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November 5, 2019

Accessory Stocking Tips For Waterfowl Customers

By Tim Barker, FMG Publications

When waterfowl hunters head into the field, they’ll bring with them a wide assortment of essential accessories. A shotgun and shells are just the beginning.

The list of must-haves can include decoys, waders, camouflage clothing, boots, assorted chokes, gear bags, game calls and even heaters in colder climates. Unfortunately, the fact hunters need these things doesn’t necessarily mean they have a place on your store’s shelves. Competition from the big-box sporting goods stores and online retailers require smaller dealers to be smart with inventory choices as they try to tap into this potentially lucrative market.

Dedicated Clientele Means Repeat Business

Waterfowlers may not be a major piece of business for Denny Dennis Sporting Goods in Fenton, Mo., but the suburban St. Louis store is close enough to the region’s fertile hunting grounds to justify carrying a wide range of offerings. The reason is simple, says Owner Denis Dennis: “Duck hunters spend a lot of money when they spend it.”

The story is similar at Sports World Hunting Headquarters in Tulsa, Okla., where in-store offerings have evolved considerably since the shop opened in 1976. Over the years, they’ve scaled back in some areas — in the face of online competition — while still looking for corners of the market where they can be effective and profitable.

And again, it comes down to the potential sales this hunting segment represents.

Sports World Hunting Headquarters, Manager Jack Morris
At Sports World Hunting Headquarters, Manager Jack Morris says the store carries a diverse selection of chokes for its waterfowl customers. “Most of the guys carry multiple chokes,” he informs. Extended chokes from Briley, Carlson and Browning are top sellers.

“They’ve really dedicated themselves to waterfowl,” maintained Jack Morris, longtime salesman at the store. “They won’t just have one set of waders. They’ll have three — for extreme cold, moderate and warmer weather. You don’t find that with a lot of other hunters.”

Comparing the experiences of the two stores, it’s easy to see what works for one business might not work for another in this arena. Whether it’s by trial and error, market research or just plain old gut-instinct, each store has to figure out which products make sense for waterfowlers in a particular town or city.

Consider the case of decoys.

Sports World stopped carrying them altogether a few years back. They found hunters were becoming too picky about which decoys they wanted — making it a challenge to keep a suitable variety in stock.

“There are so many people selling direct; it’s hard to compete with them,” Morris shared.

Waterfowl Decoy - MOJO Elite King Mallard Decoy
A high-end decoy option, the Elite Series (King Mallard model pictured here) from MOJO Outdoors is a strong seller at Denny Dennis Sporting Goods. Its advanced design places the motor, battery and other operating components inside a solid housing that attaches to a support pole — producing less wobble.

Back in Missouri, however, decoys are on the list of must-have waterfowling accessories. Dennis keeps around 50 dozen boxes, by Flambeau, in stock ahead of the hunting season. But more important, is a line of pricier motion decoys by MOJO Outdoors.

“Ducks have gotten smart over the years,” Dennis said, noting most hunters will pick up a few of these decoys — with flapping wings — to supplement their static models. “You might have like 50 ducks sitting out there, but only three or four will be flapping.”

On The Shelves

At Sports World, one of the top items carried for waterfowlers is a strong selection of chokes.

“Most of the guys carry multiple chokes,” Morris relayed.

The most popular models are the extended chokes (by Briley, Carlson and Browning) that have knurling, which allow for rapid changes without a wrench. It’s particularly valuable for a hunter trudging through waist-deep water.

Both stores carry a variety of gear bags (or blind bags) designed for waterfowl hunters.

“Gunners bags have really improved. They have compartments and waterproofing, cases for sunglasses,” Morris noted. “If they’re carrying stuff and they’re concerned about it, they’ll have a gunners bag.”

Waterfowl Bag - Benelli Bag
The Benelli Realtree Max-5 Ducker Range Bag is top opening and constructed of 600D PVC-backed fabric. The waterfowl blind bag features an EVA foam bottom and is finished with water-resistant zippers and custom pulls and includes a durable sunglasses hard case.

