Air Force golf shop merchandising: a benchmark approach

Ed Miles

When customers walk into an Air Force golf shop, their first impression is “Wow! Now this is a golf shop!” Many military golf shops and clubhouses are drab and poorly structured. Today’s Air Force customers demand more value for their money and more sophisticated service and facilities. The golf industries continues to grow at an unprecedented pace, and beautiful municipal and resort golf courses and club houses are being constructed throughout the world. As a result, many more Air Force golfers are visiting civilian golf clubs and courses. As the popularity of the sport increases among Air Force members, customers expect a level of service comparable to that provided by the private sector.

The golf shop is one of the first customer contact points on a golf course and often sets the tone for the rest of the visit. with this in mind, the Air Force Services Agency in San Antonio, TX, launched a benchmark study of the successful military and civilian golf shops. Both military and civilian benchmarking “partners” were selected, with the Andrews AFB Golf course in the Washington, DC, area as one of the military operations selected. This course was named the “number one” golf course operation in the Air Force in 1993 and one of the nation’s top 100 golf shops in 1994. The Hanging Oaks Golf Course in Sacramento, CA was selected as a civilian “partner” course. This operation received the “Merchandiser-of-the-Year Award” from the PGA in 1990 and consistently has remained as one of the top 100 golf shops in the nation. The Lackland Air Force Base, TX, and two Fort Hood, TX, golf courses were selected as partners because of their outstanding merchandising programs.

All of the these golf shops have different approaches and are faced with different challenges and customer bases. However, one significant factor they share is quality management. This study searched for common or like methods of operation among successful golf shops, and plans are being made to weave these threads of success through the more than 80 Air Force golf courses worldwide. The goal is to foster pride ownership, stimulate a substantial increase in customer satisfaction, generate more participation in Service programs, increase sales per round, and create a healthier bottom line.

Partners in Progress

The benchmarking team identified “enablers” at each of the courses selected as partners. Enablers are those practices or processes that “enable” an activity to facilitate particular performance levels–those things that allow them to excel. The team quickly found that the most significant enabler was “presentation.” Customers begin forming impressions and opinions the moment they drive into the golf course parking lot. From that point on, everything the customer sees offers a preview of things to come. Everything counts, from the landscape, signs, and cleanliness to the organized appearance of parked golf cars. From there, the presentation continues into the club house entrance, restrooms, locker rooms, food service locations, and the golf shop. To project the progressive, aggressive, upscale image desired, each area must reflect the same attention to detail. In many cases, the only clubhouse area visited is the golf shop, which is where most purchasing activities take place. To be successful, the golf shop must have an appearance and level of ambiance that entices customers to pause and browse through the merchandise displays. Getting the average golfer to “stop and shop” requires planning and merchandising strategies. Attractive merchandise displays are the first step down the road to success.

Several key golf shop characteristics have a significant impact on sales per round and golf shop merchandising programs. The primary focus areas include: floor planning, lighting, fixturing, point of sale (POS) counters, carpeting, and fixtures. The characteristics must all come together to create a well coordinated shop that is appealing to our customers.

The shop also must be appropriate for the geographical area and customer base it services. The golfers have to be comfortable with the golf shop’s atmosphere if it is to be effective.

Floor planning creates an upscale, functional, distinctive area that will encourage customers to browse and guide them toward “target items” that need to move quickly. The cost of a professional store planner to create a basic plan can more than pay for itself in sales activity. The location of a stand-alone sales counter, mobile fixtures, sales tables, spot-lighting, eye-ball lighting, types of displays, and traffic flow patterns usually are beyond the average golf manager’s expertise. In many cases, the floor space available to Air Force golf shops is limited (less than a thousand square feet), so efficient floor planning can make a big difference. Lighting and mirrors can make a small shop seem twice as large and bright and give customers a shopping environment that they will use and enjoy.

Slatwall fixtures are a relatively inexpensive but effective method of expanding floor space by moving merchandise off the floor and lifting it to eye-level for easy viewing. The assortment of attachments and fixtures available with slatwall today can add warmth and richness and make the entire golf shop appear more upscale. Dollar for dollar, adding slatwall to the golf shop is the most effective and least expensive upgrade a golf manager can make.

On the other hand, carpeting may be the most expensive item associated with golf shop decor, and selecting the right quality of carpet is important. The combination of traffic volume and spiked shoes accelerates the wear process. Cheap carpeting wears out very quickly in a golf shop, especially in high traffic areas such as entries and sales counters. Moveable floor fixtures (roll-a-rounds) help change traffic patterns in the golf shop and distribute wear more evenly over the entire carpeted area. Even the best carpet needs to have a planned replacement after five years (or less depending on traffic). There are unlimited choices of colors and patterns available today. However, a neutral or subdued color should be predominant so that any color of merchandise can be displayed without “clashing” with the carpet.

