The battle for fly fishing retail dollars is a brutal one. Fly shops, never a place to make one's fortune, exist in an increasingly competitive landscape. These days if you don't have an online presence to complement your bricks and mortar you either have a shop within a double haul of a storied water or are preparing to go out of business. If your business model depends on selling flies for two bucks a piece, it better be something better than can be had for thirty-nine cents online.
While as a consumer, I understand the day-to-day warfare, there's one theater in the retail battlefront that I wasn't aware of -- the fly rod guarantee. Apparently, shops are upset with rod manufacturers, and have been for years, because they offer these lifetime guarantees.
Short story: If I buy a rod with a lifetime guarantee, I'll never buy another one. If it gets damaged I get it repaired. If I want a new model, I wait for the old model to go out of production, damage it, and get sent a new one. The shop never makes another sale.
In a opinion piece over on The Angling Trade website, fly shop owner David Leinweber attributes rod sales declines primarily to warranties.
Over the past decade, fly shops across the country have seen premium rod purchases decline. There are several factors pointing to the decline of premium rod sales compared to the “pre-warranty” era. It may be competition, the economy, it may be the advent of the Web, it may be the increasing cost of repairs; it may be a lot of things. My opinion is that there is little incentive for someone with a “lifetime warranty” to buy a new rod.He'd like to see manufacturers stop offering warranties so that when our rod accidentally breaks or when we need the new model and slam our old rod in the car door* that we have to go into the fly shop and purchase a new one from him. If we want a warranty, he suggests that we purchase one separately from the rod manufacturer. Presumably this also reduces the price of rods for consumers so those who want a warranty get one and those who don't, don't.
I'd like to see some data on this subject. Of the five things that David cites as the possible reasons for sales declines - competition, the economy, the internet, cost of repairs, warranties -- I think warranties is at or near the bottom of the list. Again, I have no data, just opinion.
One of David's key presumptions, that folks are slamming rods in car doors in order to get free upgrades, seems dubious. I know of two people who broke rods -- one on a backcast hooked in a tree, the other on a steelhead -- and then sent in rods for repairs. One got the same model, the other a newer one. The one didn't break his rod to get the newer model. I'm sure there are cheaters out there. Heck lowlifes cheat on far less valuable things, why not rod repairs. It's a matter of ethics. I don't think this is as much a problem as David thinks.
When I want the latest rod, I buy it. I don't scan the box of rods in the garage trying to figure out which to run through the ceiling fan. That said, of the three I've purchased during the past five years, only one came from a fly shop. The others I purchased online from the manufacturer**. Why? It's easier. I don't have to leave my house to go to a fly shop. Also, the selection is better. I don't have to purchase what they have in stock, I can purchase what I want. Again, my gut tells me that the ease of purchase on the web coupled with the crap economy far outweigh the effect of warranties. That's what the past decade has been all about.
I think much of this comes back to the role of the fly shop in our sport. Good ones seem to be places we go naturally, bad ones we avoid. There are two up on the Housatonic River and I clearly prefer Housatonic River Outfitters to the other***. Up in Pulaski there are two I like and one I don't. And down in Townsend, TN is one of the best I've found.
There are a lot of conditions facing fly shop owners and I think any time spent on warranties is time that could be better spent wondering how to improve your internet store or declutter the shop or investing in customer service training for the staff. I think those are the things that are going to make folks come in (or log on) and buy stuff. Eliminating warranties isn't going to change anything at all for fly shop sales. It's the red herring in this pool.
* I prefer to use a ceiling fan.
** Another sore spot with fly shop owners, I'm sure.
*** Which may, or may not, be still in business.