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The bowling industry has been declining for years and many single-location bowling centers have been sold or closed down. The number of bowling centers operated in the U.S. has fallen by more than 25 per cent from 5,400 in 1998 to 3,976 in 2013 (USA Today). Many observers of the industry have attributed the decline to a transition in customer groups and preferences from the formerly very popular league bowling, practiced by blue collar workers who came week after week, to recreational bowling practiced by casual bowlers who come occasionally and are the largest growing customer segment today. While the demographic shift is significantly affecting the industry, some of the industry’s problems also stem from the impressive rise of inexpensive digital in-home entertainment which puts strong pressure on the industry’s margins (IBISWorld).
Despite its decline in popularity, bowling is still the most popular participatory sport in the U.S. with almost 47 million participants bowling in 2014 according to Statista. Thanks to the sport’s popularity some operators have successfully reconceived their business model. They have acknowledged that catering to league bowlers alone is not sufficient anymore and have adapted their bowling centers to draw more casual bowlers. Successful centers have invested into upscale facilities with lots of additional attractions such as beverage and food sales to attract high-income, casual bowlers. Others primarily focus on families and have changed their facilities into bowling-based family entertainment centers with lots of bowling independent activities that attract children. Yet others have focused more on the young adult market and have established themselves as fashionable bowling lounges that provide a nightlife experience.
Tailoring facilities and events to customer segments that populate a bowling alley’s location will be key in surviving in the future. There are four main customer groups that bowling alleys can go after: families, seniors, professional bowlers and young adults. By managing schedules and enhancing facilities and events, a single bowling alley can successfully target all four markets. Based on the distinct customer segments, we introduce a marketing strategy that follows a clear separation between urban and suburban locations. While suburban locations should retain their large size and varied offering and continue to serve multiple segments, urban locations should size down the number of lanes and deliver premium bar-like experiences to target the market of young adults with high incomes. In our opinion, the industry has for a long time failed to adapt its product to the changing lifestyles of its customer base, but if it develops a clearer customer focus there is no reason why bowling should not be a profitable business in the years to come.
Created for a graduate marketing course at Bentley University by Diana Kontsevaia, Lionel Briswalter, Sanjay Patil and Yunqiao Wang.