As players get smarter about their frames, they continue to expect more from racquet companies.
By Kent Oswald
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Steve Vorhaus, owner of Rocky Mountain Racquet Specialists in Boulder, Colo. “The more racquet models that are offered, the more the consumer comes to expect.”
And the more consumers expect, the more they seem to buy.
TIA research conducted by Sports Marketing Surveys shows that 2007 saw continued growth in the $220 million racquet business. Frame shipments topped $121 million, with the high end of the market — pro and specialty shops where racquets cost an average of about $138 each versus the chain sporting goods and mass merchants at $53 and $24, respectively — up 4 percent in units sold and 8 percent in dollar sales.
The 14 racquet manufacturers currently tracked by TIA research bring a total of about 140 different racquet models to the American market, on average, and Head, Prince and Wilson combine to offer more than half of those selections. The average peak selling season for a racquet is about 18 months, according to Sports Marketing Surveys.
But are there too many racquet models out there, making it confusing for consumers and aggravating for retailers?
“Every manufacturer wants to blanket the market so they won’t miss anyone,” says Vorhaus, whose store is one of the country’s top specialty retailers, selling more than 1,000 adult frames a year. “And there is an increase in interest from techies in knowing all the parameters [of racquets], even if they can’t tell you how that translates to their game. Manufacturers are, in essence, responding to this. To be competitive, I have to carry everything, but I could do this same job with 30 percent fewer racquets than are on the market.”
Linda Glassel, Prince’s vice president of marketing, says she remembers years ago when “tennis was booming and there wasn’t enough product.” She agrees with Vorhaus that “consumers are smarter; technology is better.”
Prince, Glassel adds, “is in the business of helping everybody with their game,” making racquets that, based on consumer research, are designed to help the games of recreational players and pros alike.
Wilson General Manager Jon Muir says his company also is looking to cover the recreational market completely. “We’ve got a pretty broad base of consumers we are trying to satisfy,” he says, adding that the clearest trend is “more serious players, more serious racquets.”
Likewise, Head says it is trying to address the desire of players who feel technology has given them enough pop and who now seek to balance that with more control. And, according to a company spokesperson, another significant trend that came to light in recent years was women wanting something that fit them better. So Head added a series of racquets designed for women that address physiological differences — the racquets feature a balance and grip developed by a marketing and research team and including Steffi Graf.
But again, are there too many frames out there? Well, maybe yes, maybe no.
“I look on the [specialty retailer] wall and there are 30 to 50 racquets,” says Wilson’s Muir. From his perspective, the number of racquets and all the information that is available on them is “overwhelming for the consumer — confusing and intimidating.” Wilson plans to simplify its marketing presentation to address those concerns.
But Prince’s Glassel sees it differently. “Consumers are not confused with what’s there,” she says. “They understand the nuances and differences between products.” As for too many racquets on the wall, she believes the choices are good for players, and customers can rely on the expertise of specialty retailers and teaching pros to help them find exactly the right frame for them.
For retailers, it boils down to knowing what’s out there and taking the time to become familiar with all that you offer for sale. For instance, Vorhaus, even though he says he can do the same job with fewer racquets, makes it a point to keep himself and his staff current on all the models and their benefits.
Like other retailers, Vorhaus builds racquet sales around the demo program. He and his staff keep trying to learn more and more from the player with each demo. (And he makes sure that everyone coming in for a stringing job is encouraged to demo a racquet.) Also, each frame Vorhaus sells is strung with a better synthetic string at no extra cost as a loss leader for the next purchase, whether a frame or string job. “If the racquet isn’t properly strung,” he says, “it doesn’t play for beans.”
Recommendations from specialty retailers and teaching pros go a long way with consumers and do help to make the choice manageable. For Barbara Windham’s family of four in Northern California, the past year saw four new racquets — from three different manufacturers. Her teenage son recently became more serious about his tennis and bought a certain brand because his coach played with that brand. Her teenage daughter’s coach plays with a different brand, so she took up that company’s racquet. And her husband just bought a new model — the third brand for the family — thanks to the recommendation of the club pro.
Windham’s experiences also validate a key notion that Vorhaus mentioned — the importance of the string job. After playing for a long time with a particular frame, Windham had it restrung by someone other than her usual stringer. The string job, she says, was not good, and she was unhappy with how the racquet hit, so she tried her daughter’s new frame and “never played so well” — and she bought herself the same racquet.
“There is never just one racquet for a customer,” says Rye, N.Y., teaching pro Lloyd Emanuel, who says he’ll sell fewer than 100 racquets this year but nonetheless extols the virtues of choice when it comes to finding the right frame.
“I love to have customers come and ask what is the latest,” he says. “Then I know I’ve made a sale.”
To help you choose the right racquet for your customers from all the models available (as of March 2008), see our exclusive Racquet Selection Map, and our list of racquets currently available.
See all articles by Kent Oswald
About the Author
Kent Oswald is a contributor to TennisNow.com, producer at the JockBookReview.com and a former editor of Tennis Week magazine.
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