Shots Fired – Big Box Fly Fishing Retail on Life Support

| March 24, 2017

This week seems to have been the tipping point in big box retail business, when Sears declared itself unsure of being able to operate as a “going concern” going forward. For you accountants out there, you know what that means. For our young readers, a “going concern” is an accounting term that essentially means having a business that makes money, any money at all. And businesses that don’t make money? They don’t stay open.

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Locally, Backwoods in Fort Worth, Texas, ceased operating as a going concern earlier this year. It should be noted that Backwoods Fort Worth is just one of the retail locations for that company, and no matter what, Backwoods did not fail because of its people on the floors. It failed the way the vast majority of businesses fail – bad management at the top.

Backwoods was only a bit player in fly fishing and the larger story of retail fly fishing though. A big player, a fly fishing company, SIMMS of Bozeman, Montana, caused a huge storm a few years ago when they announced they would begin selling directly online. Retailers who carry SIMMS didn’t hold back, and SIMMS listened, they didn’t back down, but they listened. They promote “Buy Local,” and even sell T-shirts with the saying on the SIMMS site. SIMMS was doing what is necessary in the 21st. Century to remain a “going concern” – to take care of its employees, management, and continue operating for profit. Nobody even talks about that landmark event anymore.

Lately, Bass Pro, the behemoth of outdoor sports retailing and especially fishing, did a little transaction where they purchased Cabela’s (CAB). Hard to believe, right? A company started in the back of a liquor store (don’t believe all the historical rewriting – the nest-egg of the start came dubiously as well) buys an organically grown company with deep roots in the fly fishing and outdoor sports community. I had listened to employees boast of how (in it must have been 2014) Cabela’s had made huge profits, so I was as surprised as you were on the news.

So what got Cabela’s in the long run? One thing was their liberal return policies, leading to a huge “Bargain Cave” where buzzards like me circled, first stop, on every visit. Another thing: Expansion of their brick-and-mortar stores in a huge, and incomprehensible way. Cabela’s WAS a mail order company before mail order took  over (see Amazon) and went worldwide web. Mail order (now internet order) is the lean and mean super efficient bully. Remember when finding a Cabela’s retail store on some far away journey was a memorable stop along the way? You could go home and brag that you’d actually been to a Cabela’s. The rest of us checked our mailboxes for the latest catalog.

What happens now? I think it’s safe to say Bass Pro will begin to reassess Cabela’s big box brick-and-mortar operations. Stores will be closed, just like malls get closed (and imploded), just like Sears stores will close. And where they remain, you’ll be visiting a Bass Pro store in the future.

BASS PRO

Founded in 1971, Bass Pro is a privately held company that (shows on the internet) earned $4.45-billion in 2015, and had 22-thousand employees in the same year.

CABELA’S

In 2016, Cabela’s, a publicly traded company, had 19,100 employees, and showed a nearly $147-million loss on $4.1-billion of revenue. In October 2016, Cabela’s (they had separately sold some of their other interests earlier) sold to Bass Pro for $5.5-billion.

Right now, in 2017, there seems to be a lot of love in the room (the boardrooms) between Cabela’s and Bass Pro, make no mistake that Bass Pro wants performance from Cabela’s. And how did Cabela’s get here? They certainly did not have being bought by Bass Pro, in a deal financed by Goldman Sachs and  Pamplona, as a future company goal. What happened? I believe Cabela’s went too big into brick-and-mortar at a time when all the signs were there – brick-and-mortar is going away, and will never, ever be the same again.

What does this have to do with you?

Set aside our sentimental attachments to Cabela’s – because we have to. K-Mart is gone too, as well as Gibson’s and Globe stores. They’re going away. Maybe Cabela’s will still exist, but not as currently constituted. For the fly fishing public who shops at big box stores, you now have fewer choices – if you choose to burn the fossil fuel to go to a retail store and price compare, buy flies (mostly tied overseas SOLD at both stores), and socialize.

That last thing is what fly fishers, on a local basis, will miss the most – the socializing and information gathered in fly fishing departments. I guess you will have to socialize in new ways – like here on this website!?!

