Some realities on being a fly-fishing retailer.
- By: Beau Beasley
MOST OF US THINK THAT OWNING a fly shop would be a dream come true. Perhaps you have a favorite shop and covet the owner’s lot in life. Or perhaps you frequent an establishment that leaves you thinking, “Now if I were in charge around here…”
It’s a romantic picture: you sitting at the counter, swapping stories with regulars, selling essentials to veteran anglers and introducing novices—with any luck, independently wealthy novices—to the sport. From the racks hang top-of-the-line outdoor clothes. On the shelves sit quality footwear and other items from the most prestigious fly-fishing brands. On honey-colored walls hang autographed photos of you fishing with angling greats in paradises the world over. Those trips were write-offs. What a life!
Now let’s get real. Retail is tough in any genre, and owning and operating a fly shop is no exception. I recently spent time chatting with fly-shop owners, and drew from my own experience as a manufacturer’s rep, to get a sense of what the lives of owners are like and what common mistakes newbie owners make. In the process it became clear why so many local, independent fly shops die or are currently withering on the vine. If you’re considering the fly-shop life, here are some elements to review before switching the neon sign to “Open.”
Think of manufacturer’s representatives—better known as reps—as the middlemen. They make money selling products, for a variety of companies, to dealers (a fly-shop owner is often known by the phrase “fly-tackle dealer” or “retailer”). Reps are generally paid a straight commission based on a percentage of sales. For example, most reps make between seven- and 10-percent commission on wholesale products once that product is paid for by the fly-shop owner. A store might buy $500 worth of flies at wholesale; once they make a payment to the fly company, the company sends a commission check to the rep the following month.
Steve Monahan is a rep for Temple Fork Outfitters, Islander Reels, Rising and other manufacturers. Like most reps, Monahan spends a great deal of time on the road visiting shops and attending trade shows. He says many new shop owners believe that ownership is all about having fun and fishing. Monahan insists that successful owners are flexible, enthusiastic and proactively engaged with the folks who walk through their doors. Owners can’t do that if they are on the water all the time.
“It’s not like you open your shop and fly anglers throw money at you,” Monahan says. “You have to treat potential customers like friends, not just someone you can sell a product to today and not care about tomorrow. Anyone can sell something to somebody once. They aren’t true customers until they come back the second time.”
In addition to dealing with customers, shop owners spend a lot of time fixing broken reels and other products and returning items under warranty, Monahan says. Owning a fly shop can be fun, he states, but it’s also a lot of hard work.
Bill Dawson, who represents Sage, Cloudveil and Umpqua, says that even in this tough economy dealers can make it, but it’s not the job for everyone.
“Becoming a true retailer versus just a fly-shop owner isn’t easy,” he says, and points out that this isn’t always considered when the avid angler chases his dream and marries vocation with avocation.
Sales reps like Monahan and Dawson spend a lot of time educating shop owners on the latest gear and effective point-of-purchase displays. In a single day, a rep might provide guidance on filing a warranty claim, explain a new fly-line coating, offer tips on managing inventory and set up a display case for sunglasses.
Some shops host open houses, all-day events with speakers, fly tiers, local guides and even sales reps in attendance. Reps can be helpful at these events because they model the latest clothes and cast brand-new rods and
answer attendees’ technical questions. Those fly-shop fairs are about relationship building, not selling stuff.
Dawson says some fly-shop owners act like rookie guides. They launch the boat without necessary experience.
When the wind picks up—that is, when things get tough, which they inevitably do in any retail endeavor—the rookies end up going in circles. Only prudent retailers, those with a head for business as well as a love for the sport, keep their shops afloat.
Successful shop owners do a great deal of research before they open their checkbooks. G. Loomis executive Jim Lebson says that even something as seemingly simple as shelf stocking must be thought out carefully.
“Effectively stocking and displaying rods is much harder than you might think,” he warns. “G. Loomis rods tend to be species-specific rather than purely geographical. If, for instance, your clients fish primarily for saltwater species like stripers and drum, you might get away with just stocking 8- to 11-weight rods. If you have customers who want to go after bass, trout and panfish, all bets are off because this will lead you to a whole different product line. Different customers have different tastes—including prices they will pay.”
