Luring 'Em In
Who cares about prices? Bass Pro Shops hooks customers with tuna and taxidermy.
By Bridget Finn

(Business 2.0) – At the Bass Pro Shops flagship store in Springfield, Mo.--the largest hunting and fishing outlet in the country--avid archer Fred Baum strolls among stuffed bears, bobcats, and elk, and then heads to an in-store art gallery to admire portraits of waterfowl. His hunting buddy Chris fires .223-caliber shells out of a Winchester rifle at the shooting range, and Baum's grandkids ogle largemouth bass in the 64,000-gallon aquarium. (A nearby bass tank labeled "Nuthin' but Hawgs" stocks 20-pounders.) Arriving on a crisp fall afternoon, Baum was hoping to buy a camouflage tent for hunting; by nightfall he has purchased not only the tent but also two dozen arrows, a handful of broadheads, some plastic nocks (grooved fittings for attaching arrows to bowstrings), and a $100 styrofoam deer. "I'd much rather go to Bass Pro than to Disney World," he says.

Whether or not taking down a five-point buck is your idea of fun, a look at Bass Pro proves that selling is about more than competing on price. Companies from Apple Computer to Britain's Selfridges department store chain lure customers with great experiences, but nobody uses pizzazz to reel in sales the way Bass Pro does. The 300,000-square-foot Springfield store is Missouri's top tourist attraction, a retail mecca with more than 4 million annual visitors. (Springfield hotels advertise proximity to it, and one recent first-time customer fell to his knees and kissed the bass that's molded into the lobby floor.) There are now 25 outlets scattered across North America from Toronto to Dallas: The Las Vegas Bass Pro hosts a live mermaid show, while the Atlanta store boasts a climbing wall. Thin margins make the retail industry notoriously skimpy when it comes to frills, but with 60 million visitors a year, annual sales topping $1.6 billion, and (according to the private company) healthy profits, Bass Pro is thriving in an age of discounters and online merchants. "A number of retailers in different categories are looking at Bass Pro and asking if they should use similar strategies," says Darrell Rigby, a partner and retail specialist at consultancy Bain.

Rigby notes that so-called experiential retail isn't always a sure thing. (Think the Disney Store and Planet Hollywood.) Building and maintaining in-store amusements is expensive and makes sense only if the costs are covered by higher traffic and profits. For a retailer its size, Bass Pro barely advertises at all, yet its average customer travels two hours to its stores and shops for more than three hours. (Other retailers typically see averages of 15-minute drives and 30-minute visits.) For hints about Bass Pro's profitability, analysts look at competitor Cabela's, a publicly traded chain with 10 stores laid out in Bass Pro's image, as a proxy. Cabela's net profit margin hovers around 4 percent--slightly higher than Wal-Mart's. "The model works in this category because customers are passionate about their sports," says Bob Simonson, leisure analyst at William Blair.

Bass Pro founder John Morris certainly agrees. In 1972, then 24 years old, Morris started stocking hard-to-find fishing baits in the back of his dad's liquor store. Strategically positioned on the road to Springfield's Table Rock Lake, the shop attracted anglers who lingered over cold beers to debate, among other topics, the relative merits of spinners and cranks for catching bass. Morris launched a catalog and opened the Springfield store simply to showcase his wares. Then, on a trip through Europe in the 1980s, he discovered a hunting retailer with its own firing range and decided that Bass Pro should similarly offer the experiences of firing guns and shooting arrows. Before long, he'd outfitted the Springfield store with firing and archery ranges, a four-story waterfall, five fishponds, and, of course, the taxidermy museum.

Today, Bass Pro VP for design and development Tom Jowett directs 60 architects, craftsmen, and designers to develop store layouts for Bass Pros across the country. His guiding principle: In-store displays aren't just fixtures--they're marketing tools that, if designed to reflect local traditions, attract customers. Before the 2003 christening of the Bass Pro in Destin, Fla., for instance, Jowett's team spent three months studying fauna at area museums and historical societies so they could incorporate indigenous seagulls and swordfish into the chandeliers. "Our goal is that customers become tangibly connected to the environment and want to bring someone else to see it," Jowett says.

There's probably no better proof that Bass Pro is connecting with customers than its pricing power. A Leatherman Wave utility knife, for instance, goes for $57.95 at Wal-Mart but costs $69.99 at Bass Pro. Garmin's Quest GPS receiver is more than $100 cheaper at Wal-Mart. To find people blinded to those discrepancies by, say, the sight of hundreds of fishing reels and thousands of lures, Bass Pro scours data on hunting, fishing, and boating licenses to identify regions of heavy concentration. It also seeks out salespeople with unusually high levels of experience. Bobby Clouser Jr., who guides fly-fishing tours down the Susquehanna River and teaches casting clinics, was recruited to head the fly-fishing department at the store in Harrisburg, Pa. Shoppers drawn by those touches are desirable to more than just Bass Pro: Officials in Macon, Ga., and Buffalo, N.Y., offered millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements and tax breaks to persuade Bass Pro to set up shop in their cities.

Bass Pro plans to open eight new stores and sponsor its third annual Nascar race this year. It's also expanding westward and to larger cities, including Denver. Hordes of customers at each new Bass Pro prove that you can get what's in people's wallets by aiming for something more valuable: their time. "If you take a product--even something that could be turned into a commodity--and wrap it in a memorable experience, you're adding value," says Bass Pro president Jim Hagale. Whether or not you know a crappie grub from a jigging spoon, that's an important lesson to remember. Because the future of retail--nondiscount retail, anyway--has arrived, and its walls are lined with dead moose.

The Reel Attraction

2004 annual sales $1.6B

Average duration of a Bass Pro customer visit 3 hours

Average commute of Bass Pro customers 2 hours

Sources: Bass Pro Shops; Bain