LOCALLY

The brick-and-mortar philosophy is one that still exists at Temple Fork Outfitters, where they do not wholesale (knowingly) to businesses that do NOT have a brick-and-mortar store. They say they want the expertise, the experts behind their rods, to teach fly casting as well as sell their rods. Will they stick with that idealistic philosophy? I imagine they will, even if fly fishers point out places like – http://www.flippallot.com/shop-with-flip – where a guide sells fly rods (without a brick store). And I am sure there are more online only sellers of TFO out there that somehow fly under the radar. I only point this out because, I would certainly love to sell TFO rods here at Texas Fly Caster, or at my online fly shop PoPs, but haven’t been able to get that done over the decade. I’ve sold plenty of  TFO Rods though – through lessons and demonstrations over the years. Glad to help. Even more glad to directly sell your rods though!

Mom-and-Pop brick-and-mortar shops run into trouble when they exist to satisfy the wants of JUST fly fishers. The best stores, like Tailwaters in Dallas, know what the value of fly tying materials is to their bottom line, and they know what the value of clothing like Patagonia is. And they know what has more appeal to the masses (traffic in the door).

Brick-and-mortar stores will have to continue to promote and sell exotic trips for a certain clientele, but they would be well advised to also invite participation of the local population of hardcore fly fishers and guides who fly fish and work in their geographic areas. A mutually beneficial relationship, that is measurable, would go a long way toward floating everybody’s boats. Perhaps a spring Saturday called, “LOCAL FLY AND GUIDE DAY,” where we can all gather at a shop, like Tailwaters, and meet-and-greet. Heck! Do it at all the brick-and-mortar Mom-and-Pop fly shops across Texas on the same day.

LEFT OUT IN THE COLD

You may notice there is little mention of Orvis in this article on retail fly fishing. It seems so hard to classify that company. They are nimble when it comes to responding to opening and closing retail outlets, and have a pragmatic approach to retail stores and the relationship between their retail and online operations. They certainly provide very good and excellent products for fly fishers. They just never seem very “local” to me, and are another retailer that would do well to foster outreach to the local fly community. I’ve experienced local store employees who simply read this site, glean all the information they can, call it their own, and take customers out on the “latest rage” fly fishing for carp. Yup, Orvis invented fly fishing for carp. Credit to them though – if ORVIS says it, it must be true (much like the Backwoods FW cult but with a much deeper following). ORVIS has gotten a lot of seniors outside, and exposed to the local game of carp on fly.

I can imagine ORVIS will try and fill any void created by the combination of Bass Pro and Cabela’s – when it comes to fly tying. Although I believe fly tying materials are the ULTIMATE BEST BUY in online fly fishermen’s searches.

ORVIS was founded in 1856, and is a family owned company with 91 retail stores and 10 outlet stores as of this writing. They do donate to environmental concerns, and seem to have a sound business philosophy. In 2012, ORVIS report $340-million in sales (not updated), and 1700 employees.  They also have approximately 500 independent dealers worldwide (could be a model for Cabela’s future?). Their website is one any other fly fishing business (large and small) can envy. It is fed by local guides (PAYING ATTENTION?), and the big name guides as well. The information breaks down to a web of knowledge, fed regularly, to the fly fisher who is hungry to “Know Before You Go” just about anywhere fly fishing exists.

ORVIS, because of its size, makes it nimble enough to respond to and embrace the internet in a way that benefits readers and buyers. They obviously integrate promotion of their products, as a smart retailer should, into the information provided by their “ORVIS Endorsed Guide” system.

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CONCLUSION

If the USA no longer makes steel, and they are imploding malls in the rust belt, don’t we realize change, even a change in the way we shop for fly fishing goods, is inevitable? If you don’t think changes, known and unknown, are coming in the future of retail(for the rest of our future as fly fishers), then I have a buggy whip to sell you.

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Category: Apparel, Culture on the Skids, Equipment, Fly Lines, Fly Reel, Fly Rods, Fly Shops, Fly Tying, Guides, Industry, Life Observed, Writing

About the Author ()

I write. I photograph. I fish, and I live.

Comments (1)

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  1. shannon says:

    I have been informed that Backwoods has reformed, and has a new smaller store in Fort Worth, Texas (and other locations)! So we need to go take a look, as I don’t know anyone who’s been there yet. THANKS! And keep reading.