A “stand-alone” or island style counter with glassed-in areas for displaying highly preferable items and specialty/impulse items can be the “center-piece” of the golf shop operation. One that is well organized and constructed of quality wood makes a positive statement to customers every time they visit. The counter should offer the capability of opening tow cashier stations for high volume days. The stand-alone counter opens all wall space to customer access and slatwalls displays. Wall space behind a sales counter is acceptable, but a customers must ask for assistance to look at displayed merchandise.

If the sales clerk is busy, a customer often will not look at an item rather than bother a cashier, and the operation loses a sales opportunity. Sales clerks also can keep a better eye on the entire shop when they are centrally located. This reduces the potential for shoplifting. The stand-alone counter normally is close to most of the shop displays. This improves customer service by speeding up sales processing and enabling quick answers to merchandise related questions.

Beyond Appearance

So far, focus has been on facility appearance. An attractive merchandising area alone, though, will not make an operation successful. It is important to emphasize essential areas such as properly tailored inventory mix, a healthy turnover rate approximately 2.5 times per year, a sales-trained and customer-oriented staff, and a totally involved golf professional or golf course manager who is dedicated to meeting customer needs.

The inventory mix within a golf shop is a critical merchandising factor because it must be tailored to the preferences and buying habits of the current customer base. Price pints, styles, colors, hard-to-soft goods ratios, name brand preferences, and stock levels are just a few of the elements that make-up an effective inventory mix.

Golf shops develop their own personalities over a period of time according to their merchandise mix. Variety is essential to attract customers’ attention and keep them coming back. Of course, some stylish close-outs and a few high-end items help to round-out shops and provide items of interest to the entire spectrum of the customer base. This is what the Air Force wants to achieve.

The industry standard of a 2.5 turnover reflects healthy sales activity and an appropriate inventory mix. If the turnover rate is significantly higher, it may mean that stock levels are too low. The shop actually could be losing sales because items that customers want are often on order but not in stock. A golf shop with a limited floor or storage space may be forced into a higher turnover rate. Hopefully, the financial success of a shop in this situation would promote near-term facility expansion to accommodate the shop’s customer demand. Turnover rates that are significantly lower than the standard may reflect an inventory that’s too large or an improper mix of brands, price, points, or styles, or a lot of old stock sitting on the shelves. The old stock problem is evident in many golf shops and these items must be moved as quickly as possible. They cost money every time they are inventoried and take up display space where a new product could be featured. Keeping slow moving items in storage or on shelves undermine efforts to upgrade the merchandising program.

Make or Break

The golf shop staff can make or break the entire operation. When customers visit a course to play a round of golf, they are there to relax, enjoy special treatment, and get away from the hassles of their daily routines. The last thing they need to experience is a discourteous cashier, outside service person, or golf manager.

If the staff can help customers relax and forget about their cares for five hours, chances are good that they will keep coming back. When we make every individual who walks into our golf shop feel like the most important person we have seen that day, it starts their golfing experience out on a positive note. It may also put them in the mood to spend some money.

“Knowledge behind the smile” is the key to a winning golf shop. Knowing the products offered for sale is an important part of a quality customer service program. But when staff knows a customer’s name, taste, favorite colors, and equipment preferences, there is a potential sale every time he or she enters the shop. The golf professional or golf course manager is the synergistic force behind the entire golf course operation and the key to the program’s success. The “personality” of a facility is usually a direct reflection of the managers’ personality, management style, and standards. The employees know the level of expectations for service.

When management’s expectations are extremely high, the level of service remains high as well. Once performance and customer service standards are established and enforced, customer satisfaction will remain high even through normal personnel changes.

Personnel training is one of the hardest requirements for management to meet. A strong staff has to receive both on-the-job and formal professional training. The golf industry is so dynamic that, without professional continuing education and training, it is difficult to keep up with all of the new equipment, maintenance methods and management systems available. To serve customers effectively, a concerted effort must be made to keep management and staff personnel well informed and trained.

The key to an effective training program is planning. The training plan must be written and formal training placed on the calendar. It is hard to let a key employee go to school for a week or two; but if its “on the calendar,” the advance planning for their absence ensures they will get the training they need. There never seems to be a convenient time to let someone go for even a day at a busy golf course. However, training pays off beyond improved customer service.

The successful golf shops visited as part of the benchmarking study all used some form of these “presentation” methods to maximize the effectiveness of their merchandising programs. There is a lot of room for individuality in this process, and the Air Force does not intend to create 80 golf shop clones. However, all of the identified enablers should be core to Air Force golf shop merchandising operations. Successful operations have demonstrated that properly applying them boosts customer satisfaction and sales. The benchmarking study will help the Air Force set new standards for providing topnotch service and value that exceeds customers’ expectations.

COPYRIGHT 1994 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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