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EDEN PRAIRIE, MN-Golf Galaxy Inc. officials say they have one ambition: to be all things golf to all golfers at its “highly interactive” retail stores. So far, golfers seem to be buying into the concept, fueling the chain’s expansion from one store in Minnesota in 1997 to 29 in 13 states this year, with expansion plans for 12 to 15 more by the first quarter of 2006. Right now, most of the company’s stores are in the Midwest, but it’s aiming to be a national brand.

Tom Stine, co-founded of the Florida-based Gold Datatech, a golf research firm, calls the company one of the top golf specialty stores in the country. “Customer service is at the heart of it, along with its remarkable variety and scope of products,” he tells GSR. According to Stine, the privately held Golf Galaxy is among the top three chains of its kind in terms of sales, the others being Edwin Watts Golf (Florida) and Golfsmith International (Texas). Golf Galaxy’s stores typically boast about 70 styles of golf shoes, nearly half of those for women.

But Golf Galaxies are far more than places to stock up on equipment. The interactive features of the store include large putting greens with artificial turf, golf simulators (electronic driving ranges for trying out clubs), and on-site club-repair services. Each store also has equipment called “ball-launch monitors,” which take high-speed photos of golf balls leaving the club face, measuring the spin of the balls and its launch angle. These shots show which driver works best for the customer: no small thing when making a $400 or $500 investment in a driver.

Moreover, lessons are available at the stores. Each Golf Galaxy has at least one PGA or LPGA professional on staff who offers lessons and computer video swing analysis, and answers questions about equipment and club fitting. This year, according to Golf Galaxy, there were about 30,000 lessons give at its stores, which are collectively the fifth-largest employer of PGA pros anywhere, the company officials say.

“We’ll do more than sell you stuff,” says Randy Zanatta, CEO and founder of the chain, tells. “We’ll fix your slice or help improve your swing. There are stores that give lessons, or do club repair, or have ball-launch monitors, but we do it all under one roof. That’s our strength, and it wins us repeat business.”

The chain has two prototypes for its stores. One is about 16,000 sf, for main markets, and the other is about 12,000 sf. “We opened one of the smaller ones this year in Appleton, WI, and that’s proven successful, so we will open more of them, either in smaller markets, or where real estate is expensive, or maybe in secondary that can’t support two larger stores,” says Zanatta. “It has all of the features of the larger stores, just a little tighter.”

According to Zanatta, his company looks at much more than mere demographics when deciding on locations for new stores. “For main markets, we look at places of 800,000 in population or up, but we also look at golfer participation in metro areas, that is, what percentage of the population plays the game, and what part of the metro area they live in. It’s not always what you’d think. Between 12% and 13% of Americans, on average, play golf, but in some of the markets we’re in, the percentage is double that.

“My favorite golfing demographic fact is that Miami has double the population of Milwaukee, but Milwaukee has twice as many golfers,” he adds. “That’s the kind of thing we need to know. We target markets that have above-average golf participation. We have to be very selective in our site selection approach.”

Golf Galaxies are located in strip centers or freestanding buildings, but not always in the highest-volume trade areas, either measured by car or foot traffic. “We don’t do malls,” Zanatta says. “And our locations aren’t always easy to get to, but our market is the same guys who’ll get up at 5 a.m. to tee off, so they’ll make the effort to come to us.”

Zanatta was an executive for Best Buy for 17 years before founding Golf Galaxy. “While I was there, I saw the evolution of the big box concept, and how it attracted customers to an electronics store,” he says. “At the same time, I was a golfer, and I didn¹t see anything like that for golfers.”

So he and another Best Buy manager quit their jobs, raised some start-up money and opened the first Golf Galaxy in Bloomington, MN. “That’s still our busiest store, in fact,” Zanatta says. “We discovered that the concept works. That¹s the way people like to buy for their golf game.”

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