Bomb & GougeOctober 21, 2010

Does price override brand in a sluggish economy?

LITCHFIELD PARK, Ariz. -- Having worked for several years in a golf shop in the 1980s, I always look forward to our retailer panel discussion. And this year's retailer panel did not disappoint. In fact, the answer to one particular question brought an alertness to the room more than the flaming hot coffee served by the fine folks here at The Wigwam Golf Resort & Spa.

The question was this: "Does price now override brand association and technology?"

Given the still-sluggish economy and the plethora of closeout deals, the expected answer may have been a quick "yes" and lets move on to question 2. Instead, a thoughtful discussion ensued among our panel of eight retailers—a group that represents facilities that have earned Golf World's 100 Best Golf Shops honors more than 100 times.

In short, they said, golfers were less likely to take a flier on a brand they were unfamiliar with, which in turn resulted in them relying more on their vendors with star-power name recognition, leaving niche companies to fight for the scraps.

"There's just more comfort in strong brands right now," said Susan Roll, co-owner of Carlsbad (Calif.) Golf Center.

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The retail panel in discussion at the Golf Digest Hot List Summit (photo by J.D. Cuban)

One of the complaints regularly heard about the Hot List is that it tends to be dominated by the large equipment companies. Our counter to that has always been that big equipment companies are usually big for a reason: they tend to spend more on research and development and more on quality materials and manufacturing, thus usually (but not always) leading to pretty good products. Still, hearing Sven Kessler, VP of Retail Operations at Edwin Watts Shops national headquarters in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., speak about the viability of smaller companies, was a bit like having a sledgehammer dropped on our heads.

"There's very little room at the bottom anymore," said Kessler. "The companies that own a category have a bigger advantage now than ever before."

Ouch.

That's because one of the joys of being a Hot List judge is finding the hidden gem—the hybrid no one has heard of that has gouges balls out of the rough like a weedwhacker. The wedge that looks like a shovel and performs just like that. Or the no-name putter that has your opponent snickering that you wasted your money—until he's the one digging into his pocket at the end of the round instead of you.

The golf equipment landscape may have narrowed for those purchasing bats and balls and perhaps even for the retailers who sell them. But not for the Hot List. We'll continue to search for products we feel are significant in their category and, more importantly, will help you play better golf.

Thankfully, our retailer panel was in agreement with that. We asked a follow-up question: "Would it be a bad idea then to even consider niche companies?" The reply came as a relief.

"I don't think it's a mistake to have small brands on the list," one Leigh Bader of Joe & Leigh's Discount Golf Shop at Pine Oaks GC in South Easton, Mass. "I think it may be a mistake not to." Several heads nodded in agreement.

Sure, the days of an Ely Callaway coming along with his hickory-stick clubs and turning it into an empire likely will never happen again. But the niche company still has its place in the game. Products from those companies may or may not make this year's Hot List. But they'll get the same chance to be included as everyone else.

Why? Because performance is more heavily weighted in the purchase decision than ever because it can be quantified. The advent of fitting systems, launch monitors and the like allow the consumer to truly see what works best for them, and, in the process, bring comfort to the purchase decision.

"Golf equipment has become less of an impulse buy and more of a considered purchase," said Carl Rose, owner of Carl's Golfland in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. "Consumers need to validate the improvement of a new club over what they're currently using."

Whether it's from a large company or not.

-- E. Michael Johnson