It’s easy to understand why so many consumers feel jaded by the near-constant bombardment of “LONGER – FASTER – HIGHER” marketing pitches from major golf brands. Because there’s latitude for every company to be a little full of malarkey, it can be maddening for golfers to try and decipher where the nonsense ends and the truth begins.
With that, my hunch is many of you might struggle to fully accept the philosophy of Inesis, the golf-specific brand of Europe’s mega-sport retailer, Decathlon. As is the case with Inesis and each of Decathlon’s 50 in-house brands, the primary objective is to make the sport it serves “accessible to the many.” As such, Inesis (which accounts for a bit less than 2% of Decathlon’s annual 12.39 Billion USD in revenue) is primarily devoted to providing beginning and intermediate golfers with budget-friendly equipment and apparel.
At face value, it doesn’t sound much different from the growing list of alternative brands with similar objectives; however, the dissonance occurs when consumers are asked to consider how Inesis consistently churns out products which perform as well (and in many cases better) than competing products that cost two to three times more.
At the risk of getting too esoteric too quickly, step back, take a deep breath and ask yourself a simple question – How much should golf equipment cost?
Inesis isn’t in a market share battle with Callaway, Titleist, or any of the major US OEMs. “We don’t fight with the same weapon as those we’re trying to be different from,” says Guillaume Nguyen, Art Director for Inesis. Functionally, what this means is that Inesis has a clear picture of its ethos, which is inseparable from the identity of the larger organization, Decathlon.
Inside Inesis, transparency is primary, and the entire product lifecycle matters. This doesn’t mean consumers have access to profit margins or CAD designs, but whereas other OEMs might balk at putting certain information in front of consumers, Inesis chooses to provide all the information it reasonably can to help consumers make efficient and appropriate purchasing decisions. If you can’t find a piece of information you believe is important – just ask, they’ll probably tell you.
On the backend, Decathlon believes every brand has a responsibility to design, engineer, and manage waste in an eco-friendly manner. This isn’t some Church Lady, “Well isn’t that nice” bullet point on line four of the company mission/vision statement. It’s factored into every level of decision-making from ideation through product delivery. What’s more, like healthier food (I’m talking to you Whole Foods), socially responsible, eco-friendly decisions typically increase the final product cost. Inesis can offset some of those costs by cutting some somewhat non-traditional corners.
The French have a term – subsidiarity – which acknowledges that as a global company, Decathlon encourages employees and teammates to act locally and improve the communities where Decathlon stores are located. It’s also a call to keep decisions as close to the action as possible and is part of the reason why Decathlon has multiple campuses throughout France to ensure products are designed and tested in the same real-world conditions consumers will experience.
Decathlon’s Mountain store sits in the French Alps, where employees can slap on a pair of skis and demo prototypes over an extended lunch break. Likewise, it’s hard to think of a more ideal location to test cycling gear than the home of the Tour de France. This philosophical underpinning also extends to consumer feedback, which is vital to the development of future products. My hunch is this might provide a bit of hurdle in North America where consumers often require incentives to fill out surveys, whereas European buyers are more inclined to do it out of a sense of duty/obligation to the company.
Decathlon consistently ranks as one of the top-rated employers in France, not because of golden parachutes for executives or top-end pay for employees, but rather because it values employee autonomy and promotes an environment which relies less on titles (in fact some branches within Decathlon and becoming title-free) and more on rewarding innovation and creativity. This isn’t to suggest Decathlon doesn’t pay well, but more importantly, it understands employee loyalty and happiness never comes second – even if it means forgoing a bit of profit.
It’s hard to see most brands go any further than lip service platitudes which look good on annual presentations, but in reality, the day to day operations are all about trimming margins to maximize profits and keep Wall St. happy.
Because so often we equate access with cost, making anything more accessible likely means finding ways to reduce the cost for the end-user. For Inesis, it’s rooted in what Global Communications Director, Xavier Rivoire, calls the “fair price.”
No doubt, what’s fair is mostly subjective, and there are any number of pricing models to which golfers have become accustomed. That said, because a model is widely used doesn’t automatically qualify it as fair, perhaps only that consumers have accepted it as the status quo.
For some, fair is the price someone is willing to pay. After all, no one is being held at gunpoint and being forced to pay $530 for a new driver. For others, it’s important to know which factors have contributed to the final price, and only then can a measure of fairness be established.
