An axiom about aging is that we become set in our ways. Things become routine. We find security in daily habits and rituals. Some habits are good and others are bad, but we don’t judge them. They’re just “how we do things.”
Bowhunting, for instance, is our industry’s longtime habit. This was natural, considering how compound bows and white-tailed deer exploded simultaneously in the 1970s. By the late 1980s our industry looked much like it does today, with bowhunting our mainstay. Archery was mostly a means to an end (bowhunting), not an independent pursuit. A generation of customers shot to hunt. They didn’t relate to target, field, FITA or other archery disciplines. The closest link to traditional archery was 3D shooting, which remains popular with many bowhunters.
Bowhunting is great for our industry. Most of us got here through our bowhunting passion, starting retail shops in basements and garages to provide products and services to friends and neighbors. From there, dealers built large, loyal bases of bowhunting customers who provide annual sales from $500,000 to more than $1 million. No question, bowhunting has driven our industry more than 30 years.
We’ll remember 2012 as the year archery catapulted into popular culture. “The Hunger Games” debuted in March 2012, and “Brave,” “Arrow,” “Revolution,” “The Avengers,” “Game of Thrones” and “Snow White and the Huntsman” followed. Those movies and TV shows made archery popular with people who know nothing about bowhunting. Aided by the 2012 Olympic games and an explosion of archery-themed advertising, archery suddenly fascinated kids, young adults and especially teenage girls. They overwhelmed USA Archery’s website, boosted memberships and flooded retail shops with inquiries.
Archery’s wave continues rolling. If you don’t believe it, talk to retailers, especially in populated areas, as well as distributors and manufacturers. None can keep up with demand. Recurve bows and low- to midrange archery equipment are expanding many shops’ inventory, along with crossbows and crossbow accessories. Shops are also expanding their service and instructional capabilities. Data in my recent “State of the Industry” report verifies those trends.
Provided we change some old habits, archery might answer an age-old problem for retailers. Nearly all dealers whose shops depend on bowhunting know most of their income accrues from late summer to early fall. Bowhunting’s seasonal nature challenges many retailers to be innovative in how they generate revenue most of the year. Two tough bowhunting seasons can spell disaster. To reduce risks, many shops add offseason categories like fishing, firearms, camping and off-road vehicles.
Altering a shop to attract a new archery demographic is a challenge to the habits and routines of bowhunting-based retailers. Marketing archery to “soccer moms,” kids and people unaware of hunting requires retailers to expand their introductory equipment, instructional capabilities, and shooting time and space. Sales skills such as bowhunting experience and savvy are replaced with archery instruction certification and perhaps a background check to satisfy concerned parents. Strategies must also adapt to new customers who aren’t your typical bowhunter: 30- to 50-year-old men who drop $500 to $1,000 for bowhunting gear.
The greatest retailing challenge is changing a business culture to accommodate customers whose interest is strictly “red, white & blue” archery. That means reconsidering things long central to a shop’s culture, such as camo gear, mounted animals, hunting photos and “dead-buck” photos. Granted, retailers must not alienate their bowhunting clientele. They’ve long been -- and always will be -- major players in all retail operations.
So, what to do? First, create a bright, colorful, energetic and welcoming environment to attract and retain kids, young adults and families who view archery as recreation – much like golf, tennis and other “ball” sports.
If you attract new customers through archery, you will generate year-round revenue although margins are smaller on sales half the price of good bowhunting packages. Yet the customers are younger and more family-oriented, which puts your shop squarely in society’s mainstream. And, don’t forget, a portion of these new customers will want to try bowhunting.
Second, hire sales staff who know more about teaching sports than teaching hunting. Shops will also need to rent equipment, keep some shooting lanes open, offer shooting between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m., and develop websites to offer instruction, lessons, coaching, leagues and club activities.
Such shifts in a business model might cost a few thousand dollars. The major change, however, will be personal. As I visit shops each year, it’s clear many owners are close friends with their customers. However, some customers use the shop’s lanes at their convenience, and at little or no cost. Owners too often give away shooting time and shop services because of longtime friendships. Many retailers have not considered shooting lanes to be profitable space, but with today’s emerging archery market, shops need to view lanes as a product. As with all products, pricing and margins are critical.
Many long-standing customers will dislike paying more for shooting time, leagues or events. But when new customers gladly pay such fees, pro shops must adjust. With nearly universal shortages of good places to shoot, archery lanes are no different from tennis courts, baseball fields and swimming pools that require fees and scheduling. Check around any community and see what people are paying for recreational time on any court, field, or course.
During the next few years, we’ll hear about retailers who added archery to their bowhunting business. We’ll also read about changes to inventory, sales tactics and shooting lanes. What we probably won’t read much about are the changes in habits – some formed over 20 to 30 years – that successful dealers had to make.
Those changes will likely have been the most difficult part of the process.
Image: ATA ad set to hit trade magazines this fall. The ad illustrates the value in each consumer group.