Fran Johnson PutterSticks & Stones

Golf retail can
be challenging,
rewarding at
the same time

By Kiel Christianson,
Senior Writer

W. SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (April 4, 2004) -- "When people find out you're in the golf equipment business," says Cindy Johnson, "they say, 'That's got to be a lot of fun.' And I have to say 'Yes and no.'" Johnson has been president and owner of Fran Johnson's Golf & Racquet Headquarters in W. Springfield, Mass., since 1996. Her father, Fran, began the business in 1975 in the basement of the family home. And to this day, despite the more than 9,000-square-feet of floor space, the junior Johnson considers it a family business.

Related Links

But in the world of golf equipment, "family business" isn't synonymous with "easy-going" or "relaxed." If the retail equipment business were a golf hole, which would it be? "The par-3 seventh at Pebble Beach," says Johnson. "It looks easy, but it changes on a dime." Weather, economic concerns, unreliable deliveries, employee crises all create challenges every day for any business, but golf is particularly sensitive, since new equipment (even more than green fees) is often considered a luxury, expendable and often forgotten if not kept constantly in the forefront of people's attention, especially in rough economic times.

The competitive, capricious nature of the business can be even more perilous for a woman in the male-dominated world of golf. Johnson confides that, "On occasion, there is still the perception that [women] don't know anything about the business. Five or 10 years ago, vendors would sometimes direct conversations toward Steve [Delnickas, Fran Johnson's golf manager]," assuming it was he, rather than Johnson, who was in charge.

Cindy Johnson Fortunately, attitudes in golf, although behind the rest of society, are changing. "Women (and men) are much more knowledgeable today," says Johnson. "And equipment manufacturers are finally giving choices. The days of pink and purple shafts are behind us. There's a significant number of women who spend the money [in households] -- from cars to golf clubs. Just because I'm a girl doesn't mean I can't play and don't know the difference between shafts."

The increased popularity of hybrid clubs has closed the gap between women's and men's equipment a bit. Design innovations have made irons easier to hit and longer for men and women. "Only relatively recently have there been clubs coming out creating 'buzz' at a reasonable cost," says Johnson. According to Steve Delnickas, at the top of the Hot List this season are the Nike Slingshot irons. "They're flying out of here," reports Delnickas. A close second are the Ping G2 irons and the Adams Idea irons, also in the player-improvement/hybrid mold. The Adams Ovation fairway woods are also hot. Paul Ryiz, who will be opening up a branch Fran Johnson's shop at the Golf Connection in Granby, Mass., calls the Ovation "the best deal in golf right now."

Fran Johnson Store How does one go about spotting a real trend, and not getting fooled by one of the many equipment fads? "Part of being a good buyer," says Johnson, "is taking risks. If you never have any flops, you're being too conservative." In recent years, one of the most prominent stinkers was the Callaway C4 driver. "Everyone hated the sound," says Delnickas, "and there were durability issues." Other notable duds were the Bimatrix shaft, TaylorMade golf balls, and battery-powered pushcarts. Companies like Wilson have also stagnated. And despite the recent welcomed trend toward custom-fitting (which Fran Johnson's provides, complete with full swing analysis), the Ping Specify putter system, which allowed golfers to build their own putters, failed miserably. "It was just too much work for most people," says Delnickas.

The key to success for Johnson, is "cherry-picking the best of the equipment on the market. We can't buy everything, or be everything to everyone." The ever-increasing popularity of eBay and other online equipment options have made people more knowledgeable, and have forced traditional brick-and-mortar retailers like Fran Johnson's to "tighten our selection, and focus on what we do best: service, club-fitting, first-hand knowledge of the equipment."

What's in Cindy Johnson's bag?

"People are surprised to find out that I don't carry all the latest equipment. As of the end of 2003, I carried Callaway Steelhead II fairway woods, a Ping SI driver (when I dared pull it out), and Adams Idea irons. I had my first hole-in-one last year, on the 5th hole of The Orchards (S. Hadley, Mass.), host of the 2004 U.S. Women's Open."

Instead of mindlessly slashing prices, Johnson began a promotion last year that garnered very positive response. With certain purchases, customers received a free half-hour lesson with a local golf pro. "We'll be doing that again this year," says Johnson, "and giving people 10 or so pros to choose from."

The idea is a simple one: If people don't learn how to use them, the new clubs they walk out the door with will not do any good. If people don't play well, they'll get frustrated and quit. This is why as many people quit the game each year as take it up. If the game doesn't grow, no one, including businesses like Fran Johnson's, will want to stay in the business, even if it is a family business that, by all accounts, should be fun.Fran Johnson's
1050 Riverdale Street (Rt. 5)
W. Springfield, MA 01089
Tel: (800) 649-4199

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management. The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. All contact information, directions and prices should be confirmed directly with the golf course or resort before making reservations and/or travel plans.