The problem is that most brands aren’t going to give you the information necessary to determine just how much of the final price goes to help offset any number of costs, some of which are vital (R&D, materials, quality production processes), while others consumers would choose to forgo if given the option (tour staff/support, marketing/advertising, executive travel/expense accounts).
The way Inesis gets to a $199 rangefinder or $79 waterproof shoes without sacrificing performance (check our Most Wanted for full details) isn’t by cutting every corner – it’s by eliminating expenses which don’t directly impact the quality or performance of the final product.
For example, Inesis executives believe there’s no reason to spend thousands on new office furniture when reclaimed particle board is sufficient. By the same reasoning, an economy seat gets one to a destination every bit as fast as a first-class ticket. When the entire team operates within this paradigm, the collective savings become a significant factor in the overall pricing structure.
With that, Inesis also reaps some benefits from other 79 sports brands in Decathlon’s portfolio.
When Outkast said, “Lend me some sugar, I am your neighbor,” it wasn’t intended to be a commentary on vertical integration, but it might as well have been. Part of what makes Inesis intriguing as a brand is that, while the golf-specific team has just under 30 full-time employees, it has access to proprietary information from Decathlon’s 40+ other R&D facilities, a myriad of testing labs, and established supply chains – all while enjoying all the ancillary economic benefits of being a small cog in the wheel of one of the world’s largest sporting goods retailers.
What this means for consumers is that Inesis can posit a unique value-based argument. Let’s examine its $79 spikeless shoe, which claimed Most Wanted status as the “Best Value” (and placed 2nd overall) in 2019 MyGolfSpy testing. Product engineers at Forclaz (trekking) Quechua (hiking/mountaineering) and NewFeel (running/walking) had already run a swath of R&D lab and field tests gathered consumer feedback, developed sources for high-quality materials, and knew the best practices for creating waterproof, durable, and comfortable footwear. When it came time to make a golf shoe, Inesis didn’t need to start from scratch. All it had to do was pick up the phone and ask questions.
From there, it was a matter of tweaking and testing some golf-specific features (rubber and TPU spike configuration, Y-shape last) to produce a shoe it was confident would perform every bit as well as intended. That’s perhaps an oversimplification, but you get the idea. Inesis says its waterproof membrane is as good (if not better) than Gore-Tex, and as our Most Wanted testing notes, it was the most comfortable shoe tested in 2019. The net result is a golf shoe with all the requisite technology and performance of more recognizable (in North America anyhow) brands for less than $80.
R&D is expensive. Creating supply chains and material sourcing can be time-consuming and is also costly. Because Inesis can leverage the work, experience, and industrial know-how of Decathlon’s 50 in-house brands, it has the infrastructure of a much larger company while retaining the nimble versatility of a small team.
After all, the only thing better than owning a boat is having a neighbor who owns and maintains a boat – and lets you borrow it whenever you want.
INESIS GOLF PARK
It’s a fair bet any resident of Lille, France could point you toward the “big white bubble” which serves as a local landmark, but is actually the indoor driving range at Inesis Golf Park; a multi-faceted property blending retail, corporate offices, R&D facilities, and a public-access 9-hole course and practice facility.
More notably, the park serves as a microcosm of the fluid and organic approach Inesis takes in creating equipment and apparel. Rather than sit isolated in partitioned offices and meeting rooms, engineers and product design teams meet and move collaboratively around a series of connected, curvy-shaped tables serving as fluid workspaces. Adjacent to this area is a large putting green, prototyping lab with floor-to-ceiling windows, and a small retail space where the public can shop.
Why does any of this matter? On a recent trip to see this set up first-hand, a common refrain became “it just makes sense.” I mean, why wouldn’t you have engineers designing products a short chip shot away from a prototyping lab?
Once products are ready to be field-tested, employees can step outside or enlist any of the avid golfers who frequent the golf park – and then step back inside and give feedback directly to the designers, technicians, and engineers. It’s a feedback cycle that doesn’t rely on industrial flowcharts and employee manuals – just common sense.
Certainly, the physical arrangement breeds some level of efficiency, but that’s low-hanging fruit. Whether it saves several days, weeks, or months in bringing a product to market is less important than the fact it saves time, which in turn saves money that isn’t used to increase profit margins but instead, decreases the final cost to the golfer.
