Making golf accessible and inviting to all

Retail Gets Real episode 282: Jill Thomas of PGA TOUR Superstore on redefining the sport

This episode was originally released on May 17, 2022.

Consumer trends

Dive deeper into the latest consumer trends and how retail has changed post-pandemic.

Golf has risen in popularity, thanks to its unique position as an outdoor activity that both enables social distancing and fosters connection. As the chief marketing officer of PGA TOUR Superstore, Jill Thomas is responsible for fostering growth in the sport and redefining what it means to be a golf player.

For too long, women played a minimized role in both the business world and the sport of golf. PGA TOUR Superstore hopes to make all customers feel accepted through its store culture. Thomas believes the company’s path to expansion means creating an inclusive environment that welcomes avid golfers and curious newcomers alike.

Listen to the full episode to learn more about how PGA TOUR Superstore is expanding the world of golf to a broader audience and impacting not only the future of retail but of the sport itself.


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Episode transcript:

Bill Thorne:         The Retail Gets Real team is working on new episodes for the coming weeks. In the meantime, take a listen to one of our favorites from earlier this year, we'll be back with a new guest soon.

Bill Thorne:         We'd like to thank our friends at PWC for their support, partnership and collaboration in making Retail Gets Real. Learn more about how PWC helps retailers at pwc.com.

Bill Thorne:        Those who are interested in not only golf as a sport, but golf as a career is diversifying. We have lots of different types of people, different cultures, different backgrounds, men, women, etc. And so that allows us to have our associate populations reflect a little more of that changing audience.

Bill Thorne:         Welcome to Retail Gets Real where we hear from retail's most fascinating leaders about the industry that impacts everyone everywhere everyday. I'm Bill Thorne and on today's episode of Retail Gets Real, we're talking to Jill Thomas, CMO of PGA TOUR Superstore. We'll talk to Jill about the company's recent growth and how they're attracting new people to the sport. So Jill Thomas, welcome to Retail Gets Real.

Jill Thomas:         Thank you. Thank you so much, Bill. It's good to be here.

Bill Thorne:         Oh, it's good to have you here. And I'd like to know a little bit about Jill Thomas's career journey and what exactly you do at PGA TOUR Superstore? I can't think of a better place to work. I have to be honest with you, except maybe the National Retail Federation, but God, yes, PGA TOUR Superstore.

Jill Thomas:         I know. I always say I've gotten two trips, at the Walt Disney Company, one was in theme parks and resorts, and the other was in golf.

Bill Thorne:         You've had a blessed career.

Jill Thomas:         Yeah, I've done some really fun things. It's magical.

Jill Thomas:         Some really fun things. So, I'm a career marketer. It's what my passion is. It's what I've always done. I started my career in retail and QSR, which I think is an incredible place to start in a retail marketing career because there's so much marketing happening. And then I transitioned over to the Walt Disney Company where I spent 12 years. My time there was very transformational for me, I believe very strongly that QSR marketers are some of the best marketers. They're highly disciplined and they really understand the totality of the marketing environment. And at the Walt Disney Company, they really understand how to go very deep across every part of the marketing journey. So, between those two things, I think I was pretty well positioned. I left Disney after about 12 years and went back to QSR or I should say food service, which is primarily where I spent the overwhelming majority of my career.

Jill Thomas:         And then about two and a half years ago, I got a call from a recruiter about an opportunity to work for first and foremost, sports entertainment, which is Arthur Blank’s family of businesses, knowing what a retail legend he is that got my attention right away. And then when I found out it was golf, I was all about it. So, to your point, I really brought together my two great passions, which is marketing and leading a small marketing team and transitioning them into what I refer to often as a modern marketing organization and then golf, which is my personal passion. So it really is the culmination of two things I love dearly. So I feel pretty fortunate.

Bill Thorne:         I love golf. I really do. I've played golf for as long as I can remember. My golf game has now evolved into moments of brilliance amongst hours of frustration, but I still enjoy it and I enjoy watching it. I'm one of those people that will watch it on TV and yell. People will be like, how can you be yelling at golf? I'm just like, did you see that putt? So I think you've got probably one of the best jobs anybody could have, if they love golf. And so tell me about the growth of the PGA TOUR Superstore. What's driving that growth?

