By Patrick Meitin
Once upon a time, during a stint in outdoor retailing, I was put in charge of the archery department of a large sporting goods store. It was believed my extensive experience in archery and bowhunting wares would allow me to make more targeted buying decisions than the company’s general buyers. I was given a budget and quickly filled orders with what I believed was a representative cross-section of goods local bowhunters would appreciate and purchase.
I quickly discovered I’d been living in a bubble—and that bubble quickly got me in hot water with upper management. Included in my orders was a decent sampling of flagship products—basically the kind of equipment I shot myself. But I had completely misread the local economy and/or buying habits of bowhunters in the region. Those top-end wares just didn’t move.
No two economies are alike. Something like experienced during the ongoing COVID-19 panic might hit one state or region especially hard, while other regions skate on as if nothing has happened. A shut-down Northwestern or Upper Midwestern state, for instance, might see a dramatic impact, while Western states who took less draconian measures are largely unaffected. Even in individual states, local economies can dictate overall wages and resulting disposable income; natural resources extraction industries of rural areas, for example, verses high-tech or industrial economies found in urban areas.
That bubble talked about earlier resulted from living in a rural area with low overhead, but working as a free-lancer to garner wages from well outside my local economy. In this way I could afford flagship bows, top-grade arrows, broadheads, bow accessories and high-tech hunting togs.
I got myself into hot water with the brass because the flagship bows and arrows and other top-drawer gear I ordered (constituting maybe 20 percent of total orders) gathered dust for months—dead inventory—and moved only after being heavily discounted (eliminating any profit margins).
At the same time I found it impossible to keep $499 ready-to-hunt packages in stock. To be brutally honest, after nearly 45 years of bowhunting, I wouldn’t have even considered hunting with such as outfit. The bows offered less than top-notch performance and the attached accessories, to my mind, left much to be desired. Yet it was what the market would bear—and the customers who purchased them, far from weekend warriors, killed plenty of game with them.
I was operating in an economy where bowhunters purchased mid- to budget-priced arrows two to three at a time, frequently arriving mid-season to buy one or two more. It was common for customers to ask what our lowest-priced broadhead was and despite national trends, we did a brisk trade in low-tech cotton camouflage attire. And again, these were serious bowhunters, not dabblers.
Local economies aside, priorities also enter the equation. Those same bowhunters often arrived in new pickups with high-cc 4×4 ATVs squatted in the bed. I have never witnessed such a prevalence of modern camp trailers and motorhomes as I see in north Idaho. While still living in New Mexico, most bowhunters I observed carried top-end equipment, including German-made optics, but operated from 20-year-old pickups, rusty 2WD ATVs and slept in tents. That difference may be attributed to the difficulty in securing tags. Idaho elk tags, for instance, are offered over the counter, so most bowhunters are able to hunt every season, while New Mexico hunters may draw a tag only every three to four years, making those hunts more valuable.
So while prevailing regional wages may have some sway in stocking decisions, there are no rock-solid rules. The best way to get your finger on the pulse of local buying habits it to attend local 3D tournaments and pay attention while in the field.
Successful archery shop owners study their local customer base carefully. Start-up business face the real struggle of unlocking the local code. The safest stocking bets go to budget-priced merchandise. This class of gear always sell briskly, whether to tyros or dabblers, or serious bowhunters without available funds or just different priorities. Affordable shouldn’t be confused with junk gear. Junk products that break or fail will haunt you, likely resulting in returns or reflecting badly on your shop with your customers.
Some of Trophy Ridge’s or Rocky Mountain’s affordable bow sights, as examples, are solid product free of the bells and whistles that can double costs. I hunt with such sights frequently, because I do appreciate a simple approach. Budget-priced arrow rests will usually indicate rigid, total-containment models, like those from Trophy Ridge, TRUGLO or Apex Gear, as examples, instead of more sophisticated drop-aways. Many customers actually prefer such designs. Arrows with straightness specs in the .004- to .005-inch range will shoot as well as most bowhunters are capable, and often cost half as much as .001-inch straightness shafts. Somewhat counterintuitively, profit margins can actually increase with budget-priced gear, as the markup on top-end wares is often minimal due to already hefty price tags.
I’d call mid-priced product the industry’s bread and butter. Steady business is found with serious bowhunters who are nevertheless on tight budgets but hate the notion of buying entry-level product. They simply can’t afford the best, so do the best they can. There is also a bit of “class conscience” involved in these purchases.
This is particularly true with compound bows. Often the mid-priced bow is one with last year’s perfectly acceptable technologies. Perhaps it is a tad slower, or a bit heavier, than the newest flagship model, but it certainly gets the job done. This is also where broadheads come in. The newest mechanical technology, titanium, heads milled from single-piece bar stock and so on fetch top dollar, but in reality, kill no more efficiently than a standard aluminum-ferrule, tool-steel-tipped model. The Muzzy, Rocket and Musacchia broadheads of the world continue to sell briskly because they perform as advertised with “old-school” technology. Sights and rests sans toolless or micro-adjust features come in here—and some bowhunters (myself included) actually prefer them for their inherent simplicity.
Even in the most poverty-stricken regions there will always be someone making real money—or those who’s priorities lead them to invest in the best gear possible. This might include Hoyt carbon bows or the latest Mathews flagship model, an Axcel bow sight, Quality Archery Designs’ MTX series arrow rests or Victory Archery V1-grade shafts, just as examples. It might include accessories such as Sitka Gear togs or binoculars made in Germany or Austria.
I’ve talked to dealers in various regions, like Southern California, or eastern New York, who sell mostly high-end product. These shops keep such wares in stock so customers with a lot of options can handle and shoot them. The answer in regions where little of your sales includes higher-priced items is obviously special order. It might be financially feasible to keep a handful of high-end bows hanging as eye candy—in the most common draw eights and lengths. But in areas where high-end wares are a low percentage of your annual sales, well-heeled customers will generally understand. The good news is flagship models are typically dealer only, so you won’t have to compete with mail order or the Internet. Besides, a special order has a way of making buyers feel even more special.
Catering to your specific demographic is obviously the key to success. Providing product customers actually want and need is a large part of this, but in the bigger picture stocking product they can also afford is just as important. Putting the pieces of the puzzle together can prove challenging, but successful business demands it. Listening to customer input and keen observation while attending local 3D shoots and while visiting hunting camps gives you clues as how to approach your local economy.