FlyFishing Retailer Expo encourages market to broaden horizons

Today's fly-fishing industry is simultaneously making incredible technical innovations when it comes to product, while remaining seemingly slow to change when it comes to retail operations. The 2008 FlyFishing Retailer Expo in Denver from Sept. 14-16 followed that pattern somewhat, but the slow economy meant product innovation was centered more or less around tweaks, and manufacturers were looking for ways to encourage more out-of-the-box thinking in retailers.
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Today's fly-fishing industry is simultaneously making incredible technical innovations when it comes to product, while remaining seemingly slow to change when it comes to retail operations. The 2008 FlyFishing Retailer Expo in Denver from Sept. 14-16 followed that pattern somewhat, but the slow economy meant product innovation was centered more or less around tweaks, and manufacturers were looking for ways to encourage more out-of-the-box thinking in retailers. By all metrics the show was a success, especially considering that it took place as the stock market was tumbling and after a year when lingering snowpacks killed early season business in much of the West.

"The show was solid. In fact, it was very good considering we had a 10-percent drop in attendance," said Kenji Haroutunian, show director for both Nielsen-owned FlyFishing Retailer and Outdoor Retailer trade shows, pointing to big shows like MAGIC and WSA, which experienced 25-percent to 30-percent drops in attendance. "It was a lot more like Outdoor Retailer [which exceeded expectations despite a slight drop in attendance] in that respect, but the fly market is much more tied to general market trends. It's a bit more of an elite purchase, and people are taking fewer extravagant trips to places like Kamatchka," he said.

The show began with a Leisure Trends state of the survey report that confirmed what most in the industry instinctively knew: In the three years since the last survey, the number of fly-fishing specialty retailers dropped 9 percent.

There have been shots of new energy in the market, however. The new president of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association (AFFTA), formerly of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, promised to provide research to AFFTA members for free instead of selling it, as had been the previous policy. Young independent filmmakers -- including Tom Bie, publisher of The Drake fly-fishing magazine and creator of The Drake Video Contest -- may not be the new thing they were a few years back, but they continued to open the show to new demographics. And, the upcoming release of the Hollywood film, "The River Why," based on the book by James David Duncan and starring William Hurt, had attendees hoping for another mainstream "A River Runs Through It" type surge in the sport's popularity.

On the floor, brands were repositioning and playing much more of a market share game than at previous shows. Value products continue to sell. It's tough to go wrong even in a non-fishing-specific retail store with an outfit like Reddington's all-inclusive lifetime warranty package for $149. When it came to waders, Simms jumped ahead of the curve by offering Vibram-soled boots in expectation of a Trout Unlimited ban on felt soles because the fabric picks up destructive invasive species.

On the high end of hardgoods, everyone is making rods and reels lighter, and more companies have responded to a demand for species-specific rods, including bass rods and even a new bluegill rod from Sage. "You used to see species-specific lines, now the trend is to rods, which actually makes more sense," Bie noted.

The most intriguing product innovations continued to be in two-handed spey rods. While the speys of the past few shows have been primarily 14-foot beasts built for one style of fishing, new dynamic 7-foot to 10-foot "switch" rods can be cast either in the standard one-hand style or two-handed for casts with lots of brush on the banks. Orvis, Scott and Sage have all started offering switch rods.

The merging of the outdoor and fly-fishing industries, as well as the introduction of lifestyle products in stores, seems to be one of the best options retailers have to move more products. While some transitory outdoor-focused brands, most notably Cloudveil, did not exhibit, many other new exhibitors angled to sell products that were not rods, reels or waders to fly-fishing retailers. After all, in the outdoor market, lifestyle products makes up half of retail sales.

"It seems a natural extension for shops to extend their reach by carrying our products," said John Smithbaker, owner of North American Gear, which distributes Primus stoves and Origo watches and only sells to specialty retailers. It exhibited at the show for the first time. "Fly-fishermen go to REI to buy this stuff. Why not capture them when they are in the fly shop. Some retailers get it. Some don't."

The brand that is doing the most to try to blur, or perhaps merge, the strict divisions between fly-fishing, outdoor and lifestyle is Colorado-based Fishpond. It came to the FlyFishing Retailer show with an assortment of vests and bags that are rooted in core fly-fishing yet stylish enough to catch the eye of non-fishing customers.

"Our roots are always going to be in fishing," said Fishpond co-owner John Le Coq. "But we want to try to help retailers realize that it can be about more than fishing. It's not just about the fish. It's about the places we go to fish. It's about the lifestyle."

Larger brands like Orvis, which supplies everything from high-end rods and reels to lifestyle apparel, are trying to help retailers "get it" when it comes to running a leaner business. Orvis has been developing better web ordering package software that company representatives said should make it easier for retailers to conduct business with the company.

"We are developing packages based off our consumer site that will make it easier for retailers and take us into the future," said Bill Reed, director of wholesale at Orvis. He added that these efforts would continue as Orvis offered even more web knowledge partnerships to retailers to help improve search engine optimization (SEO) and drive sales. "That way, we all win," he added.

The most obvious category for growth at retail is in kayaks. Fishing kayaks have revitalized the paddling industry -- Johnson Outdoors claims to have tripled its kayak fishing sales from 2004 to 2007 -- and paddlesports brands like Malibu exhibited at the show. Despite this, fly-fishing retailers have not been quick to carry kayaks in their shops.

Show management is trying to bridge the gap and flew-in a handful of manufacturers, including Johnson Outdoors, and retailers, including Wisconsin-based paddlesports retailer Rutabaga, to the show to provide information and share their experiences. But it may be awhile before the industry embraces paddling on the retail level.

"I see a lot of potential for crossover, but it would take concerted effort and leadership in both industries to make it happen. As a paddler and an angler (and a fly-fisherman), it intrigues me, but it seems like a lot of fly-fishing folks sorta like it the way it is," said Rutabaga owner Darren Bush.

As the industry develops, Haroutunian, whose background is in retail, hopes that fly-fishing retailers see the show as more than a buying showcase. "You can't just do the same thing every year," he said. "The show should inspire and reset the minds of the people who run the business day-to-day. They should see the future of the market."

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