Jill Thomas:         Yeah, well, it's, you know, it's funny because when I started it was this idea that it is the sort of up-and-coming big box specialty golf retailer. And, you know, the goal is to open stores and to engage more fans. And how are we going to do that? And within, maybe six weeks, COVID really took a hold of our world. And that sort of changed the dynamic pretty dramatically for us. We were already moving in a positive direction from a sales and a growth standpoint, but when the consumer and the customer and the fan really rediscovered, discovered, or just became interested in golf during COVID as a way to physically distance, but socially stay connected, which was so important, golf just exploded. So it's one of those things where you certainly wouldn't wish COVID on anyone. But the reality is that I think the sport has been discovered by a whole new group of people and for a whole lot of different reasons. Like you, I am a big fan of golf.

Jill Thomas:         I watch it on TV, I play it, I've grown up around it. And I have a tremendous amount of passion, but for the modern consumer in the modern new golfer, they discovered it for a totally different reason. And so they're approaching it very differently and it's been really exciting to see all kinds of different types of golfers for the first time. There certainly are hardcore, which is the traditional golf lover, probably described by you and I, but then there's all these younger people who are new to the game who are, who really challenged them as sort of the standard thinking around the game from every aspect, from apparel to footwear to equipment. And then of course the on course experience, it's just growth and it is coming from every direction, whether it's you were a fan and over the past two and a half years, you really leaned into golf because of everything happening around us or you're new to the game because all of a sudden you've discovered it and maybe even discovered it wasn't what you thought it was. It's actually a pretty fun and very cool sport.

Bill Thorne:         For sure. What do you do in the store to attract people to golf?

Jill Thomas:         Yeah, I think the most important part, obviously we see the in-store experience as our single greatest point of difference in the space. And I think the primary focus for us is just to be inclusive, really through our associates and the physical space. How do we make sure that everyone feels welcome in the store? And regardless of whether you are a 10 handicap or below, or you really just want to go out and play a few holes with your friends, we are really focused on being a much more inclusive environment and that's something that we focused on over the last two and a half years and is different because, you know, I would say two and a half years ago, 90% of the people who came through the front door are pretty avid golfers. So you could kind of shortcut your language and shortcut the experience because you knew exactly what they were looking for. But today we have to be a little more intentional when somebody comes to the store and really try to understand what brought them in today and how we can help them. And where are they on their golf journey and how do we make them feel included in that it is for everyone.

Bill Thorne:        So you have a campaign and I find this very, very interesting, and it's called the, “Girls got drive” campaign, tell us what is that and why are you doing it?

Jill Thomas:         We're doing it one because it's the right thing to do. But also because from a very practical standpoint, we've seen this tremendous influx of women into the game. So I believe I can quote this pretty confidently in 2020 and 2021, sort of as a peak of the growth of those new to the game. Almost half of those were coming from women even today. Some of our top selling items, both in store and online are female or women's equipment and apparel and all things focused on women. So practically speaking, it was the natural thing as marketers to really want to speak to that audience and really make sure again, that they felt included and that their unique needs were addressed. I think for me being an avid golfer, I think, and a female, one of the things I notice if I'm being real, is that women in golf, it's not the first audience that product is developed for, and it's not always top of mind.

Jill Thomas:         So we have to be very, again, intentional to talk about that women are included. They're in. There's a campaign called, “Invite her”, which I sort of appreciate yet. I also get a little frustrated by it because I don't need to be invited. Right? You know, that's sort of not really what this is about. This is about being included, but it's also being welcomed. And so, “Girls got drive” really came from that insight, but it also has nothing to do with golf in some ways. And it just has to do with women and our desire to really encourage women to show up and to, you know, to celebrate them. And, you know, the campaign girls got drive is, you know, it's a metaphor around golf, but it could be drive around any part of their life. Whether it's being the best mother, they could be the best career leader they could be, or the best athlete they could be.

Jill Thomas:         But it gives us a platform to tell a lot of different stories inside golf and outside of golf. I mean, I think it's interesting our, our senior leadership team, you know, fairly small, we have six people on our senior leadership team and two are women. And I think I find that very important and I really wanna elevate and celebrate that. And, you know, I tell our, our chief merchandising officer all the time, you know, she is the taste maker of the sport. She decides what people are gonna wear and what products they're going to use. And I find that very interesting. It's a powerful role to play in a sport, mostly dominated by men historically. So, so that's what it's all about. And there's not enough we could be doing to, to champion, that message.

