Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Spikeless Phenomenon

There are fads and crazes, and then there are phenomena which are more lasting and usually described as natural or cultural.
Spikeless golf shoes have been around a long time but the craze to own a pair started when Freddy Couples wore the ECCO Street shoe at the 2010 Masters and had the TV announcers asking “What is that shoe Freddy is wearing?” As he did in the early nineties with his Ashworth shirts, “Mr. Cool” was inspiring a new look. The demand was almost instantaneous and ECCO, even though it owns and operates its own manufacturing facilities, was initially unable to meet that demand. It is human nature to need that which is fashionable but short on supply, and once ECCO was able to fill the orders the Street shoe quickly evolved into the majority of the company’s business. All the other major manufacturers supplying the industry obviously believed that the future was now staring them in the face, and we now have adidas Sambas, Ashworth Cardiffs and FootJoy Contour Casuals –and success stories from all about volume, sell-in and sell-through.

Spiked golf shoes have a 150 year history, starting with golfers in the 1800’s driving nails into sturdy shoes for traction. Metal spike technology advanced to less dangerous, lighter in weight and more comfortable until the early 90s, when cleat design made metal passé (and often banned). Manufacturers such as FootJoy led in the research and development of materials and shapes that made cleats more effective, relaxed and easier on greens. Now with the popularity of the look and feel of the spikeless brands, the technology is all about making nubs out of material that doesn’t wear down while continuing to sell the concept of traction and stability. Yes, this shoe is a lifestyle fashion ¬– but it is also a piece of equipment.

For more about the corporate perspective and the future of the category, one of the people I had the pleasure to speak with was David Helter, sales director for ECCO USA). We discussed his product as well as his vision for the future of what he is now referring to as the hybrid business.

According to David, “ECCO owns and operates their own plants as well as the fifth largest tannery in the world, and are thus able to do some proprietary things with leather, fit and design.” Hydromax, for example, is the generic name given to ECCO leather with high water resistant properties. The hydrophobic compound generated as part of the tanning process is distributed throughout the leather structure, not just a surface effect. These leathers are also characterized by a low water uptake in wet conditions. From a construction viewpoint, the ECCO shoe is unique in that the sole is molded to the shoe out of polyurethane that basically makes the shoe more durable since there is no cement to deteriorate from heat, wear and age. He explained that the nubs on the sole that provide the traction are patented star-shaped outsole design which provides more traction angles and are made of high-abrasion TPU (Thermo Plastic Urethane).

David believes “There will always be the more traditional golfer who would prefer spikes and a classic look, but that the more casual trend is not going away. The game-changer going forward for us will be updated classic looks in camel leather and spikeless bottoms. The last frontier for this category will be to have tour pros as well as teaching pros wearing this product and winning. Matt Kuchar is wearing our product but is not on contract. We are the largest-selling brand name shoe at Nordstrom and want to help the golf pro and his staff, learn how to talk about and fit shoes. We have a MEET, GREET and SEAT training program”. Mike Pifer , the Mid-Atlantic rep for ECCO, added another important business aspect, stating “I have provided the Street Shoe at member/member tournaments and invitationals as favors at facilities such as Robert Trent Jones, Manor Country Club, River Creek Golf Club and Trump National.

In pro shops, an oft-heard statement of late is “What are we going to put on the tables?” now that 90 percent of the shirts are hanging. I merchandised a table just the other day with spikeless shoes and hats from appropriate vendors. We had two styles in two colors each and I put a dozen pairs interspersed with some shirts and appropriate props to make a good-looking lead table that left no doubt we were in the spikeless business.

Any new and popular category of goods always increases sales in the golf shop. Destination golfers who have brought golf shoes with them are apt to see spikeless on display and decide this is the right time to try the new look and feel they have been hearing about.

Scott Justman, the new VP of golf operations at National Golf Management in Myrtle Beach, makes the point that “Interest in spikeless golf shoes has been on the increase and we have seen a definite growth in overall footwear sales since this product hit the marketplace. The spikeless product has been a big hit in the resort atmosphere, as it is something new that guests may not see at their home club and is also the perfect choice for traveling. This shoe allows players to go directly from lunch at the clubhouse, to the course, to dinner and nightlife – a complete lifestyle piece.”

I have seen club members come back from a round raving about the comfort level of their new purchase and want to special order one in each available color.

Eddie Suchora, head golf professional at Park Country Club of Buffalo, comments that “I have seen an increase in sales this year with the growing popularity of the casual spikeless shoes from companies like FootJoy, adidas and Ashworth. With the casual atmosphere at our club, members are looking at more lifestyle items that can be worn at the club. This trend looks like it is here to stay when you look at the presence at PGA Tour events as well as PGA Section events.”

Dennis Winters, head professional at River Run in Ocean City and one of the better players in the Mid-Atlantic PGA Section, calls his Sambas “mood shoes” and explains that “The lifestyle aspect has been great for me in that I travel a lot to play and appreciate being able to wear these on the plane and for drinks after the round. They are easier on the greens as well as the flooring in clubhouses and shops. They seem to work for me on all occasions, and I switch up colors according to mood.”

I can’t think of a shop, owner or manager that should not be riding this wave and keeping their staffs aware of the evolution of the look and the new technology of spikeless shoes.