A few years ago, whenever golfers Mary Allen and Jan Buske walked into a golf shop, they couldn't help but notice one thing: there was nothing to buy. With money in their respective pockets, they'd look for the perfect golf shirt, skort, or gadget, but walk away empty-handed every time.
The two ladies, living on opposite ends of the country, faced several options. They could've whined about it, as I've done many times. Or they could've sucked it up and endured the boxy pastels that are all the rage down there at the pro shops.
But they did neither. Instead, they sensed an opportunity and did what any self-respecting businesswoman would do. They took matters into their own hands and opened their own stores.
Do a little homework, and you'll learn that there are about 6.9 million female golfers in this country, with more picking up the game every year, according to the National Golf Foundation. With young superstars/fashion plates like Paula Creamer, Michelle Wie, and Natalie Gulbis leading the way, golf is becoming less of a stodgy old person's sport, and, well, cool.
And while the expanding female market has money to spend, it has largely gone underserved. Walk into any pro shop and compare the expansive men's clothing section to the microscopic women's section, and you'll see what I mean.
Inspired by Southern California's surf culture and hooked on golf, Mary Allen knew that "playing with the boys didn't mean she had to look like one." Thus was born Swingchick.com, an online shop specializing in unique, sporty golf apparel for women.
"I love surfwear, and I always thought it would be the perfect thing for golf. So many of the girls I play golf with are tomboys, but kind of girly tomboys. They didn't want any of that flowery stuff," said Allen, now President of Swingchick.com. "So I asked a couple seamstresses, how hard would it be to make this? That's kind of how it started. Little did I know it would be much harder than just drawing on a napkin. It took a long time to get the components just right. But after that it was fine."
Apparel companies are missing the mark, said Allen, who designs all of Swingchick's clothing lines.
"They're missing the 30-year-old golfing woman, and to me they are the most competitive of all the fashion-conscious sports people out there," Allen said. "They tend to buy in outfits. If they can find a shirt that's cute, with the skort and the hat and the socks, they'll buy the whole thing. And they want to be the first ones out there with that outfit. When it comes to clothes, women are very competitive."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Jan Buske faced the exact same problem: nothing to wear.
"I was playing golf and having a really hard time finding cute ladies' products, unique, different clothing," said Buske, a longtime North Carolina resident. "Nine times out of 10 the women's clothing line is handled by the male pro at the pro shop, and he doesn't want to be bothered with it."
So in September 2005, the Angier, N.C., resident and 13.8 handicapper saw the opening of Shee Time Golf, an online shop that carries golf brands for the most discriminating of golfers — the female kind, that is.
Both ladies have faced some bumps along the way. Like the day Fox News ran a story on Swingchick, and orders began pouring in — the day the server went screwy.
"People couldn't get all their stuff in the same shipment," Allen said. "It was five in the morning, and I had to throw on my clothes and go fix the Web site. That was sort of our introduction to shipping and processing and Web pitfalls."
Celebrating its third birthday this month, Swingchick is already making its presence known.
"Business is great," Allen said. "We've got a couple of girls on the Futures Tour wearing our clothes, and last year, (LPGA champion) Kelli Kuehne wore our clothes."
It's a small company, Allen said, but it draws new customers every day as women stumble on the Web site and become intrigued by the hip, sporty designs.
Shee Time Golf, meanwhile, takes a different approach. Along with its online presence, Shee Time Golf does for women's golf gear what Mary Kay has done for cosmetics: they bring the product to the customer during "home showcase" events hosted by women in their own homes — the modern-day equivalent of a Tupperware party.
Buske has found that being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry can cause some communication problems. For one thing, try explaining the concept of a Mary Kay business model to your average pro shop owner. Yikes.
"The challenges begin with the salesperson with the vendors that you're dealing with, and continue from there," Buske said. "For instance, men don't really understand the concept that I'm trying to get across. With the larger companies it's like beating my head against a wall."
Before opening Shee Time, Buske ran a consignment shop, and before that she was a software engineer at Northern Telecom. No apparel background, no Web site design. But like Allen, she saw a wide-open market and decided to fill it.
So far Buske's gamble is paying off. Shee Time Golf's sales have improved on themselves every month since they opened last September. Apparently the old adage is true: If you want something done right, you've got to do it yourself. Meanwhile, as Buske tells her customers, "May you hit 'em well, and look good doing it!"
May 30, 2006
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