Bill Thorne:         I totally agree. I think when people think of golf, they really think of male golfers. I grew up with Nancy Lopez, I remember at our golf club, Arnold Palmer and Nancy Lopez came and did a, you know, a round of golf. I've never thought of it as exclusively, a male sport I never have, but it's just amazing to me how people that aren't engaged in the sport probably don't recognize the, the level of the people that are actually participating in the LPGA. And it's, it's always kind of startling to me when people, when you start talking about it and they're like, I've never heard of her before. It's like, how could you not hear of her?

Jill Thomas:         I know it's, it's exciting right now for the LPGA they're growing. And they're really, they have a new commissioner who is an incredible, leader and really, is championing that idea. They're starting to really start tell their stories, which I think is, you know, that's one thing, you know, if you're a follower of golf, we know all the stories, we know all the players and, and we kind of get connected to them in that way. And we champion some and, you know, I think the same goes for the LPGA. And they're really focused on that now. And there are some just unbelievably talented women, playing on the tour, but even in the business of golf know, women are emerging as leaders. Both with the OEMs that the, the manufacturers, as well as the retailers, not only in our company, but in others, it's just, you know, it is a time, an exciting time to be in the sport.

Bill Thorne:         It is. And something you said earlier, I find very intriguing, and that is where most of the time most of your associates, most of your focus was on the avid golfer. So you could shortcut the discussion and now because you, this new enthusiasm, by a lot of different folks about the sport of golf, you know, you're really having to explain that. I mean, you can't really take those shortcuts. They don't understand what that means necessarily they'll learn, or they don't necessarily know it right now. So it, how do, how do you do that at the PGA superstar? I mean, how do do you find, golfers that have, you know, taken up the sport late or something so that they were late? Or how do you do that in the store?

Jill Thomas:         Yeah, I think there's really no touchpoint that we aren't looking at to ensure that we are following through that commitment. And it starts with our associates and, you know, I'm super proud of the fact that our, as, fitter of the year, across our entire system, was a female awesome. She happens to be here in Roswell, Georgia, and she is incredible. And again, those who are interested in not only golf as a sport, but golf as a career is diversifying. We have lots of different types of people, different cultures, different backgrounds, men, women, etc. And so that allows us to have our associate populations reflect, a little more of that changing audience. Right? I think it's really important. I was something I'm, you know, super proud of is last year on international women's golf day, we ran an entire store and this is a 40,000 square foot store.

Jill Thomas:         So there's a lot of associates. We ran the entire store with women from wow, from the general manager down to our freight and shipping team, everyone in the store was, was a woman. So we, we are fortunate in that. You know, we are able to provide a career platform for those who are, are interested in golf. If it's not gonna be, you're not gonna be a professional golfer, but you wanna stay connected to the sport. We are the place to do that. Whether you are a PGA professional, a trainer, you know, someone who's into instruction or fitting. So there's, or the hard, good side of it, where you're equipment junkie, you know, we've got that piece, we've got the soft, good side, uh, around apparel and style and footwear. And then we also have, you know, leadership roles I know across the store and, and through our general manager.

Jill Thomas:         So it starts with the associates, but quite frankly, it can't stop with the associates. So it's on us to help educate, train, bring information, really do our homework around what are guests, what are their customer needs, or what are they looking for? I mean, this is a simple thing, but way finding in our store, you know, is effective. You know, if you are extremely comfortable in the sport of golf and you walk through our doors, you know, you can look up, you can see the fitting bays, you know what that is, you know, why you would go there, you see the equipment, but for those who might be new into the game, it might be pretty overwhelming.

Bill Thorne:         It's intimidating.

Jill Thomas:         It can be intimidating. And so there are physical things that we are improving in the store to be more welcoming and acknowledging that not everybody knows what everything in the store is about. Even fitting itself is probably the best example of that. I think a lot of people think fitting is for an elite player. They don't even realize that fitting is for all and everybody should get fit. And, and of course we do that for free in our stores, as well as, have an elevated experience for those who want it. But it's every touchpoint really across the language we use, the words we choose, all of it.

