Time tested hunting retailers prevail

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Published: October 10,2010

Tags: column, Dr. John J. Woods

Ever wonder that the real secret is to success in operating a small business?  Well, just look around.  Who is still in business today that was in business when you were a kid or maybe even just 20 plus years ago?  Maybe the ownership has changed, but the name and the way of doing business has not.  Maybe the kids took over the business using the same principals taught to them by their parents.  Therein lays the secrets to success.

Across the small business landscape in Mississippi are all kinds of so-called mom-and-pop businesses that have withstood the tests of time including the up trends and the steep valleys.  These businesses might be a neighborhood grocery store, a car dealership, a hamburger joint, a jewelry store, a farm supply house or any other of dozens of small entrepreneurial ventures that passed the test and still ring in profits today.

The same is true for the retailers of hunting and fishing equipment across the state.  When I arrived in Mississippi in 1983 everyone talked about the old Hunt and Whitaker outdoor store in that strip mall near where Books’ A Million is in Jackson now.

When I walked through those doors as a hunter, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  That store had it all especially lots of my favorite brand Browning, which can still be hard to find in certain outlets.  They had the “upscale” merchandise for the time.  Mississippi hunters have always loved the best hunting and fishing gear even if it was out of our price range.  We saved up and bought it.  Every time I came to town I had to stop in there.  Building customer repeatability is part of the success quotient.

Then I moved to Clinton in 1991 and immediately found the old location of Surplus City on Highway 80 just west of the Metro Mall.  They now have their two stores right here in Clinton for regular visits to settle this outdoorsman’s jitters.  The old store was like museum, but it was literally wall-to-wall stocked in outdoors stuff.  The “Good Stuff” as the bottled tea advertisement says.  That is part of the success equation.

As I travel across the state from time to time, I try to stop into all the “best” outdoor stores, but am certain I have missed many of them.

On the list I have checked off includes the old Hunt and Whitaker, Surplus City in Clinton, Van’s in Brandon, Big Buck Sports in Hattiesburg, The Sportsman in Greenville, Haddad’s in Vicksburg, Bowie Outfitters in Natchez, Bill’s Archery in Pearl, Hunter’s Haven in Tupelo, Waldo’s Sportscenter in Columbia and Hunter’s Hollow in Oxford.

Profiling Hunter’s Hollow

One of the factors that seems to be a major contributor to a small business success is a true passion for the business.  Some have it, some don’t.  Donny Guest, owner of Hunter’s Hollow in Oxford, has it.  But he earned it the hard way.  He paid his dues as it were.

“I started out in my garage in 1981 selling archery equipment in Corinth.  In 1985 I moved to Oakland to open a bait shop on Enid Reservoir and continued to sell bow hunting gear.  In 1987 I gave up the bait shop, because I tired of missing church to a Sunday business.  So, I moved to Water Valley and opened Archery Haven in addition to working a full-time job at a nearby lawn mower plant,” says Guest.

“The archery business continued to grow to the point that I was working all day at the factory and all night on the bows.  In 1988 I moved to Oxford opening a full-time archery and hunting store with a partner.  That was D&B Outfitters.  I bought out the partner in 1992 and changed our name to Hunter’s Hollow.  The rest is history.”

“My business has never declined since 1988 and continues to grow.  I credit the Lord with my success.  Sales have gone from $65,000 in ’88 to almost $2 million in 2009.  This year will be my 22nd year in business.  We are very family-oriented and I love to hunt with my two sons,” Guest declared.

That love of the business, the Lord and family has made his success.  I suspect a few other things, as well.  If you walk into Hunter’s Hollow you find a well equipped store from guns, to bows, hunting clothing, boots, accessories, all in the top brand names outdoors enthusiasts want.  You also find comfortable customer service and knowledgeable employees.  Those benchmarks make for a successful small business.

Sustainability Factors

What makes a small business profitable?  It’s a big pizza pie in which all of the pieces have to be there to make the whole work.  One missing “slice” can make all the difference in the world in tripping up the black in the ledger book.

Among the sustainability or success factors are these.  Owner presence is essential.  Every small business I have seen “run” by a non-owning manager usually gets run into the ground.  There is definitely something to the old adage that “nobody will do the job as well as you will yourself.”

Next is having a well-stocked, well-organized, clean shopping environment.  Signage is good to mark off “department” areas of a store if the building is large.  Refrain from putting too much stuff blocking a shopper’s eye view of the whole store layout.

For hunters certain brands are critical.  If you don’t have it, offer to order it, but you’re better off having it. If you have Browning clothing and accessories, you are going to get into my wallet.  Ditto on Remington, Mossy Oak, Muck Boots and Carhart. Bow hunters are the worst.  A wide selection of products across a wide price point is best.

The sales staff must have product knowledge. I pose as a secret shopper all the time for various outdoor supply outlets, moms-and-pops and big box stores.  It is amazing the mis-information I hear doled out. Some of these sales floor people are outright product ignorant.  There is no excuse for not knowing about what you sell.

The final part of the secret formula to small business success is compassionate customer service.  I like help when I want it, but detest being shadowed or hounded.  That can be a very fine line to walk as a retailer.  You want to let customers look around the store and fall victim to impulse buying, or show them directly to an item they are searching for, but you don’t want to stand over them or pressure a purchase.

What I have found in experience is that the time tested outdoor retailers do all of these sustainability things pretty darn well.  Maybe not all the time, but most of the time, year in and year out.  That is their proven secret to success.

Dr. John J. Woods, Ph.D., is vice president in charge of economic development and training, Eagle Ridge Conference and Training Center, the Workforce Development Center and contract training services at Hinds Community College in Raymond.

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