Golf Town tees up a new normal

Even though courses are reopening, the sports retailer is finding new ways to inspire players to come in for what is typically a hands-on shopping experience.

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Like many retailers, Golf Town has had to course correct following not only two months of COVID closures, but the fact that it is reopening just as its usual “holiday season” of May and June comes and goes.

On top of that, Golf Canada just cancelled all 20 of its amateur competitions for the duration of 2020 season, which host about 3,000 domestic athletes. On the professional stage, major tournaments like the Master’s have been postponed until later in the year.

Big events are one of the ways interest in golf is generated, and no TV means no Brooke Henderson, and other tour pros that are drawing people to the game.

“The more golf content we can amplify and story-tell, the more inspiration we can drive,” says Frederick LeCoq, CMO of Golf Town parent company Sporting Life Group.

While golf courses saw a boom in business upon reopening, other attractions like clubhouse facilities, smaller tournaments and lessons are either off the table or limited, depending on where the course is located.

LeCoq says his business depends on players playing more rounds. But how they’re playing these days is already having an effect. Players are using less balls on practice shots at the range. With people riding in carts solo or walking to improve social distancing, sales of pull carts has begun to spike.

After closures and hour restrictions, Sporting Life Group’s golf retailer has now re-opened, prioritizing a safe and healthy shopping environment. For a hands-on game and a retailer that’s very experiential, this has required some adjusting.

lisa-longball“You can go in the store today, and you can use a putting green, but you need to wear gloves and spray hands before and after,” LeCoq says. He says the brand is taking precautions, but concedes that users have to touch and feel the product. So, in addition to staffers screening customers as they come in, that means things adding people and resources manage the green, or changing its swing lab, which uses technology to analyze a player’s game, to no longer be self-service.

Promotional tactics will change too, such as a focus on click and collect, which the brand had been intending to implement for years: “The pandemic forced us to fast track the transformation,” LeCoq says.

Even as omnichannel shopping has picked up, LeCoq insists Golf Town is still an experiential store. “Our key differentiator is being the ‘home of golf,’ that’s the stickiness we have with our customers,” he says. Golf Town has attempted to become a community hub for the game, a place where players can test out the latest gear on top of outreach to families through things like Canadian Junior Golf Association partnerships. It had a brand campaign based on that idea that was set to launch in the spring, but it was interrupted by the pandemic.

Luckily for the brand, people were hitting balls at home. When the pandemic was in full swing, Golf Town marketing was not pushing sales, LeCoq says, but a “play golf at home” message.

“We saw huge engagement around golf at home contests and trick shots, on social channels,” LeCoq says. Training heads, golf nets, putting greens and chipping nets were seeing an uptick in sales as people said, “I’m stuck at home, might as well practice in my living room or backyard.” Eight-time Canadian Long Drive National Champion, Lisa “Longball” Vlooswyk, with whom Golf Town holds regular clinics, did virtual lessons at the onset of the pandemic to keep people entertained – she had one million views for her sessions.

From a marketing budget perspective, with stores reopening, LeCoq says the brand had to rethink some propositions. For example, a retailer cannot have heightened social distancing caveats while also doing big door crasher events. “Every year we have a demo event, with 150-long line-ups in some stores,” he says. “Every time you launch a product, there are custom fitting days. We had to postpone them.”

According to LeCoq, Golf Town’s flyer budget has been reduced, because of printing lead times being too long and worries of a second pandemic wave. The retailer is shifting more to tactical media, and even newspaper ads, which require less lead time. Even though the budget was decreased because of sales slumps, Golf Town did not shut down marketing entirely, he stresses, but it is paying more attention to ROI.

The retailer took a big hit from closures, and won’t make up the revenue, as it won’t be offset by newbies taking to the game or increases in basket size to compensate. And the reverberations could be felt into Golf Town’s fall season as well, as golf loving snowbirds may opt out of annual trips to Arizona, the Carolinas or Florida.

“I am expecting a hard Q4 because of the golf and tourism business,” LeCoq says. “It’s the number one industry being hit right now. Travel will affect our bottom line.”

Going forward, golfing also faces the additional challenge of perceptions it is an elitist pastime. Golf Town sponsors a junior program in Calgary, which LeCoq attends to “feel the pulse,” and while he says more kids are taking to the game, it has to be made more inclusive by investing in local communities. Turning to the Golf Industry Network again: “the industry has a hard time attracting new and younger players,” largely due to age and physical impairments.

Still, LeCoq is hopeful. Now is not the time to run but to band together as an industry. “Are we going to be able to take the Plexiglas down in four months? I’m not sure. There will be a new normal in the retail world.”