Local Golf Shops Fight to Stay Alive

T&D Golf is one of the local Tampa golf storesPerhaps they're considered a dying breed, relics of what used to exist for golfers out there. The local golf shop, the one where everyone knows your name, and, sometimes, your handicap. They used to be more bountiful, many found at driving ranges or near your favorite course.

But with the downward economy and subsequent decline of golf due to economic times, many local golf stores and businesses have been forced to close their doors, unable to turn a profit or compete with a chain golf store.

"A golf customer is not loyal," said Steve Pitts, owner of Steve's World of Golf in Hudson, a local golf store that specializes in custom golf fitting that’s been in business for 20 years. "They go on the Internet or to eBay to find the best deals, so us golf store owners have to recognize that most won't have loyalty that a certain store might get."

Of course, major stores such as Edwin Watts or Golfsmith, and even Dick's Sporting Goods carrying more golf products, have added to the pressure and closures of the local golf stores. However, Bob VanSweden, owner of the Golf Repair Center in Largo, says stores need to know the customers, especially the one that walks through the door.

"The consumer looking to save money is not my customer," VanSweden said. "I'm not here to sell golf clubs at the cheapest price because I'm here to provide a service that's above everyone else, especially the chains. And that service is to get that golfer the best golf clubs for them and their game."

Stores such as Steve's World of Golf, the Golf Repair Center and the two T&D Golf stores run by brothers Deason and Ben Smith, function solely on custom fitting clubs for avid golfers and getting those golfers similar, if not better, prices than the chain stores.

However, how the economy has fallen, especially in golf, has affected the way these stores do business.
Pitts, for example, offers a try-then-buy program for clubs, allowing a customer to try out a club for week, even take it on the course, to see if he or she likes the feel of it.

VanSweden, on the other hand, has kept up with every technological advance golf has to offer, including a state-of-the-art launch monitor, and soon, VanSweden is adding a putting video system to help him custom fit putters for golfers. VanSweden's store is also located on a driving range, so that allows customers to try the products in a more realistic golf setting.

"I'm one of the last of the dying golf stores," Pitts said. "In my 20 years in retail, I've seen many (other golf) stores open and close. When you come to this store, you're not buying a football or a baseball, which anyone can throw. You're buying clubs that are specific, that need to be specific.

"These stores should be for the community, for the local golf community, and to me, that should be basic Business 101 because those customers can keep the store surviving. It's just now, most golfers are loyal to the prices, not the store."

Custom fitting is a crucial element of the local golf shop

VanSweden says at least nine local golf stores have closed since the golf economy went south more than year or so ago. He went as far to add that he was surprised to see Pro Golf Discount of Clearwater close because of it's long existence in local economy.

If it's one thing the local stores agree on is the golf community needs their stores. Owners need the business to survive, but golfers need a place that will take care of their game and equipment and not just their wallet, which is what chain stores do.

And as these local golf stores adapt their business strategies to weather the tough times, owners, such as Pitts and VanSweden, know that their personal one-on-one service is their most viable asset.
"People need the local golf store to take care of them," Pitts said. "Business, in general, should be very personal. That's how a golf store should run."

"I'm not going to do combat with the chain stores," VanSweden added. "I've got to work on whoever comes through the door because they’re going to be paying customers. We can't cater to everyone, and I know who I can cater to. That's who I'm going to worry about giving the best service to."

Mike Camunas can be reached at mike.camunas@gmail.com



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