Beating Giants like Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops: The eCommerceOutdoors Story Pt. 1

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Years after launching its first store, TackleDirect.com, eCommerceOutdoors has become a highly successful multi-store retailer located on the South Jersey seashore. While co-founder and marketing head Patrick Gill continues to use the Yahoo! Stores platform for TackleDirect.com and PennFishingStore.com, he recently embraced the open source world by re-launching IslandBeachGear.com on the Magento platform.
In this two-part interview, Patrick talks about why his employees fish on company time, how the economic situation has affected customer behavior, the pros and cons of Yahoo! Stores and Magento, and why the biggest misconception about free open source ecommerce platforms is that they’re actually free.


Can you give us a quick summary of your company, operations and markets.
We’re an ecommerce retailing company, currently operating four sites in the fishing and outdoor leisure markets. Our corporate headquarters are in Somers Point, NJ and we run our Island Beach Gear retail store in Ocean City, NJ. In total, we have 25 full-time employees. We’ll add seasonal staff during the peak fishing and beach-related retailing months (spring and summer). Our fishing sales are split 80% in the United States, with the balance from overseas markets. The big overseas markets are South America and the United Kingdom with some sales in parts of Asia. Our beach gear sales are almost exclusively North American sales.

Who are your competitors?
We’re a specialty fishing retailer. We don’t generally–or even try to–compete against mass merchandizers like Wal-mart or the national chains like Cabela’s or Bass Pro Shops. We win customers on service and know-how, not private branding or discounting. There are probably 6,000 independent fishing retailing stores in the United States, the vast majority of which are small Mom and Pop stores. To give you an idea of the market fragmentation, a really successful independent fishing retailer will do one million dollars annually in sales. But while they’re small, these local stores are really important because they know their regions. They know specifically what works in the local rivers and lakes andcostal waterways. In contrast, our specialized knowledge is product-centric. Our company and our sales reps have lots of product knowledge, but the local fishing market knowledge is found in local stores. A final word on this retailing category is the fact that people who like to fish have been much slower to adopt to Internet product sourcing than in other categories.

Let’s talk about mixing fishing and business, or in your case, making fishing your business. How often do you actually get out and test the products you sell?
While I do get out on the water, I’m the head guy so I’m not out as much as our customer service and sales staff. Our product buyers and customer service team all fish a lot because they have to test lots of gear to figure out what we should buy. I tend to test the beach gear products more often than the fishing catalog.

Let’s start by talking big picture. Your retailing properties target outdoor pursuits that are restricted by climate seasonality across much of the North American continent? How does the seasonality of your customer base affect your operations?
We sell a good amount of gear twelve months per year. We sell all types of fishing gear, primarily saltwater, although we also sell freshwater and fly fishing. But saltwater is definitely our focus. While fishing sales increase considerably in the summer, the winter months are not exactly dead. The seasonality issue is certainly real but we balance that against a very wide product selection.
TackleDirect logoHow has your customer base been affected by the economic downturn since 2007?
Although our number of orders for the 2009 fiscal year were up over 2008, average order value was down. We’ve done much better than the industry average, I think, in 2010.

Has their behavioral change affected your growth plans?
When economic times are tight, focus on the things that are working. At times, your focus could be to gain market share, not lose it. We’re trying to do a better job at everything we do. We’ve reduced our PPC spend as well as adjusted some of our other marketing activities. Inventory projection is always a gamble but we have reduced large inventory purchases to extend our cash resources.

Has it changed your plans for upgrades in technology, marketing activities or third party services that you use?
I’m constantly evaluating third party add-ons like Nextopia site search, and I probably get several phone calls per week from vendors pitching me on some third party tool or conversion booster. I like to listen to learn if we’re not doing something that we should. You really have to distinguish between what can help you and what will waste your time. If something comes out that is better than what we’re using, we’ll make the change.

Nextopia site search helps fishing enthusiasts find exactly what they need among the thousands of product SKUs on TackleDirect.com

Nextopia site search helps fishing enthusiasts find exactly what they need among the thousands of product SKUs on TackleDirect.com

Two things I noticed that you are not using are reviews or videos on TackleDirect. Why not? Reviews are available on some of your sites but not all of them. Are you planning on integrating them any time? What are you thoughts about user generated content (UGC) and online retailing?
It is time to get serious about both reviews and video across all of our sites. Incorporating reviews into Yahoo! Stores isn’t easy. We evaluated review technology for our Yahoo! sites a while back and it was premature. We’ve also found limitations with PowerReviews on the Yahoo! platform. To really do the job well, we’ll probably have to redesign our product layout because our current site design doesn’t work easily. It will take some effort. In contrast, the Magento site (IslandBeachGear.com) included review software from the beginning. Integrating reviews into that site was far easier.

Any comments on UGC?
One thing I’d really like to create is some kind of customer showcase. We receive hundreds of pictures every year. We’ve received everything from pictures of landing a 1,000 lb. blue marlin, to a variety of world record catches to little kids who caught something really special. My favorite, though, has to be a picture several years ago from three guys who went to Thailand. One of them landed a huge tuna using a very special and very expensive fishing reel that cost over $1,300. What I loved about the picture was that the boat they were sitting in, a very beaten up 14′ aluminum, was probably worth $50.

Come back in a couple of days for the second part of our interview with Patrick.

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