PGA Tour Superstore is defying the retail odds

Don’t tell the folks at PGA Tour Superstore that golf is a declining sport. The 33-store chain, owned by The Home Depot founder Arthur Blank, posted a record year in 2017 with overall sales growth of 23 percent. Most importantly, the chain has wisely adapted to the sports, entertainment and product needs of a tech-savvy generation. The stores offer various versions of simulated golf and use high technology to fit customers with new golf clubs and golf balls.

The man holding the driver is Dick Sullivan, who has overseen a doubling of the number of locations over the past five years as president and CEO. Sullivan was formerly executive vice president of the Atlanta Falcons and, before that, chief marketing officer of The Home Depot. Sullivan discussed the resurgence of the sport and how PGA Tour Superstore continues to meet customers where they are in an interview with STORES contributing writer Bruce Horovitz.

What exactly is the PGA Tour Superstore?

We are a very large golf retailer that not only provides all the products that you’d expect to get in a golf store, but all the services and a major experiential component. Last year, we had over 50,000 lessons and 100,000 customer fittings.

How did golf go from uncool to cool?

It’s very promising. I’m on the National Golf Foundation board and there seems to be a pent-up demand for golf. There are a lot of younger millennials looking in from the outside. Over the last few years, juniors are coming into the game more than ever before, and golf is getting a much better mix of gender and race.

So golf’s appeal is finally getting younger?

A lot of this has to do with the youth movement of the PGA Tour. For years, there were just a few younger golfers out there who attracted a following. Now there are so many younger golfers between the ages of 20 and 25 on the PGA Tour. And there’s a big social media following with these younger golfers.

Another big influence has been the introduction of golf simulation games like Topgolf (where you score points by hitting micro-chipped golf balls at giant dartboard-like targets) and Drive Shack (indoor golf complexes that blend technology with golf). We have to adapt as an industry to how people want to play golf. The game is more than 400 years old, but people are picking new ways to play it.

Is simulated golf the future of golf?

If you want to survive you have to adapt. It’s all about providing value and experience. The experience piece of it is increasingly important, so it’s important to PGA Tour Superstores.

Has technology led to golf’s reinvention?

I played golf when I was younger, and back then, the total amount of technology was a box that told you how fast you were swinging the club. It’s unbelievable what we can offer today at PGA Tour Superstores. Think of it in the way Nordstrom, one of the best retailers, fits its customers for shoes. That’s how we fit people for clubs — and we do it for free in all our stores. It’s knowledge base-driven. And we do it for other things, too.

What’s typically the most important thing when you fit someone for a golf club?

Distance is often most important. Let’s say you try three 7-irons and one goes 140 yards, one goes 145 and one goes 150; you take the one that goes 150.

How do you fit for golf balls?

I’d say the best metaphor is Michelin tires. They’re a great brand, but everyone drives a car differently than everyone else. If I said I could save you five miles a gallon on gasoline by switching to a different brand, you’d probably like that. We measure things like distance, spin rate and launch angle. A very high percentage of people are using the wrong golf balls.

The name PGA TOUR Superstore sounds very impressive. Where did it come from?

The name is really integral and important to us. I came in six years after the company started (so can’t take credit for it). The PGA Tour is the very top of the pyramid to golfers. Just look at the attributes of the brand — the PGA Tour reeks of quality. When people come into our store, they have an expectation of a quality experience. This is not Bob’s Discount Golf Warehouse. We promote ourselves as a high-quality product.

The consumer might think the store is owned and operated by the PGA Tour, but it’s really a licensing deal, right?

We want the consumer to think this is owned and run by the PGA Tour. We want the consumer to think that it’s just as if the National Football League had a superstore. That said, I can’t comment on the details of the license.

What role does the PGA Tour play in the PGA Tour Superstore?

We meet with the commissioner. We renegotiated the license a few years ago to make sure we had the same vision. We work on a lot together. They see us as a growth vehicle. They are an important partner.

To some customers, the name might sound like the stuff sold inside is too expensive.

The name doesn’t say cheap. But we have to offer a value proposition across the board for items that are good, better and best. Our PGA Tour brand is one of the best sellers. We sell golf shirts for as low as $19.99, but we also sell them for $100.

What is the secret to your success?

Under the ownership of Arthur Blank, I’ve been fortunate to work for one of the greatest retail success stories ever. Much like The Home Depot, the service levels we have in the PGA Tour Superstores are exceptional — with knowledgeable, trained associates. That separates us. No one else in the golf retail space has what we have. It’s people first, then products. You’ve got to have the right people. Then there are all the other things that differentiate us, like golf lessons and clinics for kids, and all the golf ball and grip fittings.

What makes your employees special?

The investment we make in training them — much like The Home Depot. We bring hundreds of store associates to a location in Florida for a week of training. We hire from schools and golf academies. We make sure we have PGA pros inside our stores. We over-invest in our associates and pay for their training. We look at this as an investment, not an expense.

Can you give an example of the training?

We give our associates knowledge about the products they sell. For example, when the transaction is finished, cashiers are trained to tell customers to turn their golf shirts inside out when they wash them, so they’ll last longer. Once you build a relationship with the customer, they won’t go anywhere else. That’s how we grow the business.

Tell me something I can experience or purchase in your stores that I wouldn’t expect.

We have an indoor driving range that other retailers don’t have. You can play golf with two feet of snow on the ground. We use electronic buzzers common in busy restaurants for all the people waiting to practice on these driving ranges. We have special TV screens that show you how straight and far your 7 irons are going. It’s almost like playing a video game inside a driving range.

Would I ever see Tiger Woods shopping in any of your stores?

Depending on the market, you could easily see a PGA player in a store. Bubba Watson has shopped in our Arizona store, and Patrick Reed in our Houston store. John Rahm brought his family into our Jacksonville store last month and spent more than $15,000 — and didn’t get a discount.

Are you an anomaly in an ecommerce age, where most retail growth is online?

Our ecommerce business is up 40 percent to 50 percent this year, and we are revamping our website. Ecommerce will be 5 percent to 10 percent of our total business, but it should be much greater. This shows that people want to come into our stores. That’s the point that every retailer is working toward. It would be scary if ecommerce was 60 percent of our business. If we keep ecommerce in the 6 percent to 8 percent range, that’s what we’d like.

What were sales last year?

We’re a private company, so I can’t tell you that. Our bricks-and-mortar comp store sales were up 25 percent to 30 percent. Our sales are double to triple that of any other golf retailer. On a per-store basis, we do more business than some large, national sporting goods retailers.

What’s your best-selling item?

Titleist golf balls — at about $47.99 a dozen.

What’s your most popular service?

Re-gripping golf clubs. We do more than 1 million per year, at about $2.99 per club.

How much does the typical customer spend in your store?

I can’t say for sure, but it’s over $100 — and growing.

How much time does the typical customer spend in your store?

About one to three hours.

What are the key improvements you’re making to your stores?

Primarily on training associates. We invested millions last year and brought in a new tech provider that produces new data for better fittings. We’re also putting more iPads in stores, so customers can look at their swings.

What’s the most surprising thing you have in motion?

We’re testing new technology where customers wear vests like robots and can see their swing completely.

Do you golf?

I do, but with a 14 handicap, I’m not as good as I used to be. I know a place that can help me.