Different fishermen. Different fish. Different rods. Shops must stock (and effectively display) rods their customers want. Makes sense, right? In fact, it’s a no-brainer, correct? Not so.
Consider that G. Loomis makes 136 different fly rods that range in price from $195 to $990. A new shop owner must ask, Which of those many rods should the shop stock? How many of each rod must the shop stock? And, if I bring in additional manufacturers, which ones do I choose? And how do I meet each manufacturer’s minimum-order requirements?
Once a new owner decides on rods, it’s time to tangle with other necessities, such as reels, lines, waders, nets, flies, books, boots, tools and fly-tying materials, among other items. As an added headache, new shop owners may not be able to get a dealership for the brands they desire. Just because they have an open checkbook doesn’t mean they can secure anything they want. Some companies limit how many dealers they support in one location.
You’ve tweaked your business plan and collected capital. Now what? Well, unless you plan to work seven days a week, you’ll hire help. The local high school could provide a few fly-fishing enthusiasts, but these budding anglers probably lack the experience your customers demand. In fact, finding good help is downright tough.
Some of the best potential employees are retirees willing to work at a fly shop to feed their fly-fishing addiction. Many potential part-timers are guides, which may bring in additional sales in the form of flies and terminal tackle. Fly-shop employees need some of the skills successful guides demonstrate. They should be able to read customers and assess their abilities (or inabilities). They need a tremendous amount of patience in the face of indecisive and know-it-all customers. They can’t talk down to customers—even novice anglers recognize condescension and resent it. Great salespeople match customer and product so everybody wins. The slick salesperson is constantly looking to up-sell, which is a shortsighted business approach. In the end, slicksters drive customers away.
Like other mom-and-pop retailers, the modern fly shop faces stiff competition from that seemingly omnipresent Best Buy of bass fishing, the big box outdoor sports stores, including Bass Pro Shops, Gander Mountain, Cabela’s and Sportsman’s Warehouse. Big box stores are known as category killers because in many locales independent shops that haven’t developed a staunch customer base can’t compete against them and eventually surrender. Catalog and online sales compete for your dollar and attention, too. Shop owners face competition on many fronts.
Most new shop owners go into business believing, if I build it, they will come. But here’s the bottom line: Customers have more retail choices today than ever before, and anglers are no exception. Why patronize a local fly shop when you can find and buy so much good gear online or at big box stores at cut-rate prices? When dollars are tight, as they certainly are now, why wouldn’t you shop around for the best deal? What is the real value of the local fly shop and why should you support it? Those questions plague fly anglers—and fly-shop owners—all over the country. Some customers grasp answers more quickly than others, which may explain why so many independent shops are closing.
Fly-shop devotees say that no catalog or call-center operator can possibly replace the knowledgeable fly-shop staffer. Want to know what’s biting where? Hoping to test drive that new fly rod before you buy? Confused about which rod and reel you need for the species you hope to pursue? Interested in a fishing trip of a lifetime? Searching for a guide to point out the hotspots you’ve missed on that local water you’ve fished all your life? Want to swap yarns about the ones that got away?
Your local fly shop meets these needs and more—but only if it stays in business. Yes, you may be able to outfit yourself through eBay at a fraction of the cost; but the expertise found at a local shop is worth something, too. Remember to clearly assess its value before you buy discounted gear.
Service and Savvy
What characteristics do successful shops share? Fly-shop owners who make their businesses viable are savvy businesspeople with a passion for customer service.
Jeremy Kehrein, manager of The Urban Angler in Arlington, Virginia, says his shop and its sister shop in Manhattan conduct a brisk online business. Still, he says, they cater to in-house customers who “come in, throw a rod, check out the fly-tying materials and get advice about local waters.” His shop is an oasis for Arlington anglers looking to escape the hectic pace of Washington, D.C. “It’s tough finding this kind of tranquility, not to mention a kindred spirit or two, in any other kind of retail establishment.”
Pat Pendergast, director of international travel for the Redding, California-based The Fly Shop, says that traveling anglers heavily support their business.
