“It was the golden age of the fishing industry. Today everything is big business, everything has changed and it makes it harder for the entrepreneur. So hard to get into this business today.”
- Al Lindner
Do you still root for the little guy? Do you avoid Walmart, knowing you’ll pay a little more at the local hardware store, but do so happily? Do you prefer to do business with a guy who still offers a genuine handshake, rather than a corporation that worries about nothing but the bottom line?
If you answered yes, there may be room for concern.
Earlier this month, we all learned the news of Bass Pro Shops purchasing its primary outdoor-specialist competitor, Cabela’s. I categorize this way because Bass Pro likely competes with Walmart more than any other retailer, overall. It’s not surprising how closely the business models of each line up.
What will this mean to the bass fishing industry? Right now, it’s hard to say. Immediately, it appears we’ll see more changes within the stores themselves than anything. Early reports are that Cabela’s employees may want to start tuning up their résumés. But from a consumer’s perspective, the danger may lie further down the road.
Luckily, we still have other outlets from which to buy gear. As over-spenders, bass fishermen make up the lion’s share of tackle sales in the U.S. fishing economy, as many businesses continue to take notice. Early in the days of Internet shopping, companies like Tackle Warehouse and Land Big Fish made waves; many turning the decision into big profits.
Meanwhile, Bass Pro Shops continued it’s worldwide take-over. As we’ve discussed here in the past, ingenious retail decisions, namely combining shopping malls with an outdoor experience and pulling from a larger customer base, combined with embracement of online shopping, kept Bass Pro ahead of the curve.
Like many of us, I’ve been a lifelong Bass Pro fan. I vividly remember wondering, as a child, what it must be like to live near Springfield, Mo.; to be able to walk into a store where all my catalog dreams became reality. To me, it would be like going to Oz. Charlie Campbell would play the Scarecrow, Penny Berryman parading as Dorothy. And there, behind the curtain, Johnny Morris would portray the Great and Powerful.
As an adult turning back to reality, I now see the danger of a world with fewer competitors. I do so drawing from experiences on all sides of the equation.
Through the years, I’ve been on the inside of the tackle business in a number of facets. As one of the creators of many Great Lakes niche products, like extra-fat tube jigs and the first-ever goby lure, I’ve seen firsthand how Bass Pro Shops can come in and knock off an idea, immediately flooding the market with a cheaper lookalike. Sure, we don’t see much harm when it’s a Rapala or Berkley that they’re beating up on. But what about when it’s the little guy?
As a partner and manager of a few other tackle ventures, I’ve also learned of the impossible terms offered by Bass Pro shops to small manufacturers. “Give us tons of gear for nothing,” they say. “If it sells, we’ll give you the money next fall.”
Such intolerance built into the business model makes it nearly impossible for anyone but mega-companies to compete. Thus limits our chances, as consumers, to reach some of the best products available.
Other wells have dried up along with the gradual change in retail. Consumer sport shows, where bass nuts could once shop for the latest and greatest, have all but disappeared from the landscape, thanks to the ability for consumers to find the same, or better deals, online and in-store 365 days a year.
So what we’re being left with is a few select outlets that virtually control all the products that we’re offered. If it doesn’t fit their mold, too bad. For us all.
Luckily, a few retailers are starting to learn that small, niche markets within bass fishing can support great business. Sure, the best-selling lures will always be the Banjo Minnows, but even after the occasional shoppers are taken out of the equation, there’s still a lot of meat on the bone.
The latest Southwick annual report estimates that bass fishermen spend over $15 billion annually on their passion. That’s billion, with a B. The largest majority of that is spent on fuel and tackle.
A few retailers continue to take note, selling the specialty rods, baits and line that the pros trust to take them over the competitive edge. By offering them to us all online, we can keep the little guys in business
Meanwhile, we also see some of the biggest manufacturers in bass fishing continue to refuse a ride on the Bass Pro train. Both ironic yet comical, consumers can purchase 23 beaver-like creature baits on BassProShops.com, but they can’t buy a Sweet Beaver.
Will the tackle business survive the latest take-over? Sure. Luckily, there are fanatics like us who will shell out big bucks for a product that might work.
And we’ll continue to be on the lookout for something different, whether new or old that, for reasons unknown, fools more fish than any other. I think back to Takahiro Omori’s blow-out victory this year on Wheeler, a fishery that’s likely seen more bass fishing pressure than nearly any in the history of the sport. He did so using a discontinued lure that’s been the recent trademark of the niche collector market. A bait that could likely now be sold for just about any dollar amount imaginable. A discontinued, knock-off swimbait once offered in the bargain bin at Bass Pro Shops.
(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.)