Stringing: Taking Stock
How should you select and manage your string inventory? A longtime MRT offers his advice to help you boost your business.
By Tim Strawn
One of the biggest challenges for any racquet sports business is selecting and managing string inventory. This isn’t as simple as just stocking what you may feel is the latest and greatest string — it’s a multi-tiered process.
To start, you need at least a basic knowledge of strings, racquets and playing styles. This isn’t an option; it’s a prerequisite. When a player comes to you for service, it helps to have a process in place to get you from Point A to Point Z.
Racquet manufacturers produce racquets to address all playing styles and levels. It’s your job to fit the player with the correct racquet based on their playing style, then match the string and gauge to that style, and then choose the correct tension. Ordering and managing string inventory should not be a guessing game, and that’s why you need a broad-based understanding of strings, racquets and playing styles.
Let’s put this all together and come up with a system that can help you become more effective when ordering string. (While the focus here is on tennis strings, if you string for other racquet sports, your options may vary.) If you break it down into four categories it becomes a little easier to understand: String Categories & Gauges, Procurement, String Cost, and Inventory Control.
1. STRING CATEGORIES & GAUGES
Taken as a whole, there are four familiar categories of string: Nylon (or synthetic gut), Natural Gut, Polyester (often referred to as co-poly based), and Aramid (Kevlar). There’s also another string type that often gets left out of the discussion — Zyex — so we’ll look at that too.
Popular gauges for tennis range from 15 (1.41-1.49mm) to 19 (1.00-1.10mm). The most widely used range falls between 15L (1.34-1.40mm) and 17L (1.16-1.20mm), and the most common gauge in that range is 16 (1.26-1.33mm).
The vast majority of strings fall in the nylon category, often referred to as synthetic gut. There are two basic types: solid core and multi-fiber. Most likely, the majority of your clientele will be serviced with nylon string, mostly from the solid core selections. Basic solid core nylons consist of a variation of wraps around the core, and then a coating. Multi-fiber strings consist of thousands of separate strands within the core and sometimes multiple cores within the main core, as opposed to one single solid core.
A closer look at multi-fibers reveals that some are more complicated and elaborate than others. Some are extremely soft (equals high elongation) while others are actually stiffer (typically those with multiple cores within cores). Both, however, still fall into the “soft” category and are often referred to as “comfort strings.” Softer strings are typically used to address shoulder or elbow issues and can offset the stiffness factor of some racquets.
Advice for nylon strings: With solid cores, 16-gauge will be your “go to” string, so stock up on and pad your selection on either side with a little 15L and some 17 to start with. For multi-fibers, again, 16-gauge will be in larger demand. Have some 17-gauge on hand as well since this size can easily be used for those with “soft” games who don’t use a lot of spin.
Natural gut (primarily, beef intestine) simply cannot be perfectly duplicated with synthetics — natural gut’s elasticity (recovery rate) is what sets it apart. Tension maintenance is superb and players often comment about the lack of effort in generating power when using natural gut. This is definitely a category every racquet technician needs to stock. However, there are no corners to be cut when it comes to cost. Online “bargain-basement” natural guts are no bargain at all and you can get burned very easily. But if you’re prepared to invest top dollar for this string, you won’t regret it.
Advice for natural gut: Start with some 15L and 16 gauge and if needed, add 17 gauge later. Pay attention to tension recommendations on the package.
Often referred to as co-poly based string, this category has taken the tennis market by storm, primarily because many touring pros use it. Be prepared for players asking you about the “new” strings that all the pros are using. However, racquet-head speed generated by a touring pro is drastically faster than that of the average club player. Because of this, results are going to be different for rec players.
Another critical point is how often to replace poly. Touring pros restring before every match, cutting out the string within 48 to 72 hours. But poly is expensive and average club players probably won’t pay $40 per set to just cut it out after 72 hours. These points are why it’s critical to explain to your customers the difference between use at the pro level and use at the recreational level.
Advice for polyester: Because these strings are quite durable with low elongation, in many cases you can start by using a 17 or even 18 gauge. Remember to explain clearly about time frames for restringing. Poly is here to stay, so make sure you have a good selection on your wall.
This is the Kevlar category, and the most widely recognized is the braided type. This string is rarely used in the entire string bed and is typically found in many hybrid set-ups. It has a longstanding reputation for being very stiff, but there’s good news. Steve Crandall of Ashaway, a U.S. manufacturer of braided Kevlar, says, “Our focus is now on our new Kevlar+, which incorporates PTFE filaments in the outer braid. The PTFE enhances the softness of the string as well as the durability.” Crandall says thinner gauges are now more common for braided Kevlar in hybrid configurations, and with the new Kevlar+ the comfort level is now being addressed to a higher degree.