The less quantifiable element in play is the impact this has on employee health and well-being. It might be tough to put a specific dollar value on autonomy and working in a productive environment, but according to Forbes, happy employees are 20%-37% more productive. The organizations also benefit as more productive employees have a positive and direct impact on stock prices.
Given Inesis’ market share and presence in the retail golf space, one would reasonably expect to see a B-list arrangement of black label products that are priced according to quality. However, the reality is from ideation to delivery, Inesis looks, acts, and functions more like a well-heeled major OEM. If there’s a primary point of differentiation between Inesis and every other golf company, it’s in the consumer experience.
LESS IS MORE
Picture any typical big box store. Amidst the plethora of displays, OEM banners, and collection of putters lies a labyrinth where golfers play a game of equipment roulette and hope to get lucky. The point is most retail outlets are not organized with the intent of helping golfers make informed purchasing decisions. The objective is often to get golfers to spend as much money as possible and move product off the shelves.
The reality is the vast majority of consumers shop for golf equipment the way I shop for a new pair of jeans. There’s a checklist with two or three questions (Fit? Comfort? Price?), and it’s time to move to the register.
Of the roughly 24 million golfing consumers, approximately 1/3 of those make up the core contingent of buyers. That leaves 16 million, give or take, who are not going to be moved by $500+ drivers, and won’t preorder a set of $1500 set of irons, sight unseen.
It’s just math, but Inesis has created a distinctive buying experience that is novel in that it authentically targets the most typical consumer. Like the alpine ski industry, Inesis breaks players down into three categories – beginner (30+ handicap), intermediate (15-30), and advanced (<15). You’ll note gender isn’t one of the decision points – just ability.
Each category has a specific set of clubs designed around the most common needs of that group. For example, beginning golfers get a 7-club set with a 43” driver. Whether the player is old, young, male or female doesn’t negate the fact he or she will likely struggle to make consistent contact with a 45+” driver. Big OEMs know this as well, but a 43” driver doesn’t leave much room for tech stories built around promises of faster, longer, and higher.
From there, players select an appropriate length and flex. There are two options with every configuration, and everything is available for both right and left-handed golfers. Each Inesis location has one of several fitting systems that vary from basic to full-on enclosed simulators powered by Foresight launch monitors.
3 categories. 2 lengths. 3 flexes. That’s it.
As with golf clubs, so goes the golf ball where there are again, three models; one for each level of player. It should also be noted in terms of components, Inesis uses shafts and grips from major OEMs, when appropriate.
The story is roughly the same on the apparel side, where gear is segmented by weather conditions, gender, and age. Like clubs, the number of colorways is limited and consistent across categories to allow golfers to put together several outfits for about the same price as two Peter Millar polos.
For US consumers accustomed to 312 different scents of deodorant, eleven-teen hundred TV channels, the Inesis approach likely feels a bit limited. It is – and that’s the point. The company believes most golfers are better served by a model that offers fewer choices while still meeting the performance needs of 90%+ of golfers – and for a fraction of the price. Inesis isn’t alone in this thinking.
Among the various equipment storylines for 2020, the number of OEMs vying for attention from, let’s call them John and Jane 3-putt, (value-motivated, recreational golfers) is one of the more intriguing. Some, like Inesis, might argue this demographic has always been a focal point, and it was a conscious decision to leave the pocketbooks of gearheads to more prominent brands. Other OEMs are taking a different path, albeit to a similar destination.
We’re also moving forward in the age of critical consumerism, where a growing number of golfers want access to information to help support purchasing decisions. It’s why Yelp! generated nearly 1 Billion in revenue (2018), and sites like thewirecutter.com continue to increase in popularity. Theoretically, better information allows for more rational and objective decision making, though we know factors such as price, brand reputation, and accessibility all muddy the proverbial waters.
Decathlon isn’t a household name in the US just yet, but with 1500+ stores and a footprint in 55 countries, that might be changing. With two San Francisco Bay Area retail locations open already (and a third store slated to open this November), Decathlon isn’t shy about expanding and doing it quickly. The company believes people are more likely to purchase what they can see, feel, and try. And because its top brass understands the business opportunities present in the world’s largest golf market, Decathlon is likely to explore any number of creative avenues as a continued effort to differentiate its platform from the major OEMs.
The alacrity with which this all happens will no doubt be impacted by how readily North American consumers grasp that the difference between a $200 driver and $500 one isn’t just $300 – it’s actually much less.