Whether your company is still relatively new to online retail or established in e-commerce, Amazon.com has an impact on your sales. As the gigantic online sales portal that continues to swallow markets like an insatiable black hole, Amazon is a force that cannot be ignored.
Some retailers find success in concentrating on all the benefits of maintaining a highly curated, neighborhood outlet of products with expert sales staff to guide customers. Others venture into online retail with their own website as an extension of their brand and “brick-and-mortar” store, a way of attracting more customers and increasing sales during the off season. Then, another set of retailers go all out on the internet, putting large investments into their website technology and joining forces with other online retailers—even Amazon, making them a partner rather than a competitor.
Whichever type of retailer you are or want to become, these stories about two approaches by a couple of fly fishing gear retailers may give you some ideas for both your physical store as well as your online one. Both companies, RIGS Fly Shop & Guide Service in Ridgway, Colo. and ReelFlyRod Fly Fishing Outfitters in Dayton, Ohio, focus on high quality products and top-notch customer service, but so far, they have chosen to take different tacks with their online business. Maybe you’ll see a bit of your own company in one story or both, and maybe they’ll inspire you to go in a new direction. Either way, we hope you will enjoy stepping out of the green industry for a few moments to see how companies in another industry are tackling similar challenges.
Staying Competitive as a Local Specialty Retailer
Ridgway Independent Guide Service LLC (RIGS) was founded nearly two decades ago in 2001. The family-owned and operated business is located in the town of Ridgway between its more famous neighbors, Telluride and Ouray.
As the business obtained permits for guided fly fishing and rafting on local and regional rivers and lakes, RIGS Fly Shop began to grow to meet its customers’ gear needs. Owners, Tim and Heather Patterson, carefully built up their inventory to provide the highest quality products, most suited to the area’s activities and environment, based in large part on Tim’s expertise from guiding fly fishing and rafting trips since 1991.
“We opened our online store about five years ago. Since a majority of our business operates seasonally, we wanted to develop ways to extend our sales in the off season to help insure we could keep the most current and relevant products in stock year round. We also saw the online store as a platform that could help justify retaining employees year round by helping occupy ourselves in the off season,” said Tim.
“Although it’s difficult to compete on a high level with a small boutique online store, it has helped make us better retailers by forcing us to better control and analyze our inventory, while at the same time, giving us a more relevant look and feel online in general. I’m a firm believer that staying relevant in the marketplace is step one in customer acceptance,” he added.
RIGS online shop (fishrigs.com) still makes up only a small amount of the business’s overall sales, but it is an important portal where customers can learn about guided trips and get plenty of good information about river and lake recreation in southwest Colorado, as well as specialized trips in tropical destinations.
“We try to hand-select unique and diverse products from small and large vendors, trying to cherry pick what we feel are the latest, greatest, coolest things. Part of it is trying to be relevant each new season, and not being caught carrying over stale products just because you have them. It’s better to blow it out on sale and lose some money, so I can just get those dollars back and repurpose them,” he said.
The careful selection of inventory goes hand-in-hand with deliberately creating the appearance and layout of the “brick-and-mortar” shop to demonstrate the high level of quality and expertise expected by the specialty retail customers who visit. They are coming in for knowledge and information, and the RIGS staff is a resource for that.
“We also try to personalize the buying experience, ask great questions of customers, and get them what they need,” he explained. “When they walk in and its clean, professional and relevant, and our people are nice and informative, it really builds consumer confidence and influences purchasing decisions for both our guided trips and recommended products.”
He can relate to his customers because he also visits local fly shops when traveling. He knows they are the best source of information and expert advice on the fishing in their area.
“I love supporting other shops and seeing how they do it, buying some flies and tackle to help support them,” he said. “Specialty service and attention to detail is really the driving force to create customers. I think a lot of customers are passionate about that, and if they like you and think you’re working hard, they’ll buy from you.”
RIGS makes more online sales during the winter months, which works out well since the staff has more time for online orders than in the busy summer months. The online store is also a great conduit for selling discontinued items.
“There seems to be this phenomenon that the shirt we couldn’t sell last season becomes the shirt every online customer has to get their hands on, so we end up selling for full retail price online what we couldn’t sell in the shop,” he explained.
