Women’s clubmaker still awaiting boom in equipment sales

A few years ago, Doug Buffington had reason to smile.

The widespread belief among golf experts then was that the game’s growth would be fueled by women. The notion seemingly played to the strength of Buffington’s company – Women’s Golf Unlimited, which made women its singular focus well before switching its corporate name from Square Two Golf in June 2001.

Prudent fiscal policies and key acquisitions, including the NancyLopezGolf brand, positioned Women’s Golf well for the much-anticipated “lady boom.”

But the infusion of women golfers hasn’t occurred – at least not yet – much to the chagrin of Buffington and other equipment company CEOs, who are anxiously seeking growth opportunities.

For Women’s Golf, the market’s stagnation has called for adjustments. The company is retrenching and hopes to gain market share one consumer at a time by fine-tuning its product line at the retail front. Women’s Golf also plans on niche marketing and demo days at local club championships.

At the root of Buffington’s problem is that women’s participation actually may be trending downward. Fresh data isn’t available, but the number of women golfers declined 11.3 percent between 1997 and 2000, according to the National Golf Foundation’s report, Public Trends in the Golf Industry.

“There is nothing that indicates that the game of golf is expanding,” Buffington said. “As a matter of fact, I’m not too sure it isn’t shrinking.”

The 28-year-old company based in Fairfield, N.J., will focus on its three principal brands: the NancyLopezGolf club line and accessories, endorsed by the Hall of Famer; Square Two clubs, backed by retired LPGA legend Kathy Whitworth; and Lady Fairway shoes.

According to officials, the acquisitions in 2000 of NancyLopezGolf, from Arnold Palmer Golf Co., and Lady Fairway boosted company sales. Nevertheless, adjustments need to be made for the company to capitalize on its investments.

Before the acquisition, the company reported sales of $11 million in 1999 compared with $16.1 million in 2001. However, net income fell in that same period from $306,126 to $164,291.

Excluding a goodwill impairment charge, Women’s Golf posted net income of $130,800 in the first quarter of 2002 – down from $173,928 in the same period of 2001. Sales fell to $3.6 million from $4.5 million.

But Women’s Golf does have some inherent advantages that could help trigger a resurgence. Though it may not have the marketing resources of larger competitors, the company’s exclusive focus on women is a strong selling point, some retailers say.

“The ladies really like the fact that it’s a company that specializes in ladies’ clubs,” said Sven Kessler, manager of Edwin Watts Golf Superstore in Orlando, Fla.

Consumers have taken to the NancyLopezGolf line. It has done well at Austad’s, one of the bigger retail operations in the Midwest. Officials there said they have placed a second order on the clubs after selling 25 sets since early April.

But other retailers have complained about limited offerings from Women’s Golf.

Patricia Dixon, president of Empowered Women’s Golf based in Dallas, has been carrying Lady Fairway shoes for almost a decade. But she said sales of the line has slowed lately, in part because of a limited quantity of narrow width shoes and a lack of range in price points.Women’s Golf executives recognize such shortcomings and are planning a September redesign of the shoe brand. The Lady Fairway line will be diversified and offer broader retail price points.

The company also has no plans for grand marketing endeavors. Instead, national print advertising will focus solely on targeted publications such as Golf For Women. And its 30 to 40 sales representatives will concentrate on club championships.

If it can weather current market conditions, Women’s Golf hopes to recapture some of its past glory.

In 1991, 10 years after becoming the official club of the LPGA (an agreement that extends through 2003), Square Two Golf was named one of America’s 100 “Best Small Growth Companies” by Business Week, based on growth rate.

But Buffington is fully aware such success won’t come again easily.

“Our company still has a long way to go from the standpoint of getting other people educated about our product line,” he said.

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