Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Why Local Outdoor Gear Shops Fail. Now with Retailer Tips!

I left the office tonight and drove uphill, away from the River.  At the top of the hill is a locally-owned surf/wakeboard shop that has been there for awhile, and that I've tried to patronize for several years.  Tried? I'll get to that!  But tonight, it's gone.  No sign. No storefront decorations. No lights on at 6:00pm.  It's gone.  It was definitely surprising and I felt the pangs that most of us outdoorsfolk get when a local gear shop closes.  I felt horrible, just bad.   I started thinking about all of the times I'd been there, all the little conversations I'd had with the retail clerks and "pro staff," and's all gone.  I thought about all the great blog posts I've read over the last few years about why it's noble, and I believe patriotic, to support these independent merchants.  Here's a good one from Southern Culture on the Fly to get you started, if the "buy local" thing is new to you.

But then I started thinking about the fact that I almost never bought anything there.  Despite the fact that it's miles closer than the nearest Dick's, Bass Pro, Orvis, or even West Marine (also recently out of business locally).   Despite the fact that I have less free time on my hands than those murderers who were "accidentally" released from Mississippi prisons the other day.   (Oops!).

I also thought about how I hated their t-shirts with their awful logo, how they never had a good selection of boards in stock, how, over the course of 3+ years, I had never received any actual technical advice on any products from a shop employee, and how and their wakeboard instructors' boat was consistently "in the shop for repairs." Since 2/3 of their floor space was dedicated to "active lifestyle clothing," and not real gear, I stopped by the store just a month ago to see if I could get something for the wife or Hank.  You know - to support my local gear shop. But......nothing.  No help from staff, who just hung out in the back of the store or listened to their iPods the whole time I was there.  Nothing.  Nada.  And now it's gone.

So what would I change about this shop, and other failing local outdoor gear shops that are locally owned and nobly run?

Undependable hours =
why bother?
1.  Crappy Hours!  If your shop opens at 11, and closes at 5, and you routinely close on the weekends to guide fishing/hunting/paddling trips, most people with the means to support your shop cannot do so, and won't.  On the other hand, the local gear shop near the farm where I hunt opens at 4:00am during goose season.   4am!  Do you think they sell a few $300 Columbia parkas to hunters who left theirs at home? I know they do.  $20 boxes of ammo priced at $35? Yup, those too.
My business tip: Find a way to be open when your demographic tends to be shopping.

Not too interested in
assisting customers
2. Crappy Service!   While the "buy local" crowd continue to push the meme of "local businesses provide better service," that statement just isn't true enough of the time.  Look,  just "being local" doesn't automatically mean you are providing good service, folks. Frankly, the 20 year old kid in the fishing reel booth at the Bass Pro Shop may know every bit as much about a $150 reel as your (you: the owner of a small shop) 17-year old kid, who is most likely to be staffing the shop when I show up and I want to learn more about an expensive product. The difference is that if the kid at BPS takes a nap on the clock, he'll get fired.  Your kid won't - as long as he's working for Dad and Mom.

My business tip: Only staff your store with people (whether they be 15, 35, or 75 years old) who care about customer service (read: their job) and are willing to say, "I can't answer that, but if you give me 30 seconds I'll call the shop owner/guide/gear tester and I bet s/he knows."  If you have retail-side employees who won't do that, and you want to stay in business, you need to fire them. Sorry.

Every online and big box retailer sells this fly reel,
probably for cheaper than you can.
So how many do you really need to stock at one time?
3. Offering only the same gear as big-box and online stores.  This one is specific to outdoor gear (I think).  If I know I want a Shimano Stradic 1000, and I know it's more expensive at your store, and your store is not open late/early to fit my schedule, why would I buy it at your store? On the other hand, if I don't know which $200 fishing reel I want, and your shop is open at reasonable hours, and your staff are helpful, and your store actually has some combination of gear that's sold at big-box stores (you can claim "these work the best on our waters" - what a sales pitch!), well then, you're probably gonna sell some gear.  Too many local shops seem to be selling a portion of what the big box stores do - nothing different, but now with less selection and worse hours!  Doesn't sound like a good plan to me.

My business tip: Choose carefully when ordering gear for your shop.   Use your expertise in the woods or water to tell you "here's a good range of cheap to expensive (insert type of gear) that will work out here.  This is a good choice for customers."  Maybe don't focus totally on which products are moving the most units in the entire market - your customers can buy those items anywhere.