His only online sales are through his website, rather than selling on Amazon or other third-party sites. He believes both his customers and vendors appreciate the independent retail experience that would not be possible through multinational giants.
“I have found success in staying relevant, current, active, and specialized. Those are the key concepts that seem to resonate with our customers,” he concluded. “We are unique as a small local vendor where you can source carefully curated products from experts. I think our customers make online purchases with us rather than a google search, because they know and like us and want to support us.”
Partnering with Amazon to Grow Your Business
Since opening 14 years ago in Dayton, Ohio, ReelFlyRod Fly Fishing Outfitters has grown into a team of seven fly fishing pros who share 60-plus years of combined experience. By starting out with a focus on developing both its physical and online stores (ReelFlyRod.com), the company has become one of the top dealers in the U.S. for every major brand it carries, with customers around the world.
“We have a beautiful storefront in Dayton. We guide our local area streams. I do a lot of work with clubs, park districts and other local organizations, but 98% of our business is selling through e-commerce,” said ReelFlyRod General Manager and Head Guide Matthew Parker, aka Parker.
ReelFlyRod started out with its own website, an eBay store and a fly shop, which is the base of its guiding operations. Later, the company began listing products on other third-party sites including Amazon.com. The sales volume on Amazon alone has grown into a multimillion dollar business.
“The more exposure that any business gets can help it grow. We have found that eBay and especially Amazon can attract the most customers. Amazon gets viewed 100,000 times more than our website, so it allows us to get new customers,” Parker said.
Amazon is also a place to find out if there’s a market for products that are not selling well on the company’s own website. “That allows our manufacturers to say, ‘We have this item. Can you see if it sells?’ Amazon is often a great driver to see if products will pop or not pop. It helps us forecast what not to bring in throughout the season,” he explained.
While some customers only want to shop on Amazon, ReelFlyRod communicates directly with customers and provides incentives for them to become long-term purchasers directly on its website. A new reward system only tied to the company’s site allows customers to earn points through purchasing and doing reviews as well as birthday bonuses that all add up to discounts.
“To retain customers, we make sure we get their package to them and it’s correct. We also put notes in the box that say who we are. Lastly is the customer service experience. If something goes wrong, we address it quickly to try to retain that customer. A very low percentage of customers are new, so we really try hard to bring someone directly to our fly shop or our own website,” he said.
“Each one of my employees is trained to go above and beyond to meet each customer’s individual needs on a daily basis. We want to make sure they are 100% satisfied. We try to provide the best customer service so that each customer, whether they start out with a negative or great interaction with us, is still satisfied at the end of the day. A lot of customers in the fly fishing world tell their friends and that’s how we’ve grown organically,” he added.
Good communication with customers is critical, whether through emails or the promotional literature online. The product descriptions start with the manufacturers’ suggested promotional language, and then the store staff builds on that with additional suggestions on product use and features. They use both staff and customer reviews to increase customer understanding. While most product photos come from the manufacturers, which have experienced professionals creating them, staff and customer photos are used when useful, such as for customized packages created by the shop.
This year, the company spent a couple thousand dollars in website updates. While it pays for monthly IT (information technology) services to support its websites, the staff also includes a couple of website-savvy guys, which is more cost effective than hiring out all those services.
“Every single person in the shop knows how to cross over into other people’s job roles and descriptions, not into all areas but into most. We’re big enough that there’s a few specialized roles, but at the end of the day, some skills and knowledge are shared equally among us. I think that really helps because each customer can get the same service level,” he explained.
Employee training is a lot more involved and lengthy due to the shared responsibilities. Rather than a three to four-day training period, it can take up to six months to get a new employee up to the desired service level. Since the shop’s staff is full of independent spirits as is the nature of fly fishing guides, they tend to get more job satisfaction out of being able to take care of customers without extra help from co-workers.
Happy employees and happy customers is what it’s all about. As Parker summarized, “Number one: you have to have a good website to display your products well so people can find correct information. Second is going out there and finding those third-party websites that will perform well for you. Our metrics show that Amazon is the best at selling our products, but you may want to have additional platforms as well. And customer service is third. We are going above and beyond to make sure that we keep that customer. The main reason is: it’s very hard to get a new customer.”