Tennis Industry magazine

 

Selling Tennis Balls

Bulk purchases, consumer promotions, and new packaging all help to give your customers what they need.

By Mitch Rustad

You might call them the Rodney Dangerfield of tennis products.

They’re swatted mercilessly by tennis pros and tennis hacks. Their lifespan can be a matter of hours. And even their material worth is abysmal — one can is cheaper than almost anything made by the barista at your local Starbucks.

We’re talking, of course, about tennis balls. These fuzzy fellows may be low on the tennis totem pole in some ways, but they’re as essential to the game as a racquet, net, and white lines.

In fact, the health of the whole industry is often linked to the sale of tennis balls — if sales are up, that’s proof that more players must be hitting the courts, more often. The Tennis Industry Association reports that 2007 first-quarter tennis ball shipments are up 8.4 percent in dollars and 8.7 percent in units compared to last year, which is welcome news for manufacturers and retailers alike.

Tennis balls certainly lack the industry buzz of the latest racquet or string technology introductions — has any tennis product changed less in the last 25 years? — but they remain a staple and barometer for the industry. Here’s a closer look at the current state of tennis balls, and where this product category may be bouncing in the months to come.

Trend Watch: Buying in Bulk

Consumers may still be able to buy a can of balls for pretty much the same price they paid some 20 years ago, but industry insiders have noticed at least one significant shift in recent times — more tennis players are buying tennis balls in bulk.

“The landscape of tennis balls has changed a lot over the last five years,” says Jennifer Parker, business manager of HEAD Penn Racquet Sports in Phoenix, who notes that a rising number of consumers are buying the 4-can shrink-wrapped packages. “People are just finding it easier and more convenient to buy them in packs,” especially when shopping the big-box outlets, says Parker. “Our pro specialty stores still tend to sell more single can units, because they are easier for them to stock.”

“There have been a lot more of the 4-, 6-, and 8- packs at retail,” says Jason Collins, Wilson’s global business director for tennis balls. “But 4-packs have been the most common. There’s a little more perceived value.”

Specialty retailers such as Chris Gaudreau, the owner and president of Racquet Koop in New Haven, Conn., however, have also noticed the “buy in bulk” trend and encourage customers to go beyond the single-can purchase.

“I’m finding a huge pattern in consumers buying balls by the case,” says Gaudreau, who won’t display or visually promote cases of balls on the sales floor, but makes sure his customers know they’re available. “If I see someone grabbing 12 cans of balls, I’ll just suggest that they buy a case, and they usually do it. You can’t play tennis without balls, so it’s a matter of convenience, because I charge the same price,” says Gaudreau, who will even offer customers a “mixed” case of balls, for both clay and hard courts.

Specialty retailer Kim Cashman, owner of the Advantage Yours tennis shop in Clearwater, Fla., has also noticed tennis consumers bulking up. “We have found that offering the 4-pack of balls has increased our tennis ball business,” she says.

Promotions That Sell: Big & Small

Some major ball manufacturers are looking to elaborate promotions to keep ball sales healthy. This spring, Penn rolled out a major promotion featuring a corporate sponsor (Chrysler) giveaway with an immediate gratification, high-end incentive (one can includes a sports watch), which follows on the heels of other mainstream promotions such as putting codes for free music downloads in 4-pack cans of premium balls.

“It adds value to what a lot of people consider a commodity purchase,” says Parker. “And these promotions give retailers a way to sell through their ball inventory more quickly.”

Other ball manufacturers use higher end products to promote their ball brand. “We’re new to the product, so we’re planning to leverage our status in racquets in our summer promotions,” says Jay Simmons, Prince’s senior category director of tennis balls and recreational racquets.

In July, Prince launches a new racquet, and with each purchase, customers get a 4-pack of Prince balls and a racquet bag. “It’s a way to stimulate trial for our product and give added value with purchase,” says Simmons. “Then you have everything you need to go straight to the court and play.” Prince will turn to national print ads and in-store counter cards to get the word out, he says.