Top brands include Benelli, Boyt, Drake and Berretta. And it’s an accessory hunters aren’t shy about changing frequently: “I upgrade mine all the time. They come up with better waterproofing. Most of mine last me about two years. Then I’ll see new ones with different features,” Morris added.

At Denny Dennis, top brands include Mud River and Tangle Free and are offered in two varieties — mesh or waterproof. Both types are designed to deal with the typical environment these hunters encounter. “99% of the time, they’ll be out on the water,” Dennis said.

The store also stocks a variety of hip boots and waders — with Frogg Toggs Migration Grand Refuge 2.0 among the more popular — in the $200 to $300 range. Increasingly, hunters are opting for a neoprene version: “They’re warmer and they stay close to your body,” Dennis shared.

Of course, both shops carry game calls, though they aren’t exactly a strong revenue source.

Dennis lends: “We sell a few. But they last year after year. Unless you lose it, all you have to do is replace the reed.”

It’s a similar situation at Sports World, where Morris informed they no longer stock the pricier hand-made calls costing $200 or more: “We carry the middle-of-the-road and lower-end stuff that more people want.”

Two Schools Of Thought On Camo

At Tulsa’s Sports World, the shop decided several years ago to focus on the lower end of the wader segment. (Consider a top-of-the-line set of SITKA waders can cost more than $800.) Few customers are willing to pay this much, Morris sad. So, instead, they offer a selection of more affordable brands like Winchester and Ducks Unlimited. But even with this strategy, there’s limited demand.

“Guys can just go to Walmart and buy a pair for $99,” Morris acknowledged.

The same pressures that prompted a refocusing of wader inventory also pushed the store largely out of the camouflage clothing business. But even though they no longer carry camo clothes, it doesn’t mean they ignore what’s happening in that market. Consider the popular, and pricey, clothing from SITKA.

SITKA Hudson Jacket
The SITKA Hudson Jacket is available in both men’s and women’s options. It’s designed for maximum exposure to frigid and soaking conditions while providing waterfowlers mobility for easy and accurate shooting.

“Now you can match your gun to your SITKA gear,” he said. “The young kids today, they’re buying SITKA. And they like the matched look. I even saw a guy who had SITKA seat covers in his pickup the other day.”

So, they’ll carry shotguns from Beretta and Benelli in those popular camo patterns.

Denny Dennis, however, hasn’t given up on the camo market — even if each year brings new challenges in terms of which patterns to carry. It’s always tough to make those stocking decisions when you’re buying months ahead of the season, he said.

“Normally, you guess based on the year before. But then they come out with a new pattern and destroy your whole decision-making process,” Dennis revealed.

The unpredictability of the weather also can create havoc when deciding how much of the cold-weather stuff to buy. “You may end up making a mad dash to the distributors to buy more. Or you’ll end up having a 50% off sale at the end of the season,” he added.

Beating Online With Expertise, Service

How do you compete with someone who doesn’t charge sales tax and whose overhead is half of what yours is? It’s a dilemma faced by brick-and-mortar stores across the country.

One of the things you can do is bring expertise into the equation. The staff at Sports World, for example, is filled with veteran hunters who, like Morris, have been active in the shootings sports for decades. Customers can walk in the door and find a wide range of hunting and gear advice. Those salesmen also are seasoned enough to know when someone is about to make a mistake with a purchase.

“If you mount a gun wrong, we’ll tell you it’s not the gun for you,” Morris shared. “We’re not going to sell you something that’s not a good fit.”

They also offer custom gunsmithing onsite. In addition, they’ll add slings and swivels to shotguns — and make sure the gun is sized correctly for how it will be used. Often, hunters looking for a specific length of pull forget to include the fact their hunting attire will be different from the T-shirt they wear into the store when shopping for a new shotgun.

“It’s especially important in the Midwest, where you’ll be putting on these thick, heavy coats,” Morris added.

Dennis, in St. Louis, sees a particular challenge in the way attitudes appear to be changing regarding seeing and touching something before buying it. Not everyone needs it.

“The 20-to-30 crowd is happy just to see pictures online,” he noted.

It’s one of the things that prompted him to launch an online service a few months ago: “We’re about 10 years late,” Dennis concluded.

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