Retailing: Shopping Centers
Tennis facility pro shops are having to change with the times, and it’s the consumer who is determining the direction.
The last time every tennis facility out there could say their pro shop was doing a booming business, sales included cotton alligator shirts and ankle socks with colored pom-poms on the back.
“The pro shop used to be the only game in town,” says Mike Lissner, senior tennis pro with the Columbia Association in Maryland. “When I started in tennis, it was the mid-1970s, and there really weren’t all the stores where you could get the things you needed.”
These days, an internet-savvy public can use online mechanisms like TennisConnect to book courts, and can buy shoes, racquets and apparel online. In addition, just about every city has specialty tennis retail stores as well as large sporting goods chains and big-box department stores whose sports departments include tennis equipment.
So where does that leave the tennis facility pro shop in today’s industry?
“It’s still around,” says Lissner, “but I think it’s the shopping habits of the buyer that are more the issue.”
In much the same way the tennis industry itself has changed through the years, the pro shop has morphed. RSI polled industry members to find out what types of business their facility shops do, and how they are adapting to an evolving industry.
Four different business models emerged. There is, however, one common denominator necessary for any establishment to survive: a manager who can take stock of what facility users want, need and use.
“The reality is this, the direction of any pro shop is determined by the consumer, not the pro or the manager,” says Rod Heckelman, general manager at Mt. Tam Racquet Club in Larkspur, Calif. “The consumer will determine what you need to carry in accordance with the facility you provide.”
Business model #1: The tennis service center
Some shops have stripped down their inventory and concentrate instead on services to players, such as stringing, and some carry racquets, or will order them for customers. For these stores, information and advice are the hot commodities.
“We have a pro shop, but we don’t carry clothes,” notes Dr. Sophie Woorons-Johnston of Performance Meadows at Brookstone Tennis in Anderson, N.C. “I carry what I know: racquets, grips, string — the things in my area of expertise.”
According to Tim Jachymowski, owner of PublicIndoorTennis.com in Spring Park Lake, Minn., apparel is a sticking point for many pro shops. They lack the space to carry a variety of colors, styles and sizes, and like any other small retail establishment, are unable to order the quantities necessary to offer competitive pricing.
Jachymowski found stocking and selling racquets unprofitable. But, he notes, “People always want advice on what racquet to buy, and they’ll get it strung here.”
Business model #2: The variety store
Some stores, in responding to their customers’ needs, have found themselves going far outside the lines of the traditional pro shop.
“We changed and altered our pro shop,” notes Heckelman. “We now call it the Gift Shop and we include anything and everything a member might like: high-end facial products, wine club, tennis equipment and shoes. For us, what has gone the way of the dodo bird is the apparel.”
Mt. Tam has a variety of facilities, and Heckelman says the key is to consider what users need. “We have two pools, indoor and outdoor, with a wading pool, so what else do we sell?” he asks. “Swimming diapers and sunscreen for small children.”
Business model #3: The pro shop as souvenir store
For facilities located in resorts or in tennis destinations, says Lissner, pro shops play by a different set of rules. “Those stores are serving the vacation trade,” he notes. “People are freer with their money when they’re on vacation and they’ll make impulse purchases like a shirt with the logo of the place they’re visiting.”
According to Fernando Velasco of Circle C Tennis Club in Austin, Texas, logo clothing can sell outside the resort setting, if it is marketed correctly. “If you have, for example, shirts for league players, those can be very successful because people feel like it’s a uniform and they want to wear it. The more sophisticated your club is, the more the logo will sell.”
Business model #4: The traditional pro shop
Yes, it still exists, and yes, it can still flourish. For six years, Lynda Reis has been the pro shop manager at Midtown Tennis Club in Chicago, and has the additional responsibility of being national retail manager for Tennis Corporation of America. In addition to overseeing her own 800-square-foot shop, she supervises other club shops in TCA’s chain.
In Chicago, she says, she has enjoyed her greatest success, with strong sales and an ever-expanding service business. Part of that is attributable to Midtown’s focus: It is an all-tennis club, “So I have a captive audience.”
The pro shop is centrally located, and is the first thing people see upon entering the club. It provides apparel, shoes and accessories, as well as racquet sales and stringing services, and Reis offers price-matching on most items.
She is careful in her layout and purchasing choices. Men’s clothing is near the front of the store “since men don’t want to go looking” and the clothing for women (“who are much more discriminating when they shop”) reflects Midtown’s player demographic, rather than what an edgy 20-something touring pro is wearing.
Many pros, including Woorons-Johnston, Velasco, Heckelman and Reis, offer demo racquets (see “Tips From the Front Lines”), and can sell or order the racquet if a player likes it.
The Pro Presence
Most of the stores surveyed follow one of the above business models, but some are hybrids, combining various elements. All, however, say the advice of a pro is their best weapon and their stock in trade.
“There is no doubt that we are operating our pro shop differently than we have in the past,” says Mike Woody, executive director of Midland Community Tennis Center in Midland, Mich. “We are very strategic in our purchases and have chosen to keep our inventory lower and do more direct ordering while providing stellar service to our customers. Our tactics have been our pros who do much face-to-face recommending, monthly demo days, and weekly/monthly promotions.”
Choosing a business model for a new store is a challenge. Jorge Andrew, director of tennis operations in Lexington County, S.C., decided what the new Cayce Tennis and Fitness Center should do with the space set aside for its pro shop. Ultimately, he says, it’s a question of remembering customers are players first, and buyers second.
“We always have their best interests in mind. We don’t want to just sell them a racquet; we want to provide excellent service and the correct equipment so they continue coming back time after time.”
Tips From the Front Lines
Have a good location: “If a pro shop isn’t doing well, we ask ourselves why,” says Lynda Reis. “I was just on the phone with one club where sales aren’t good. It turns out there is construction going on, so right now the shop is off by itself in this little out-of-the-way place where people can’t see it.”
Encourage Internet use: “We tell our people to use the Internet to find the racquet they are looking for,” says Rod Heckelman. “Once they find it, we provide that same racquet and add a free half-hour of court time with the tennis pro to ensure it is what will work best for them. We charge only slightly more than the Internet and kick back a little to the pro, who often picks up lessons from this. As they buy more products at our shop, people collect points toward a free string job. This also creates loyalty and traffic. Pro shops need to understand, like other stores, that people use the Internet a great deal for convenience and not just for savings. It doesn’t have to be the enemy.”
Business tools: Take advantage of educational opportunities offered by the PTR, USPTA and Tennis Industry Association. Courses, webinars and presentations from these organizations cover everything from marketing and advertising your shop, to dealing directly with customers and manufacturers, and more.
See all articles by Mary Helen Sprecher
About the Author
Mary Helen Sprecher is the managing editor of Sports Destinations Management Magazine, a niche business-to-business publication for planners of sports travel events, in addition to being an RSI Contributing Editor. She is the technical writer for the American Sports Builders Association and works as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore City.