“Our customers travel from just down the corner to Russia and Tierra del Fuego and all other corners of the globe,” he says. “We’ve been to these destinations, and we’re all fly-fishing junkies. When you call here with a fly-fishing question you get real answers from real hardcore fly anglers. We’re not sitting in a phone bank trying to take orders. We provide good, technical information to help you whether you’re in that distant locale or only a few miles from home.”
Bob Cook, owner of Casey Key Anglers and Outfitters in Venice, Florida, and Blue Ribbon Fly Shop in Mountain Home, Arkansas, has come up with an innovative way to draw potential customers—a café adjacent to Blue Ribbon.
“We’re a family-owned business,” Cook says. “My daughter, Missy, runs the coffee shop, and her husband, Larry, runs the fly shop. Folks just wander in and out of the coffee shop and vice versa. There’s quite a bit of crossover business.”
Many fly shops provide guide services to their customers. Jim Hickey, co-owner of WorldCast Anglers in Victor, Idaho, says, “Guiding can make or break nearly any fly shop’s season. At the height of the season we may have as many as 40 guides spread over Wyoming and Idaho on different rivers.”
Hickey admits that, on one hand, the logistics involved with professional guiding services can be a hassle even for a small store, as guides have to deal with boats, shuttles, client meals, gear, licensing, and much more. On the other hand, he argues, “Guiding provides steady income to the shop and gives our customers a reason to come by our store when they might not otherwise.”
Some shop owners contract their guiding services to local guides and outfitters and keep a percentage of each trip booked through their store. Others prefer to keep guiding services in-house and hire guides as part-or full-time shop employees. Still others hire guides to take clients out on trips in the spring, summer and fall. Then, they hire guides to work in their shop when the weather often makes guided trips unattractive.
Whether they first arrive for a guided trip or to buy product, a loyal customer is one who returns often. Savvy shop owners turn visitors into loyal customers by filling a shop’s calendar with not-to-be-missed events, such as customer-appreciation days, during which customers enjoy special sales, door prizes, and seminars.
Bob Marriott’s Fly Shop in Fullerton, California, hosts an annual fly-fishing fair that draws up to 50 manufacturers as well as fly tiers and expert speakers. An event that large is beyond the reach of many small shops; inviting a local author or fly tiers, however, may be a low-cost way to generate excitement among faithful customers and a method to recruit potential patrons.
During those events, don’t underestimate the power of the appetite. If your event doesn’t feature food, loyal customers will disappear at lunch. Provide food and beverages, and you’ll see clients stick around a lot longer.
Because a fly shop’s main advantage over the Internet or a big box store is experienced staff, provide opportunities to showcase the staff’s experience through in-store events that offer casting instruction, fly-tying demonstrations and classes. Customers who connect with shop owners and staff members through shared stories and experiences are customers who might be back to buy.
Behind the Counter
Now let’s get to some of the personal choices shop owners make. If you open an independent fly shop you’ll give up fringe benefits you may have taken for granted at your desk job. Kiss your vacation time, health benefits and employer-matched 401k plan goodbye. The successful entrepreneur can provide vacation, retirement options and other benefits; but those options require planning and cost a lot of money. And they keep a fly-shop owner in the office, rather than out on the water enjoying the spoils of success.
If you run a fly shop, expect to spend long hours talking about fishing with customers rather than doing any fishing yourself—at least in the beginning. Expect to be inundated with catalogs, order forms, warranty claims, staffing problems and customer questions that don’t lead to purchases. Expect some manufacturers—whose products you love and have fished for years—to refuse to give you a dealership, for reasons you may not understand.
Finally, expect to have every rod (or fly reel or pair of waders or fishing pack or DVD or rain jacket) in stock except the one rod your customer is convinced he needs. Basically, expect plenty of frustration interrupted by occasional moments of professional success.
Bob Cook says the successful fly-shop owner must really understand fly fishing and business, noting that the viable fly shop is a two-way street. Fly shops must provide exceptional customer service, and anglers must remain loyal in return.
“I’m concerned that too many fly anglers are spending their money with catalog houses and discount stores in order to save a few bucks,” Cook says. “In the end, it could really backfire. Without a returning customer base, local fly shops are dead in the water. We need the repeat business of everyday fly anglers to survive—and they need us.”
Beau Beasley is the author of Fly Fishing Virginia: A No Nonsense Guide to Top Waters.