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Retailing challenges demand hard work, creativity

This world is replete with risks great and small. Among the most daring that comes to mind for an individual is starting up a new business in an uncertain economy.

This type of entrepreneurial gamble is even more complicated in the field of retailing when the targeted product market relies in great part on seasonal activities like hunting and fishing. It takes plenty of creativity and a ton of determination to make a venture like this succeed.

Now consider Chris Bates and the Mean Mallard outdoor store in Jackson.

Risk venture in practice

Just a few years ago, Bates bought the Mean Mallard from Jeff Speed, who had created a store with a special identity and developed a considerable customer base over the years. From a customer’s standpoint the Mean Mallard meant access to a wide variety of upscale hunting and fishing products that were not available anywhere else in the Capital City. The brands he offered represented reputations for some of the highest quality merchandise in the outdoor marketplace. In a very short time, new owner Bates has taken the store to an even higher level with individualized customer care being its trademark service.

When Speed moved the Mean Mallard from the Reservoir to the mid-city area off Interstate 55 and Northside Drive, the store took over the site previously occupied by the Bennigan’s restaurant. It never quite looked like they ever completely moved into the new location.

“The same day I signed the deal to buy this business, we had a crew inside the store to begin the remodeling process. Trying to create a natural customer flow from one product area to the next in an old restaurant environment was our first challenge,” Bates explains.

That’s where a long list of challenges began.

The retail learning curve

Chris came to retailing and the Mean Mallard with some good experiences, but he recognized early on that it was going to be an uphill climb.

“Before I went into private business I worked in the non-profit sector. I was used to doing a lot of things on a shoestring budget,” he says.

He quickly learned to streamline his business practices to do more with less in a very efficient manner. But Bates realized one thing up front. He didn’t have all the answers.

“I was smart enough to know I needed help. I called on a network of contacts in business to give me seasoned advice. I hired a retailing consultant to help with me with the tough issues of buying and merchandising. It was money well spent,” Bates says.

After remodeling the layout of the store, he added some new sales areas and expanded others. To help with seasonal cash flow issues, he focused on offering a more diverse product line and other services customers would need all year long. That was crucial to keep clients coming back for regular repeat sales, the cornerstone of any successful business.

Chris then turned to updating the old sales staff with individuals that fit the profile his own business concept required.

“I wanted to present a certain image to my customers that was focused on product knowledge and individualized service. Mean Mallard employees had to be the right kind of person with the right kind of life experiences. They had to know the outdoors, but they also had to have an approachable personality. If they had that, I could teach them the business,” he says. His formula for success is obviously working.

“If you get into the outdoor retail business only because you love to hunt and fish, that is a huge mistake. Business always comes first, and everything else comes second. I grew up hunting and try to go as often as I can. My company is named Heritage Ventures because of the family values I was taught to appreciate the great outdoors. Even so, that background alone is not going to make me a successful businessman or pay the bills,” Bates says.

Fast forward to new challenges

Successful entrepreneurs are rarely satisfied with the status quo. Mean Mallard has already taken another quantum leap. This month the store opened its new location in Ridgeland on Highway 51 in the building once occupied by 84 Lumber.

The new business site has undergone a complete extreme makeover. The retail operation will increase from about 7,400 square feet to 16,000. This will greatly expand merchandising floor space to allow for much needed room to enlarge several departments including firearms, bow hunting equipment, fishing and camping gear.

The extra outside space will give Mean Mallard the opportunity to add new product lines that would benefit from outdoor demonstration areas. This will include a sizeable display of hunting treestands and shooting houses of various types. The additional outdoor area also relieves the parking congestion experienced at the old location. Full service deer meat processing will continue at the new store as well.

The new store layout will also include an archery shooting range with sponsored shooting leagues. A “community room” has been designed for employee training or vendor product demonstrations. This meeting space will be available for local outdoor sporting groups, conservation and wildlife organizations as well as hunter safety education classes.

“My greatest hope for this new location is that it will truly become an ‘outdoorsman’s complex’ offering outdoor enthusiasts a unique one-stop destination for all their outdoor gear and supply needs. Our strongest asset will be selling customer service and convenience. One of the rewards I have experienced in owning this business is seeing Mean Mallard become a central clearinghouse for current outdoor recreational information. We thrive on contributing to a customer’s success in the field,” Bates says.

Retailing is just one more aspect of the outdoors economic development formula in Mississippi. It takes a determined spirit and savvy entrepreneurship to take on the risk of starting a small business in today’s climate. Chris Bates took on the challenge — proving that this Mean Mallard is one savvy duck.

John J. Woods of Clinton is an award-winning outdoor freelance journalist. His column appears monthly in the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at johnjwoods@hotmail.com.

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