I grew up in a different era. When I was a teenager, guys still gathered around to talk fishing at the local tackle store. Exaggerated truths were the norm, but occasionally a youngster like me could get a tidbit of info from an old-timer sipping coffee. My “local joint” was the Rodmaker’s Shop in Strongsville, Ohio; a store founded by hardcore anglers with fish-addict principles.
At the time, shopping for gear was anything but easy. The Internet was yet to be created, so there were no online choices, and the only Bass Pro Shops store was somewhere in the Ozark mountains, on the way to nowhere.
I was lucky to have the Rodmaker’s Shop so close by; in fact, many friends often traveled a hundred miles or more to shop their goods. But, while the store still likely provides some of the finest selection of cult-like bass gear, shopping today has undoubtedly transformed.
Not long ago, we witnessed the largest change in sporting-goods retail since the inception of the Sears Roebuck catalog. While we were all busy embracing the convenience of online shopping, Bass Pro Shops emerged as our industry’s superpower. Combining both online options and outrageous growth in the brick-and-mortar storefront sector, Bass Pro stands poised to take over the industry.
Over the last year, rumors have sparked about Bass Pro Shops purchasing its largest competitor, Cabela’s. And, despite “guarantees” by those within the Cabela’s organization that such a sale wouldn’t take place, it appears that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Recently, it was reported that Bass Pro Shops has indeed partnered with the equity arm of Goldman Sachs Group to make an offer on the Cabela’s corporation.
But how has such dominance come to fruition, where has it taken the industry and where will it leave us?
It’s important to understand the business model from a retail standpoint. While most outdoor sports stores were traditionally stand-alone businesses with a customer base almost solely comprised of men, long ago Bass Pro took another approach. By opening stores directly within shopping malls, they not only became the destination of men tagging along with their wives, but they opened up the store to all members of the family.
Retail planning was directed to cover more products and activities for these new consumers; like the explosion of “lifestyle” camouflage for girls, or pictures with Santa at Christmas; even campfires and cookouts right there in the store. Quickly, Bass Pro Shops became a destination for everyone. In fact, communities often paid subsidies to have stores built within their borders.
However, I’d still wager that Bass Pro Shops sells more goods online than they do at their retail locations. But the stores are just as key to the business model; not only do they sell goods, they create an in-your-face advertisement 365 days a year.
At first I, like many bass nuts, embraced the idea of a Bass Pro Shops on every corner. But then I began to see both sides of the coin, saddened by watching many of my friends go out of business.
The mega-retail sector had moved into our industry, and, just like Lowe’s and Home Depot had pushed out the little hardware store down the road, boutique tackle shops were taking a hit. No one could compete with the monster. Bass Pro Shops carried every size and color of all the hot lures, and prices were the guaranteed lowest anywhere. To make the offer even more tempting, orders breaching a certain dollar figure were shipped for free. The only companies that stood a chance were the utmost niche businesses like Tackle Warehouse, catering to the most extreme cases of "bassaholism."
The beatings didn’t end there. I watched Bass Pro Shops and others all but destroy the consumer fishing show industry. Back in my father’s time, men would come from far and wide to shop the best deals and talk to industry insiders at places like the Cleveland Sportsman’s Show. Now, the only good deals at such places are on chamois and knife sets sold by TV pitchmen. Why pay all that money and walk the show? Bass Pro has better deals and plenty of parking.
So where would another Bass Pro Shops takeover put us? Is it just more of the same?
To be fair, let’s take a look at the other side of the story. Bass Pro Shops is BIG business, and business in America means grabbing the most customers, competition be damned. In its own right, Bass Pro has done an incredible job of fulfilling that principle.
And, along with offering tens of thousands of Americans jobs, Bass Pro Shops likely does more for the outdoors than any business in the world. Its founder, Johnny Morris, is a devout follower and supporter of groups like Ducks Unlimited, and has probably been responsible for more fish and wildlife successes in this country than anyone since Teddy Roosevelt. And that, folks, is saying something.
But I continue to worry about those left behind. Will there be a time in the outdoor world when customers buck the “chain” establishments, choosing to spend their money with the little guy? Will the “local movement” shine through, where hometown anglers gladly pay a few extra dollars to support their peers? And will there ever be a time when manufacturers refuse to sell to the giants and stick to providing goods only at exclusive retailers of their choice, the way many high-end clothing brands do?
Perhaps the knowledge gained by the hardcore sales staff like those in our opening example will always keep the small stores afloat; I’m not sure. But it sure seems times are changing.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)