Dick Sullivan has spent a decade at the helm of PGA TOUR Superstore, helping triple the company’s U.S. store count through coast-to-coast expansion. The golf retail giant, which had an overall sales growth of 14% in 2018, now has 40 locations throughout the U.S. and a robust worldwide e-commerce business.
Prior to Sullivan’s current position, he was instrumental in helping build two of the most respected brands in America – The Home Depot and the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons – as the Chief Marketing Officer for both organizations.
Sullivan is the Chairman of the NGF’s Board of Directors, the first executive from the golf retail side of the industry to be elected to the position in the NGF’s 82-year history. He recently took some time to talk about PGA TOUR Superstore’s momentum and growth, the evolution of the golf retail market, the impact of online giants from outside golf on his business, and the challenges facing the golf industry.
PGA TOUR Superstore has enjoyed a positive trajectory in recent years, and it hasn’t always looked like that, momentum-wise, for other retailers in the industry. To what do you attribute that to and what does the rest of this year look like for the company?
What’s fundamental for us is one of our core values: at PGA Tour Superstore we operate by listening to customers and associates, and really understanding their needs, customizing the experience and engaging in every level of player, whether a beginner or avid golfer. And also giving back to those that support the game of golf and its communities. There are hundreds of thousands of young people that we’re impacting, over half a million in the markets in which PGA TOUR Superstore has stores. A few years ago, it was a quarter of a million. Our values and our unwavering attention to the customer has led us to go above and beyond the standard brick and mortar stores. We do so many unique things. Our innovative approach to experiential golf retail is different than anyone else. It’s allowed our business to grow at unprecedented levels.
We’re systematically building our presence in this golf-centric world throughout the country; we continue to be really opportunistic and aggressively investing in our brick and mortar business. Many of these are former Toys R Us or Babies R Us locations. We’re still looking aggressively all across the U.S. at maybe more stores in ’19 and we have a plan to open half a dozen at least in 2020. Over the next four or five years, we’ll add 1 million square feet and I don’t think anyone else is really doing that. We don’t look short term, we look long term at everything we do, so it’s a myriad of things that’s given us the success and growth we’ve had.
What kinds of areas, geographically, are you targeting for growth and how do you identify these locations?
It’s probably a mix of existing markets in which we operate in, which is easier for us for training and development, marketing, leverage. So, we’re probably either 50-50 or 60-40 (percentage-wise) in terms of existing markets versus new markets. We opened a second store in Denver, so the manager there gets to go to a new store if he wants to do that. We opened our second store in Boston, our third store in Chicago last year, another store in South Florida last year that would feed from Delray Beach and Plantation. We’re constantly looking for places where we could add stores.
A few years ago, we had an unbelievably high performing store in Scottsdale and customers couldn’t get served. It’s a nice problem to have. We opened a store 4 1/2 miles down the street to relieve that store from that pressure, to make sure that the customers are getting the service levels they wanted, and to make sure our service associates are really being treated fairly by us. We will continue to look in existing markets to see where we can add. We know where we need additional stores, but then at the same time we know what the top golf markets are in the U.S. We’re going to continue to look in the markets in which we serve, but we’ll also look in those in which we have a void and which we recognize are top markets. And working with the NGF, we have incredible data that allows us to pinpoint exactly where we need to put stores.
You talk about the experiential component and as you look ahead, how do you see the golf retail market continuing to grow?
We serve more than 7 1/2 million customers annually, with 100,000 club fittings, nearly one million clubs re-gripped, nearly 50,000 lessons, clinics and grow-the-game initiatives. Even though we have a wide assortment of products, our competitors can do the same thing. What clearly distinguishes us is having that experience in the stores – the lessons, the club-fittings. It is our promise to our customers. We spent millions of dollars upgrading our technology in our simulators last year. We’ll continue to look for things like ball-fitting. How many people who come to the stores really know what the difference is between the Pro-V1 and Pro-V1x, for example, the best-selling ball? We need to educate the consumer more, help them, and help their game.
In many industries, Amazon, EBay and similar online sites are perceived as a major concern or challenge for “big box stores” or “brick-and-mortar” businesses. When you look at that relationship and the role of Amazon and EBay in the golf world, what do you see?
I look at it as an opportunity for us to make sure that we provide the level of customer service and experience in our store so that people don’t want to click and browse. That’s all you’re getting online. If we are not providing that experience with the large putting greens that we have, the interactive simulators, the club fitting, the re-gripping… We have customers that spend hours in our stores. If our business becomes 20, 30, 40% online then I don’t think we’re doing the job. We invested millions of dollars last year in our e-commerce strategy, so that we have this world class website now and a mobile platform which wasn’t really working well. Our e-commerce business is probably up 30%, 40% this month. It’s the benchmark for me.
Nowadays, you have to have an omni-channel platform, so if its commodity-type items – shirts, shoes, balls – things that they know, or know their size or want to replenish, we’re seeing the customers even in the local market here in Atlanta they order it online and pick it up in the stores. It will all continue to grow, but all the things we do in our stores is why we exist, why we break records and why we have 500 people waiting in line for a store opening. If we stop doing that, if we don’t do the training inside of our stores, we become just a commodity-type business and we become very vulnerable to the Amazons and others in the space. The distribution of products has changed too, so that’s another advantage we have. There are manufacturers out there that don’t want their clubs in the hands of just anybody, they want them to be fit. So, it’s critical to have a store like ours. Because of that we get products that you can’t buy anywhere else. You can only buy them in our stores, not online at Amazon or places like that.
What do you perceive as the biggest challenges for the game going forward and how can we as an industry best address those?
We still have roughly 24 million golfers in the U.S. participating. We’re at a point where we’re at a stable place at 24 million, but we have so many non-golfers, so much latent demand out there. There are more than 14 million non-golfers that say they’re very interested to take up golf. That’s up five million over last five years. I see that as an opportunity.
We’ve got to get people having fun with the game again. We can’t be stodgy. What people wear to the golf course has to change. 75% or more of the golf courses are open to the public and the operators need to make it more welcoming. We do everything we can inside of our stores to make it fun with our clinics and all the things we do for kids, women and juniors. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to make it more welcoming. We’ve got to show beginners that this is really fun and invite those non-golfers out to play. It doesn’t matter whether it’s six, nine or 18 holes, it’s got to be fun. There’s been too many barriers and obstacles, and I never like to blame anybody, but we’ve got to make it more welcoming and more fun.
We’ve seen lots of studies and found that golf is associated with mental well-being benefits; the social interaction, the community aspect of it and the connection to nature. Golf courses are beautiful, wonderful uses of green space and provide wildlife habitats. It’s so different than any other sport. There are so many benefits to playing the game and I don’t think we market them well enough.