Currently, Wilson is offering a visor with a 4-pack purchase, says Collins. “It’s generally a good incentive to buy,” he adds. Wilson has future promotions planned, says Collins, that take advantage of Wilson’s “official ball” status at the US Open, Australian Open, NCAAs, Davis and Fed Cups, and more.

Tennis club managers like Ken DeHart of San Jose Racquet and Swim in San Jose, Calif., promote tennis ball sales by offering freebies within the club, one way to gain a unique edge over the competition. Says DeHart: “Build a display pyramid about 4 to 5 feet high featuring a “ball of the month” and members who purchase get their name immediately entered for a free tennis clinic or free hour on the ball machine at the end of the month.”

Cashman opts for manufacturer-supplied “ball tower displays” but suggests displaying it near the register, not near the front door. “You want to have the customers walk by as many products as possible before reaching the balls,” she says. “They just might see something else that they can’t live without.”

Options, options, options!

While price points and general technology haven’t changed much over the years, the variety of options on many retail shelves can confuse even a seasoned tennis player. The options can be mind-boggling — the “levels” of balls are tagged with names like “Pro,” “Championship,” “Recreational,” “Practice,” “Extra Duty,” “Regular Duty,” “Pressureless,” or merely branded with a variety of logos, such as the “official” ball for each Grand Slam.

“The manufacturers make so many different kinds of balls now that people get so confused because they don’t know the difference,” says Vince Chiarelli, owner of String Along with Vince, in Largo, Fla. “What I have to do is make my customers understand the quality of balls is different.”

One manufacturer says he hasn’t seen that much of a shift in overall options — the changes are more on the can than in the can.

“When it comes to producing tennis balls, the only thing you can really change is the core compound or the felt, and everything has to pass specifications, so there isn’t much to tinker with,” says Simmons. “The things you can change are more in the packaging.

“In the last 20 years or more, there’s always been the varying felt types for specific court surfaces, and two-, three-, or four-ball cans, and different packs,” says Simmons. “Another change has been a shift to bulk packaging.”

To limit potential confusion, however, many specialty retailers simply refuse to carry lower-end balls, leaving the larger list of options to big-box outlets. But like most products, the ultimate decision to purchase isn’t in the hands of retailers or manufacturers.

“There’s a number of reasons why people choose one ball over another,” says Parker. “Whether it’s American-made is meaningful to some, or others might like an ATP logo on the can, so who knows what makes them tick? There isn’t one ball that fits all tennis players, and that’s why there’s such a big selection out there.”

The Never-Changing Product

While racquet and string technologies have changed dramatically over the last 30 years, basically the same balls have been bouncing off your racquet for just as long. Despite all the dressed-up packaging, multiple logos, etc., there’s a limit to what manufacturers can do to “improve” a tennis ball, says Parker.

“Coming up with new ball technologies always poses a little bit of a challenge,” says Parker. “It’s heavily regulated and all need to fall within the same general level of playability, so our challenges are to come up with new technologies within the limits imposed upon the industry by the ITF and USTA.”

“My feeling is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” says Wilson’s Collins. However, that doesn’t mean the packaging can’t change — for the better. Wilson has come out with ball cans containing 25 percent post-consumer recycled material, Collins says, which will help reduce the amount of new plastic needed.

“The tennis ball package is one of the most difficult items to produce,” Collins says. “It’s pressure sensitive and heat sensitive. Any small changes have to be tested long before we go to market. We’ve been working on the new recycled packaging for 16 months.”

In the meantime, consumers (and retailers for that matter) can count on continuing to buy balls without much damage to their wallets. “Tennis balls are viewed by consumers as a disposable commodity,” says Simmons, “so they’re willing to pay a certain amount, but very reluctant to pay more. That’s why the cost has stayed the same for so long.”

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About the Author

Mitch Rustad has been a long-time freelance writer based in New York City.

 

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