Advice for Kevlar: This string is geared toward baseline and heavy spin players who tend to break strings frequently. If you have chronic string-breakers, Kevlar is a great option, so consider stocking it. Focus on 17 and 18 gauge, which should work well in most hybrid applications.
Zyex PEEK (PolyEtherEtherKetone) is a unique product in today’s market and one that shouldn’t be overlooked. The monofilament is a great alternative to polyester, yet significantly different than poly. The PEEK structure holds the molecules of the string together more tightly, which results in an elongation rate slightly higher than twice that of a traditional polyester.
Another Zyex option is the multifilament core, which can be used to address players with arm or elbow issues and added to your “soft” line of strings. This product doesn’t fray like traditional multifilament strings, has the same exceptional tension maintenance, and is quite comfortable to play with. The string is a multi-stranded core as opposed to a solid monofilament construction.
Advice for Zyex: Zyex Monogut is a nice alternative for players who use traditional polyester but desire better tension maintenance. The multi-fiber Zyex is a softer string that doesn’t fray and has good tension maintenance. Stock 16 and 17 gauge in the mono and 16, 17, and 18 in the multi-fiber. Zyex multi-fiber strings are marketed as an alternative for softer strings that are more durable than traditional multi-fiber strings.
Once you have a good idea of the types of strings you want to stock, look for suppliers that can meet your demands. “Having a trusted source is important,” says John Gugel of Racquet Quest in Orlando, Fla. “If you can’t get it, you can’t sell it. Reputable companies can be trusted to deliver and this gives you peace of mind in keeping inventory levels current.”
With so many companies to choose from, your top priority should rest on their ability to deliver the product when you need it, not when they can get it to you.
3. STRING COST
Cost has to be factored into the equation not only for you as a retailer, but also for your customer. Having a variety of string types also means a variety of prices to offer. Some customers will not want to pay very much for a string job, while others are more receptive to your suggestions and will consider your recommendations.
A great way for you to buy string is to watch for specials, such as “buy 12 and get 3 free.” These types of offers can be effective in many ways. First, it can net your overall cost down if that’s the way you choose to go. Or, you might consider setting aside those 3 free sets and using them to introduce the string to prospective clients at a special promotional price. Or, those free sets can come in handy if you have a customer who broke a string prematurely; give that player a free restring and get him up and running fast, and he’ll tell his friends about your great service. It’s not always about what you can save up front; sometimes it’s how to convert that savings into something you can use to drive new business.
Program buying or special “buy-in” offers can be tempting, too. “We try to be very careful when considering special ‘buy-in’ orders,” says Tobias Svantesson of e-Tennis in Orlando, Fla. “While a buy-in may sound like a great deal, you have to ask yourself if this is really a product you can sell. You can get some tremendous deals on quantity buy-ins, but it means very little if the string is still sitting on your shelf two years later.”
This doesn’t mean you should avoid buy-in programs. Just use good judgment and look closely at these programs so that you’re maximizing the dollars you have to invest in your inventory.
4. INVENTORY CONTROL
This is a critical part of any business. I highly recommend you incorporate some type of business accounting software into your operation. For example, QuickBooks and Peachtree are popular and easy to set up and use, or look to software designed specifically for stringing and tennis retailing.
In QuickBooks, for instance, you can use purchase orders when ordering product. In turn, receiving against those purchase orders automatically updates inventory and makes keeping inventory levels current. You can set re-order alerts, which can be helpful when things get busy. At the end of the year you can run reports that show the exact amount of product ordered, which can be used to determine how much to order for the following year.
“We use QuickBooks to determine how much string to order,” says Larry Hackney of Tennezsport in Union City, N.J. “Typically, we find 50% is driven by customer demand, 25% constitutes new products, and 25% is earmarked for discount strings for local college players and others who are on a tight budget.”
If you prioritize what needs to be done and stick to a plan, you can be very efficient with your string inventory as well as how you manage that inventory throughout the year. This not only allows you to have the string you need when you need it, but also keeps your customers happy. Happy customers are repeat customers, and repeat customers are what keep your business alive.
USRSA Master Racquet Technician and tour stringer Tim Strawn owns and operates grandslamstringers.com and gssalliance.com and is the founder and owner of the GSS Symposium, an annual global training event for racquet technicians. His tour stringing experience includes working for the Bow Brand team at Wimbledon and the Wilson team at the US Open and Sony Ericsson in Key Biscayne. Contact him at Tim@gssalliance.com.