Battle of the Mega-Store Outdoor Retailers

It doesn’t seem like that many years ago when I was “cutting my teeth” on the outdoors and I simply could not get enough viewing pleasure out of the periodic Herters mail order catalogs.   I literally wore the pages out of each issue as I dreamed of new trapping, fishing and hunting gear that for the most part was still way out of my price range.   You see, I was a young teenager at the time and disposable money for such expenditures was still several years down the road in my life.

Adding insult to injury, I lived 43 miles from the famous Herters Store in Waseca, Minnesota, but back in those days I was too young to have much mobility to get there…in fact, I only visited the Waseca store once before it eventually closed its doors…sometime back in the late 70’s, I believe.   Back then being a young sportsman in southern Minnesota meant you either ordered your supplies via mail order…or, if you were lucky to be heading to one of the larger cities…maybe a fancy Twin Cities store, such as a Burger Brothers, was on the itinerary for the trip.

Oh, how times have changed…and I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams the situation as it exists today.   Now there are so many sporting goods store options that it feels almost gluttonous to be a sportsmen who fondly remembers when life meant far fewer choices and equipment possibilities.

Today, the famous Herters no longer exists.   Fact is, I’m not so sure George L. Herter would be too proud of how things have evolved in the business, either.   Even though I believe George L. Herter passed on long before the advent of the Internet…today if you type in it will take you directly to the Cabela’s web site.   Hmmm…I’m told Cabela’s actually bought out the Herter’s good name.   Go figure…once arch rivals for the sportsman’s dollar is no more.   Could this possibly be indicative of how the future might trend?

But lamenting the old Herters store is not exactly what today’s blog is all about.   Nope, instead it’s about the expansion of the outdoor superstores and the battles that are being waged not only in the sales tabloids…but also soon to be at the Minnesota legislature in the form of tax incentives and breaks.   Seems not all stores feel they’re being treated fairly, and this is not sitting well with their competition as the gloves are about ready to come off.

Before I get into the main controversy let me say this.   Today within about an hour’s drive of my house there are two Cabela’s Stores…nine Gander Mountain Stores…three Dicks Sporting Goods Stores…several Mills Fleet Farms…one Scheel’s Sports…and one Bass Pro Shops (coming soon)…not to mention the dozens and dozens of local gun shops and private sporting goods retailers all within a short drive.   Indeed, the first critical decision when making the trek out to purchase some new hunting or fishing supplies is often which direction do I turn when leaving the driveway.

It’s important to point this out because never has there been so many options as there are today for purchasing outdoor goods.   Most definitely this has also created an economic battle grounds for these sporting retailers the likes of which have never been seen before…and I dare say could not possibly have been conceived of a few decades ago.

You can read more about the battle between the big superstores here and how it is shaping up…but suffice it to say we are certainly living in a cut-throat competitive world where these stores will use any political, as well as economic, advantage available to get a chance at our open wallets.   On one hand it makes me feel positive that sportsmen and their dollars are in such high demand that all these stores would pop up on the landscape…but on the other hand, it makes me wonder seriously about what lies ahead.

In the short run I think most sportsmen will be the big benefactors of the increased competition and lower prices…but I remain concerned about the little guy.   What about those little sporting goods shops that rely largely on customer service to differentiate themselves from the mass retailers?   Can they continue to survive with shrinking profit margins that must accordingly get smaller each year as these big behemoth superstores seemingly fight it out in a survival-of-the-fittest.   As one store out-maneuvers the next…where will it all end?   More importantly, how healthy does all this battling leave the outdoor sporting goods industry in general?   Seems to me, at least in my area and I suspect this is true in many others as well…we’ve reached a super-saturation point where they all can’t possibly continue to thrive and survive.

Who knows…perhaps ol’ George L. Herter would be utterly disgusted today by witnessing the recent trends of the sportsman’s retail industry that he once not-too-long-ago helped to pioneer.   Then again, for the man who authored the famous sportsman’s book “HOW TO GET OUT OF THE RAT RACE AND LIVE ON $10 A MONTH,” he might just think these stores deserve what they have coming to them…no matter what that fate might eventually be.

© 2006 Jim Braaten.  All Rights Reserved.   No Reproduction without Prior Permission.