Lingering cold and wet weather this spring, a weakened economy, and Internet wholesalers are vexing Spokane-area retail golf equipment vendors, who say that though theyve been knocked into the rough, the closures of two large retail golf stores here since last fall werent a sign of likely further fallout in that niche market.
Kennewick, Wash.-based Golf Universe Inc. shut down its store in October, and National Golf ceased operating here a couple of months later. Both companies stores were in Spokane Valley.
Gary Dupree, manager of Wide World of Golf Inc., at 4921 N. Division, says he believes the closures of the two Valley stores have boosted his business, even though the spring wasnt as busy as he had hoped. He adds that the stores location has played a huge part in its continued success.
Its right across from the (NorthTown) mall, so it looks like a candy store to guys who are there with their wives, says Dupree. He says that the store, which has been in business for more than 30 years, has long-standing relationships with golf-equipment suppliers and is able to buy in high volume, and that helps it keep prices low.
National Golf, which occupied a 6,300-square-foot space at 9616 E. Sprague, had been in business at that location for more than nine years. Golf Universe launched its store at 212 N. Sullivan in March 2006 and kept it open for about a year and a half.
The loss of those two stores leaves the retail golf industry here largely in the hands of smaller specialty stores, golf course pro shops, and sporting-goods and general-merchandise chain stores that carry a limited selection of golf equipment as part of a much broader inventory mix.
I brought in extra equipment in anticipation of the closures of National Golf and Golf Universe, says Kit DeAndre, head pro at Liberty Lake Golf Course. In late May, he said that overall sales at the coursecovering not just golf, but also food and beverageswere down about 28 percent from a year earlier.
Now that the weather has begun cooperating, sales are gaining strength, DeAndre says. He says, though, that he still expects revenues to be down this year because the season got off to such a slow start.
Dave Clarke, owner of the 32-year-old Clarke Stephens Golf Shop, at 116 E. Nora, says sales were down at that outlet through late May, but that since the weather has improved, business has surged.
I have a better feeling than I had at the beginning of the year, he says.
Clarke blames the disappointing sales this year, though, not just on the poor spring weather, but also on the weak economy.
There has been a ripple effect through the whole economy, he says, adding that golf equipment prices have risen this year.
To combat those factors, he says, the shop is doing more advertising this year, using radio and newspaper ads and spots on cable TVs Golf Channel.
Wandermere Golf Course pro Billy Ross says revenues at the course are down this year, mostly due to fewer rounds of golf being played, but the sale of larger-ticket items such as club sets also have fallen.
He says he has sought to adjust to the market partly by carrying less high-end equipment.
All we can hope for is a late fall, he says.
Pine Acres Par 3 & Driving Range, at 11912 N. Division, has been able to bounce back from a late opening and slow start, says manager Shelley Cardenas, adding that its pro shop sales now are going strong.
She says, though, that the first month of the season is one that cant be made up. She says that business this month will be a sign of whether the season will be a good one.
Dusty Metcalf, owner of Metcalf Golf, which is in its second year of operation here, says that his shop was behind where he had wanted it to be as of late May, but business was up about 60 percent from where it was at a similar point during the shops first year. Metcalf says that his shop works to supplement equipment sales with other services, such as lessons on the shops high-tech golf simulator.
We have a very good contingent of repeat customers, he says.
Representatives of the now-defunct National Golf couldnt be reached, and Golf Universe chose not to comment, but other retailers interviewed believe the two stores closures likely were due to the high costs associated with stocking and operating a large store.
They had a lot of overhead, which is tough for any business, says Metcalf.
Shaun Meeds, a commercial real estate agent with Prudential CRES Commercial Real Estate here who is the leasing agent for the building that National Golf had occupied, contends that part of the stores troubles stemmed from the city of Spokane Valleys 2001 conversion of that section of Sprague Avenue into a westbound one-way street.
That change caused the store to be less visible and accessible to customers, Meeds asserts.
Some of the retailers here also have concerns about the growing competition the Internet has created. A report released last month by the Mount Prospect, Ill.-based National Sporting Goods Association gives credence to those concerns, saying that Internet sales of golf club sets last year rose to 16.5 percent of all sales, up from 7 percent of the market in 2002. The report also says, In 2002, pro shops accounted for 31.5 percent of the sales of clubs in sets, but just 21.1 percent in 2007.
Clarke Stephens began maintaining a presence on the Web 15 years ago, at www.csggolf.com, and its Web site has helped increase sales, but the Internet is a double-edged sword, Clarke says. While its easy to reach people that way, its just as easy for your competitors to reach them, he says.
Wandermeres Ross says it can be hard to compete with the prices being offered by online discount houses, as well as by sellers on Web sites such as eBay. He says, though, that the local pro shops and stores have an advantage over the Internet when it comes to customer service.
He says that customers at Wandermere Golf Course can take demo clubs out onto the course and hit some balls, or even play a round, before they decide what clubs to purchase.
Liberty Lake Golfs DeAndre says that he is less concerned about conventional online retailers and is a little more agitated when he sees brand new equipment being sold on sites like eBay for extremely low prices, which indicates to him that the gear probably is stolen.
He agrees that its more advantageous for the customer to purchase equipment from a local shop.
The Internet cant provide a proper golf fitting, making sure a clubs shaft length and grip are well-suited to the buyers needs and preferences, he says.
Although the 2008 golf season has gotten off to a rough start, the retailers interviewed believe the much-improved weather will help the industry rebound.
DeAndre points out that people, even when temporarily sidetracked, tend to find ways to resume their favorite seasonal pursuits.
People are hard-pressed to give up their recreation, he says.
As for rough spring weather, Metcalf says, Hopefully, you dont have two years like this back to back.
Contact Ben Rascoff at (509) 344-1260 or via e-mail at email@example.com.
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