I want to punch this logo in the mouth!
It's horrible!
4. Your Branding.  If you think your logo is good, it probably sucks.  If you think it's amazing, it's probably passable.  Local shops don't have a huge marketing budget (or any marketing budget), and sometimes it shows.  The store I described early in this article (a surf/wake shop) always had huge piles of stickers with their dumb logo on them, and I'm sure the owner wondered "why don't I see these stickers on anybody's car, truck, or boat? Your shirts and hats are not going to move any faster if your key demographic doesn't think they are awesome.  Unlike the big retailers, you can't call it "signature gear" and sell it for less than it costs (part of the advertising budget). But ask yourself, which of these logos are more effective, more recognizable, and likely to be sold on more revenue-generating shirts, hats, stickers, etc?

If your business name includes the word "creative,"
the logo should probably not look like a librarian designed it.

I bet a lot of graphics folks would say this logo sucks, but it screams "outdoors!"
And that might be enough for the logo - and shop - to catch on. 

Love this logo, but then again, I'm 38.  Maybe or maybe not the target demographic.

My business tip:  I'm not a graphic designer.  And neither are you.  And neither is your kid's friend, despite all assurances that s/he is a prodigy in her/his freshman art class at your nearby state college.  Tens of thousands of talented, experienced graphic artists are out of work.  They can be found on facebook, google+ or anywhere else.  Hold a design contest.  Plan to pay them a few hundred dollars.  Get a great logo.  Please!

Overall, keep doing what you're doing.  Just do it better.  Smarter. You may not have to do it cheaper.  Take advantage of small business resources within your county to help educate yourself on actually running your business.  Check out websites like Advice for Small Business Owners, which contain tons of articles about individual issues you face on a weekly basis, like "When to turn down a sale," and "motivating employees." Good luck out there........and help your customers help you!!!


Anonymous said...

Read this and I agree. Especially with the hours thing. Both of our fly shops closed and their hours were horrible. So many times I would pass and see a guy kicking the door because they were closed and he needed something before a trip. I don't understand the bankers hours!

Holly Heyser said...

I must be lucky because my local hook-n-bullet store is pretty good. They know me, they're helpful and they know what they're talking about. Even the hours are good.

I try to shop their place for as much stuff as possible, and I'm glad their ammo prices are good enough to make me resist Wally World.

But they have NO hunting clothing for women. If I need a clothing selection, I hit the big-box Sportsman's Warehouse. Everything else I need I order from Cabela's.

As for logos and charm on my local shop? No comment!

Alan Roberds said...

The right staff is surely important. When I lived in Pittsboro, NC I started cating a fly line. I visited one of these shops in Durham and the guy actually took me out back to work on my casting skills. Somehow it worked.

I didn't buy the rod, but made a point of going there for just about all my other gear.

Kirk Mantay said...

You know, it's funny. Since I wrote this last week, I happened to stop into a local surf/skate shop I hadn't visited in like 2 years. 2 employees were already with customers and the third Guy was prompt and helpful. Bought some stuff I didn't need. Everyone went home happy...

Mark Coleman said...

You touched on it a little at the end but one very common reason small businesses fail is a lack of accounting/bookkeeping knowledge. If you don't understand accounting and cash flow and can't identify your store's fixed and variable costs, hire an accountant or maybe even a retired businessman who can help you with this. I don't care how much you know about hunting/fishing/surfing/birdwatching, if you don't have a grip on the numbers you will fail. And you'll probably end up asking "What happened?"

Kirk Mantay said...

Mark, I don't believe I forgot to include that, but honestly, it's something that you (I) don't see as a consumer. That delicate balance between invoicing, maintaining and ordering stock, making payroll, etc. is challenging for anyone - and it's certainly the biggest reason why 60%-ish of restaurants fail within 5 years.

Brett Rodgers said...

Its sad that the local outdoor gear and clothing stores are all closing out. I love going to them and supporting them but I understand why they are shutting down.

Eastern Shore Outdoors said...

Good post and well thought out marketing tips....Hours are critical. many of the local shops do well early in the morning before shooting hours...I work 10 minutes from Bass Pro and while I will shop there, I prefer my local shop, even if it is a little more $$...Phil

Kirk Mantay said...

Phil, I also try to patronize those same stores - assuming you are talking about Anglers, Eastern Shore Outdoors, and Tuckahoe Sports.

I did chuckle last year after showing up at a duck camp (not mine) with an Angler's ball cap (I had stopped there at 8pm on a weekday to pick up snow goose ammo, and ended up also buying a shirt and a hat). One of the guys yelled, "Anglers - You won't pay more!"

DJinNC said...

Great article. I really think you hit it with: offer things the box stores dont...

It seems that local stores only sell the super high end brands and mark up the price to a point that pushes you to (GULP)Dicks, Walmart, Orvis or Basspro......

Kirk Mantay said...

Well that's exactly it, DJ. Even if the price is higher, people will often still bite if there's an impressive redeeming factor (service, local knowledge, long hours).

But once things get above "price point" for the desired demographic....shops start to fail.

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