In addition to matching those products, Golf USA sets itself apart through product knowledge and services. Most Golf USA storeowners are certified repair technicians and club fitters, making customers confident they will interact with a knowledgeable person on every visit. A great number of Golf USAs have been honored by companies such as PING, Mizuno, Callaway and Titleist for being Top 100 fitters in the US. Each franchise is individually owned and caters specifically to its community. “Even though our stores are smaller, we like the idea they can survive and prosper in the markets that aren’t considered important by a lot of large chains,” Bowen explains.
The Oklahoma-based company started in 1986 and began franchising in 1989, as corporate representatives used a consulting model to help set up new stores. Bowen says the small market model proved itself early on, as franchisees could be their own boss and become involved in an industry they were passionate about. Bowen joined the corporate side of the company in 1996 to develop first-hand knowledge of the golf retail market before opening his own two Golf USA stores in 2010.
But as Bowen transitioned into a franchisee, the corporate side of the company began to struggle. Golf USA’s Spanish parent company had concentrated on overseas expansion but many U.S. locations suffered during the recession and felt they were no longer being supported as strongly as before. The company filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in spring 2013 and soon after sold its North American operations to Bowen, who still had strong relationships with the other franchisees. Bowen and his wife, Nicole, rededicated the corporate entity to helping the 25 existing stores and rebuilding Golf USA’s foundation. The effort has helped the company to stabilize its business.
Bowen credits much of that success to the team he has put in place, including Director of Digital Technologies David Webb and Director of Marketing Marty Head. “We’re a small group,” Bowen says, “but there’s a lot of experience here. Each of our team members wears a lot of hats, but they love the excitement of making a difference in such a great industry.”
Rebuilding the Golf USA brand began with a new website shortly after the buyout, the company further expanded its digital footprint in February 2014 when it launched an e-commerce platform. Customers can now buy clubs, golf balls and other supplies online, and even have equipment customized to their specifications through an easy-to-use service called techniFIT. “That’s an area where you can kind of out-innovate the big guys,” Bowen says of the website. The e-commerce initiative has driven growth and he expects it will help customers learn about the Golf USA stores and better understand the company’s approach. A great deal of the company’s site traffic targets finding stores near to the consumer.
At some retailers, the convenience of being online can leave individual stores at a competitive disadvantage. But Golf USA mitigates that by sharing 3 percent of its e-commerce sales with its franchises to spend on local promotion. “As e-commerce continues to grow, it’s more money that goes into their marketing campaigns and to grow the Golf USA brand,” Bowen says.
The end goal of e-commerce, Bowen explains, is to expand funding and draw investors who will help the company to return to opening new stores after a five-year halt in franchising. If online sales continue to grow and the existing stores remain stable, Bowen hopes the company will begin marketing for new franchises within the next 12 to 24 months. Golf USA fields a great number of inquiries each month from potential franchise buyers. There is still a great interest in owning your own business, especially if that business is golf, Bowen says.
When those new franchises do start sprouting up again, the stores will likely have a new take on the Golf USA concept. The company is working on a prototype store to fit its small market expertise. Most existing Golf USA locations are between 4,500 and 5,500 square feet and serve populations between 80,000 and 150,000 people. But Bowen says the new concept would be between 1,800 and 2,500 square feet, enabling Golf USA to lower overhead from rent and utilities and help storeowners reduce costs. “We’re going to stay completely away from big markets and we’re going to target the areas that are smaller and under-serviced,” he says.
As Golf USA considers the size of its future stores, the products inside are already changing. Bowen wants their shops to expand beyond purely golf products and offer items that fit the golfing demographic, such as Yeti coolers, Big Green Egg charcoal grills and wireless speakers. Many of those products are now only offered at specialty retailers that may not exist in the small town markets that Golf USA caters to, which Bowen hopes will lead to new types of customers to complement the company’s base. “We’re looking at things that golfers enjoy and are part of their lifestyle, but are a specialty in the market anyway,” he adds. The strategy could make Golf USA the go-to shop for a person in Ames, Iowa, for example, to buy the newest North Face jacket. “We’re just exploring different brands to add to that demographic mix for both men and women.”
Securing the latest products is not a guarantee for smaller stores like Golf USA, so the company leans on its relationships with equipment manufacturers to ensure it can stock the items customers want. Some of those relationships suffered during the bankruptcy process, but individual stores stayed in close contact with local vendor representatives and Bowen used his familiarity with the market to reconnect with national and regional representatives after taking over the company.
Golf USA was able to reestablish its vendor relationships and develop co-branding marketing efforts with manufacturers such as Ping and Callaway to promote products directly in stores. Further, Golf USA corporate created programs to share marketing costs with manufacturers with no cost to individual storeowners. “[Stores] don’t have to build it themselves if they don’t want to,” Bowen says of the marketing. “We provide that for them and at little or no expense to their pocketbooks.”
The communication between each store also has improved. Since the buyout, Bowen says local stores are sharing information with each other at a higher level and utilizing a private web portal to discuss experiences.
Next year will mark the 30th year in business for Golf USA and Bowen hopes it will signal a period of growth for the company. The anniversary coincides with the introduction of golf to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and Bowen expects an upswing in popularity for the sport similar to how there is often a rise in interest in gymnastics every four years. Riding the Olympic wave could help Golf USA reach its goal of opening 50 stores during the next five years.
Bowen pledges to avoid the company’s past mistakes with overexpansion as that plan unfolds. The key, he explains, is being selective in who Golf USA decides to take on as a franchise and identifying what markets make sense for its business model. But with the company stabilized, he says it will soon be time to consider growth. “We’re excited about expanding again and getting the brand back to where it was before,” he adds.