Iconic outdoors retailer closes after slow decline, poor customer service
A few months ago, I left the doctor’s office after an annual physical and thought I would reward myself with a visit to one of my long-time favorite outdoor supply hangouts in Clinton. Ask if I was shocked when I rolled into the parking lot to see a huge sign on the side of both Surplus City buildings declaring a “Retirement Sale.”
When I entered the main retail store I was greeted as usual. That is to say I wasn’t. Sometimes it is a comfort to know some things never change, but frankly in retailing that conduct wears on the business.
I asked what was going on and the lady on her perpetual stool location behind the counter informed me that the store was closing. There was a big sale going on (finally) and the prediction was the shop would be closed in two months. That was last September and Surplus City is now gone.
Iconic Outdoor Store
If ever there was an iconic hunting and fishing supply store in the Jackson area perhaps outside of the old Hunt and Whitaker store where Books-A-Million is now, it was Surplus City. When I moved to Mississippi in 1983, I was told about this store and every time I made a trip to the Capitol City, it had to include a stop there.
When I first encountered Surplus City, it was at their location on Highway 80 West down from the corner at Robinson Road near the Metro Mall. Whenever I visited the one-way parking lot was lined with cars and trucks. I never went in there that the sales floor was not dotted with shoppers buying gear for hunting, fishing, camping and general outdoors recreation.
They had everything in that store from the finest Browning shotguns, Smith and Wesson and Ruger handguns, hunting rifles to archery equipment, optics, ammo, casual and hunting clothing, boots, tents, flashlights, camping gear, you name it. They actually did have some so-called surplus items, as well.
It was fun to go in that store because it was lined with game mounts, flying ducks and geese everywhere. Later my daughter wanted to go again just to see the black bear mounted in the glass case greeting customers just inside the front door.
Every hunter and angler I ran into around the state while working on outdoor assignments knew about Surplus City. That was long before Bass Pro Shops, Academy, Dick’s and many of the other smaller mom and pop shops around the Metro area. Surplus City was it.
Having thought about all this, I think the main draw to Surplus City in those days was the extensive inventory. If there was something you needed outdoors wise, this was the most likely place to find it. So, what happened?
Smart Move, Tough Move
As the neighborhood toughened around the Metrocenter, customers began to shy away from that Surplus City location. It probably was a tough decision, but patriarch owner Whimpy Thomas decided to move to Clinton across the street from Wal-Mart. They built a new retail building with a big parking lot, and later a smaller shop to include two indoor shooting ranges for rifles and handguns plus a training room and a downsized retail area, as well.
Over time they seemed to have weathered the relocation which is always tough on a business. Some said a location closer to Interstate 20 would have been a better call, but the new site was easy enough to access. If the shop is a good one, then the customers will find their way to it. I mean, look at Van’s in Brandon. Talk about an out of the mainstream location. I wish he’d open another store… in Clinton.
Was this move the first roll of the downhill snowball ending the business? I don’t think so. Usually when a business fails, it is the result of poor management. As an outdoors retail business analyst, I could find plenty wrong with how Surplus City was operated. Those characteristics contributed heavily to their demise.
Modernize, Brighten Up, and Promote
To be frank and honest, when you walked into Surplus City it was dark, dingy, drab and lifeless. What signage was noted around the sales floor was something written out on a piece of white paper or cardboard, sometimes misspelled. The whole place was poorly maintained, not dirty, just uninspiring. Contrast it with a Bass Pro Shop environment.
I cannot recall this business ever having a storewide promotion other than a limited once a year sale. I never saw national outdoors equipment reps there or any events to promote the store. They had the perfect spot outside to do it but not the initiative or inclination. They simply missed the boat on that one.
Customer Service Rules
Once the closing was evident, the usual comment I got from other outdoors contacts was damagingly similar. “I quit going in there because either you could not get any service or somebody shadowed you like you were going to shoplift.” “There was only one sales person in there that knew anything about guns, but you had to hit him on a good day.” I heard renditions of these remarks over and over. So, what does this say?
People shop and spend their money where their business is attended to and appreciated. When all else fails, customer service is paramount even if nothing is purchased. A simple greeting, shopping inquiry and willingness to get off a stool to demonstrate a product is essential to making sales. Every business cannot survive on self-service, especially for outdoors gear.
I hated to see Surplus City close its doors. Could they have turned it around? With a change of management and work on marketing and sales promotions, maybe. Selling hunting and fishing outdoors gear is tough enough today without the right focus on essential retailing business skills. And that focus is not limited to outdoors stores either.
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