Much Has Changed Selling The Outdoors Through Mail Order

I still remember the thrill almost as if it happened just yesterday.   I would come home after school to discover an unexpected source of excitement laying in the daily mail pile.    Indeed, finding a new copy of the distinctively marked black, yellow and red cover of a new Herter’s outdoor adventure catalog would immediately brighten my spirits.   In fact, that catalog would get so much mileage that by the time a replacement issue arrived I could usually expect the current one to become quite tattered and worn.

No doubt about it growing up and discovering the outdoors was a vastly different experience during the 1960s and ‘70s than it is today.   It was a rare occasion when our family would trek to The Cities to shop at a Burger Brothers or some similar outdoor retail store.IMG5_00303

Instead, for many of us mail order is where it happened and for a long time Herter’s, headquartered in Waseca, Minnesota, was the unofficial king of the outdoor equipment mail order sellers.   The other main players here in the Midwest were Gander Mountain, then headquartered out of Wilmot, Wisconsin, along with up and coming Cabela’s out of Sidney, Nebraska.   Together, these mail order stores, along with the basic supplies offered by my local hardware store, were all this budding outdoorsman needed to get prepared for his next outdoor adventure.

Of course, rarely do things stay the same in the world of mail order marketing or retailing.   By the early 1980s Herter’s started directing its efforts toward establishing several retail locations and eventually their mail order business began losing its luster.   Other factors may have also led to the business’ demise, such as the 1968 Gun Control Act which prohibited mail order gun transactions.   In time, the Herter’s brand was sold out to Twin Cities based Northern Hydraulics, Inc. who for several years attempted to distribute a Herter’s branded catalog.   Ironically, today if you enter into your web browser you’ll be redirected instead to the once rival Cabela’s website.

As for Gander Mountain, this company has also seen many changes over the past several decades.   From its storied history as a Wisconsin based mail order company…then several bankruptcies and liquidation sales later, the company is now owned by a Minneapolis investment group with an expansive retail network and a resurging mail order/Internet business.

Last Friday when I received the mail it contained a hard-covered 2009 Cabela’s master catalog sporting almost 1,400 pages of outdoor products.   WOW!   That’s some serious gear and reading.   In fact, an outdoors product catalog weighing over five pounds took this now mature kid several hours that evening to completely peruse.   Honestly, seeing the newest Cabela’s catalog in the mail gave me that same tingle I once felt nearly three decades ago while paging throughout the old Herter’s catalogs of the day.

Yet, what a stark contrast in comparing my 1979 Herter’s outdoors catalog to the 2009 Cabela’s product catalog.   The outdoor gear and certainly the way it’s marketed to us has come a long way over the past 30 years.   Oddly enough, much of the outdoor gear contained in the old Herter’s catalog now seemed rather out-dated and otherwise lacking consumer pizazz.   It makes you wonder…what will our outdoor catalogs look like over the next 30 years…or will printed catalogs even still exist with the advance of the Internet?   Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

© 2009 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved.   No Reproduction without Prior Permission.