Thursday, October 17, 2013

I am the enemy (and so are you)

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.


  1. Not that I would ever spend that kind of money, but if I paid $1K for a Helios or Sage One, I'd be in no hurry to upgrade when the new model came out (or the model after that, or after that, etc.). That kind of money buys one an unconditional 25 or 30 year warrantee as far as I'm concerned. I use a 25 year old Sage Graphite II 7wt and I love it. I'm in no hurry to "upgrade."

    I'm with you on the customer service thing. Bring back real fly shops while you're at it...the kind that tie flies in house and who sell unique tying materials, not just what the big distributors offer. That's the kind of fly shop I want to hang out in and where I want to spend my money. It hasn't been the same since Classic & Custom closed its doors.

    1. I never made it over to C&C only hearing about it after it had waned. Having a good selection in stock is critical to me. HRO and Upcountry fit the bill. I know that inventory is a burden, but if I can't touch what I'm going to buy, I might as well be online. Bedford Sportsman used to be good in this regard but during the past few years the fly tying stuff has dwindled to a few things nobody wants, or at least that was my last visit. I'm not going back. A fickle bunch, us consumers.

  2. Spot on. You can suspect that when the customer is being painted as the enemy, more than a fly rod is about to hit the proverbial fan.

  3. I think that the opinion piece you referenced very conveniently ignores the effects of A River Runs Through It. Of course sales have been decreasing. It's been a while since "The Movie" came out. Let's face it. Our sport is big on history, tradition, and even ritual, to the point that there are still plenty of people out there who think strike indicators are of the devil. Fly fishing is a sport that does not change particularly quickly or adapt very well. If fly shop owners are so concerned about selling stuff, then they need to work on getting more people involved in the sport. I know a TON of people that buy new rods quite often because they just want one.

    My opinion? This particular shop owner is getting tired of handling the processing and shipping of broken rods for customers. Don't want to do it? Stop offering it to your customers and let them ship their own.

    I think this whole thing is a joke. When I buy a new rod, warranty is a huge consideration. If most manufacturers get rid of their warranties, I'll buy from the few who keep them. If they all remove them, I'll start building my own.

    In the meantime, I'll be patronizing the same types of shops as you...the ones who still actually care about the customer first and foremost. Great topic!

  4. Fly fishing and industry not sitting well together? Balance in the universe, there is.

    The best steelhead fisherman of the American West made his own gear out of scrap.

    Fat Nancy says hi.

  5. I read the article too at Angling Trade. I think I agree with your opinion Steve. Fly shops also need to decide what role they want to play in an increasingly online society. Take a look at the CA-based Flyshop. They produce their own line of rods and have both in-store and e-commerce enabled experiences. In short, they are prepared for the modern customer. Just as fly shops have adopted new systems to manage their inventory or apps to to manage appointments for their guides, they have to start considering that customers want and expect convenience, and to be able to shop the way they want. Now, what does that mean for warranties? It means that there ought to be some choices in warranties - for shoppers of different ilk. I agree with having different levels of warranties because there are reasons not to buy a lifetime warranty sometimes. And you better believe the cost of that warranty is included in the price of the rod. They've done the math or they wouldn't offer it. But rod warranties are NOT keeping anglers from buying new rods from fly shops. Fly shops are not doing enough to market their value in addition to the rod purchase - their know how, local expertise, etc. Why not bundle new rods with guided trips? Why not bundle new rods with gear - and not just rod cases. Why not develop an in-house rewards systems, points that can be used against any purchase. See - the key is that fly shops have to find a way to compete on their strengths or the market will continue to evolve and leave them behind - and we would all hate to see that happen.

    I recently went into The Backwater Angler because I went to the Gunpowder River and left my reel case behind. I thought - what a perfect excuse to shop for a new reel! Even though the shop owner offered to rent me a reel, I wanted him to take me through his stock and to have a conversation about the product. He had me bring my rod in and we tried several reels on the rod, and I walked out with a really nice new Ross reel. It has a lifetime warranty, but will that stop me from shopping at Backwater Angler for future reels, maybe a rod? Hell no, because I wanted the personal interaction and the comradery that comes from knowing your local fly shop owner. That's the value of shopping in-person at a fly shop. Now, I can tell you what I don't want to do - I don't want to go into a fly shop and buy a rod, and then get asked if I want to buy the warranty like I'm shopping in Best Buy. That's just not all that interesting. You feel like just a customer when things get that transactional. But I can also tell you that I've visited some fly shops where that's how they made me feel, like a customer at a Best Buy, with no real interaction, just a how can I get you into that car attitude. Those fly shops I don't return to. So I guess I'm saying, fly shops have to sell service, let the rod companies sell parts and repairs.

    1. I like the personal attention though in some shops, I'd take a grunt of recognition.

  6. Lucky me, my wife purchased a guided trip on the Farmington and I went yesterday. As I always do after a trip up there I take notes in in my FRAA's A Guide to Fishing the Farmington River. I mark spots off on my map with GPS coordinates, flies used, weather conditions, fish caught or missed, and other important information. I love to thumb through my well worn booklet looking back on previous self guided trips. As I was nearing its end where all the advertisements are located I connected back to your post and realized just how many fly shops that have either retired or have just gone belly up. Classic and Custom, North Cove Outfitters, Quinnipiac Fly Shop, Mill River Fly Shop, Cubetas, and Quiet Sports are either retired or have gone out of business.

    Fly shops must be incredibly difficult to run, run well, and make profitable.