Midnight in the Temple of Man (Toys)

A taxidermy scene from the Kansas City, Kansas, Cabela’s store. (PHOTO: Dean Hochman, Flickr CC)

Growing up on Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, the occasional family trip to Duluth gave us a rare view of the chain stores and restaurants seen only on our television set. Every family member demanded a stop at their favorite destination. A second-hand clothing store for one sister. Designer clothes for the other. The big book store for mom and me.

But for my dad, an avid shooter and hunter, it was always Gander Mountain. The first big national outdoors-themed box store in Northern Minnesota, many a man (and a few women, don’cha know!) looked to this store as the mecca of rough-and-tumble recreation.

In the years that followed, I have sat in many a room where Iron Range leaders and citizens pled with the Gods of Economic Development that They deliver a Gander Mountain, Cabela’s, or Bass Pro Shop to our land. The gods failed us, time and again. This necessitated many long drives to Duluth or the Twin Cities for the prototypical hunter, angler, gun slinger or camper. (Yes, camping too! For the “greenies” in your family).

As the suburbs sprawled out over the farmlands, big outdoor retailers consumed acres of land for enormous stores and parking lots. During a visit to the Twin Cities a couple years ago, we walked into a Cabela’s to find a table where you could sign up for membership in the National Rifle Association. Indeed, a whole lifestyle and ideology was literally for sale. Just lay your money down.

Well, some people still lay down their money for the goods available at these stores. Some come for the guns, others for the fishing supplies. If you ever need a hat declaring your allegiance to Winchester or Browning brand guns and ammunition, you know where to go.

But the era of expansion for these stores has ended. Now, we are seeing signs of retreat, even though the t-shirts clearly say “these colors don’t run.”

Last week, Reuters and others reported that the outdoors retailer Gander Mountain was preparing to file bankruptcy.

Gander Mountain’s woes mirror other outdoors giants. In recent months, Cabela’s announced an agreement to allow rival Bass Pro Shops to acquire the company. All of this comes amid shrinking market share. However, more recent news shows that anti-trust concerns and other complications might foul up the sale. So we’re not sure what will happen.

The big problems facing outdoor retailers is this. Their prime customers are aging. And while Democratic presidencies allow the NRA to scare people into hoarding guns, Republican presidencies expose the flaw in that logic. Why, it’s entirely possible that one doesn’t need an underground bunker full of weapons! Particularly since having such a cache doesn’t qualify as retirement planning. Indeed, we must wrestle with the notion that no one ever was going to confiscate your guns, and that such a belief best serves the people who make and sell guns.

Arguably a bigger problem is this. The numbers of people fishing and hunting drops each year. No, “the end” of these activities won’t come. Hunting and fishing remain vital parts of the culture, particularly in rural areas. Nevertheless, we have yet to determine exactly how many millennials will take up this way of life going forward. Probably not enough to justify these shrines of manliness out on the edge of metropolitan areas.

So, what happens to Gander Mountain? How will Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops adjust for a changing marketplace? It’s hard to say. I don’t think there will be as many of these stores going forward. It might even be that small, locally owned shops near the people who actually do the hunting and fishing would be the best way for people to get the supplies they need.

Salvation for the true outdoors enthusiast is found outdoors, not at the end of a long four-lane highway. Yet, it’s hard to pass up the spectacle of a shrine, no matter what it worships.

Comments

  1. Lifestyle change in the US, with reduced interest in hunting and fishing, has had its impact on the big outdoor stores — a friend of mine lives in a wooded rural area in another state where they have to hire people to shoot deer due to overpopulation and have experimented with putting birth control for deer in salt licks, this in an area where fifty years ago deer hunting was part of the culture as much as it is in the Upper Midwest. People own pistols “for protection,” but few have rifles and few own much in the line of fishing gear.

    However, my guess is that what has really killed the big stores is the internet. You can buy entry level to top flight fishing equipment from Amazon, and there are many companies selling firearms, ammunition, hunting and fishing equipment and supplies, and outdoor equipment of all sorts online. Why take a long drive to a store when you can order online and have free delivery to your door, usually for a price that the stores cannot match? Cabela’s, Bass Pro, and Gander Mountain are suffering from the same thing as Sears, Penney’s, and Macy’s, with more and more of their business disappearing to online competitors who don’t face the costs of real estate, large inventories, and large numbers of employees.

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