able to maintain over online-only competitors, who can't put a club into a customer's hands or allow them to swing for the fences in a virtual simulator.

Golfsmith cuts the ribbon on its new 15,000-square-foot Chattanooga store today, the first of 10 new stores the retail chain plans to open this year across the nation.

More than just a place to buy the latest Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods polo shirt, the new Golfsmith is one of 81 interactive superstores that bring the selection of the Internet to a physical location, employees say.

The formula has been a hit with consumers at a time when most retailers have been struggling to make ends meet and have shut down stores, making Golfsmith an outlier in the retail world.

Other golf stores have fallen on hard times too, said Marty Hanaka, chairman and CEO of Golfsmith.

"Last year, 16 percent of the doors in the golf space in which we compete closed," Hanaka said. "We've seen it go from 1,600 operators to 1,000 operators nationwide."

After Hanaka adds 10 stores this year, he plans to add another dozen in 2013. Golfsmith opened four outlets in both 2010 and 2011.

"The total onion has gotten smaller, and there are about 1 million fewer golfers in the country, and they're playing less golf in the aggregate," Hanaka said. "But our customer is an avid golfer. During tough times, they didn't give up their golf."

Like the rest of the world, Golfsmith paused to take a breath during the recession, closing three stores in 2008 and opening no stores in 2009.

"If you go back to 2005, there was a really rapid expansion there but they got ahead of themselves and were going into debt," he said.

But their new approach, which includes high-tech computers to measure every aspect of a customer's swing, actually guarantees that golfers will play better, Hanaka said.

That may be true, but Greg Kapeghian, a Florida transplant looking to update his aged club set, still is not sure where he's going to buy a new set of clubs.

Consumers are used to comparing prices at shops and online to find the best price, he said, and though he'll certainly give Golfsmith a chance to earn his business, he may eventually pick his clubs up elsewhere.

"The biggest thing with buying clubs is being fit correctly," he said. "They seem to have that down."

Martin Barrier, general manager at the new store, said the expert advice that workers can offer is worth the trip to Hamilton Place.

For instance, two manufacturers may both rate their club shafts as "stiff," but there'll still be a slight difference in how the clubs behave, he said.

"That's why we're here," Barrier said. "We can tell the difference because we know the clubs."

A retail golf store can remain viable in the world of mobile apps and same-day shipping as long as it fills a need, he added.

"In this day and age, with so much instant gratification, it's still important to have that touchy-feely interaction," Barrier said. "You can't grab the club and take a practice swing online."

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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