Bill Thorne:         Yeah. I, you know, it's funny because I have multiple sets of clubs, but, and you think, well, why would you do that? It's as I've changed, as my body has changed, as my strength has changed, your clubs are going to change and where you have before I could hit a, you know, 180 yard pitching wedge. Now I'm lucky to get it 75 to a hundred. So, you know, it's just, you've got to have the right equipment and having people there to help you without making you feel stupid, is absolutely fantastic.

Jill Thomas:         It is. And there's so many things that we can do that people don't realize. I don't know when the last time you changed your grips, but grips are supposed to be changed every 40 rounds. No, I don't think a lot of people know that that can affect, you know, their equipment and the performance of their equipment or shaft changes. There's things that, you know, it doesn't mean you have to go spend $1,500 or $800 on a new set of irons. There are things we can do to help, to help any golfer at any point in their career. And that's what we're experts at. And that's the role we really wanna play. We're your friend in golf, we're your partners. And we're here to help you to inspire you to play your best. And that, that's what we do.

Bill Thorne:        Excellent. So we got the high sign, regrettably. I could talk about golf all day long. what is, and we ask this of all of our guests. What is the best piece of advice you've ever received? That's helped you throughout your career or the best piece of advice you have to pass along to others?

Jill Thomas:         There's two things that really, I think have served me well in my career. And I'd like to share both if that's okay. Yeah. You know, the first is specifically about my career, which is always, you know, you're the only person in charge of your career. You know, I often find a lot of younger people that are getting started, you know, they're, they're hungry for information and knowledge, and they want someone to point them in the right direction. And I think you're the only person that can really make those decisions for yourself. So I think that has served me really well, taking charge of my own career, making decisions and being willing to make trade offs, to get where I wanna go and to do the kind of work, which is, is really the thing that has always more motivated me. The type of work that I get to do marketing is such an incredible space to work in.

Jill Thomas:         There's something for everyone, whether you're super analytical or very creative, you know, and I like to run the gamut of all those things. So I tried to get experiences across the marketing continuum and by doing that, I was able to build a set of expertise. I think that's kind of unusual, but I made that decision. So my first one is, you're the person in charge of your career. Then the second one, and I think this is also sort of the reputation that I have built for myself and the things I'm most proud of is, just embrace, change and drive the change. And I know you probably hear that pretty frequently, but I do think that, you know, we can say that now more than ever, which is probably true, but it's always been this way.

Jill Thomas:         You know, the last 20 plus years have been nothing, if not about change, whether it's because it's a digital, transformation that is available to us as marketers or retailers, you know, change is every day, every second, never be satisfied with the way things are. You know, don't let too much grass grow under your feet because we have to be moving forward. I see marketers as the leaders of change, and we are the group of people that connect the broader world with the organization. And if we have the right level of influence, we can help drive the organization forward. And, so those are my two pieces of advice or both have been given to me, but mostly that have served me well over the last 20 plus years of my career.

Bill Thorne:         If roles were reversed and you had asked me that question, the question that I asked you, and I said, there's two parts to that. Both those things that you said, would've been my response, it's you are in charge of your own destiny, take charge, move forward and embrace change. And I think that that's, you know, people forget that I was in a, my first job. I was just in a hole and I didn't know what I was going to do. And I read a book by Denis Waitley called seeds of greatness. And it was just basically about, Hey, you're in charge. It's your destiny set. It absolutely put a map together.

Jill Thomas:       Absolutely. I could not agree more.

Bill Thorne:         So Jill Thomas, I look forward to seeing your store in Rockville, Maryland. Hope that you'll be up this way for the golf tournament coming up in a very short period of time. And thank you for being our guest on Retail Gets Real. Its been wonderful. I'd love to talk about golf.

Jill Thomas:         Thank you so much. And anytime you want to talk about golf online or offline, you just reach out to me.

Bill Thorne:         Thank you Jill and thank you all for listening to another episode of Retail Gets Real. You can find more information about this episode and others at RetailGetsReal.com. I'm Bill Thorne. This is Retail Gets Real. Thanks for listening.

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