Proven Tips for Tackle Shops With Pro Staff Anglers

Whether you work with anglers on the top pro tournament trails or well-known locals, customers can benefit from the experience and knowledge of pro staffers. Learn how to tap into this valuable resource.

Proven Tips for Tackle Shops With Pro Staff Anglers

Bass Pro Shops has Kevin VanDam, Ott DeFoe and Rick Clunn.

Tackle Warehouse has Mike Iaconelli and a host of other top pros.

If you’re a mom-and-pop tackle shop, or anywhere shy of being a big-box store, you likely can’t afford to integrate an angling “influencer” with that level of name recognition into your marketing plan.

Virginia’s Green Top Hunting and Fishing lies somewhere between the extremes of a true mom-and-pop and a mega store, but they’re a certified giant killer. They’ve been located just above Richmond since 1947, but a few years back, a Bass Pro Shops moved in just north. Then a Gander Mountain moved in just to the south, right off busy I-95. Green Top kept their regional identity and ultimately not only vanquished the Gander store, but moved into their recently departed facility.

They seem to be thriving with a prime location and a dedicated regional customer base, but they haven’t survived for over 60 years by being static. Online ordering and social media had changed the game, and Fishing Department Manager Todd Sadler got the message in 2012 from local tournament director Steve Camp.

Pro Staff Roles

“Steve approached us with a plan to put our name together with a group of guys and do things together,” Sadler said. “We don’t use the moniker ‘Pro-Staff.’ We have a ‘Fishing Team’ of about 20. The number doesn’t fluctuate, but the names and faces do. It’s not about hoisting a trophy every weekend, although podium time goes a long way. It’s about representing themselves, and us, on and off the water.”

Team members are expected to give 16 hours of time per year, either assisting at sales or outdoor shows, or participating in charity events — if you have the right body profile, you might end up playing Santa in December. Team members also have to provide a minimum of two in-store or tagged social media posts per month, although Sadler admits he makes some exceptions to that rule for less social media-savvy members who make up for that in other ways.

They’re also his lifeline to new products and trends. That’s one advantage that a store like Green Top may have over the behemoths. If a team member tells Sadler, “You need to get this [Megabass] Dark Sleeper and it’s sold out everywhere,” upon hanging up the phone he can head to the buyer’s desk and check if there is a way to get it on the way. If a huge vendor like Tackle Warehouse can be everything to everybody, then Green Top can capitalize on regional expertise. “We try to do our own thing,” Sadler said. “We have plenty of colors that are specific for the James River, the Potomac and the Rappahannock.”

Just an hour down the road from Green Top, Lin Bell runs Fishing Pro Tech. His customers are located between two Bass Pro Shops stores, and there’s another high-quality tackle shop less than a mile away. Like Sadler, he uses trusted team members to keep him relevant and unique, with a heavy emphasis on JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) products and niche brands.

“Daniel Jones is basically my store manager,” Bell said. “He’s a swimbait guru and runs my rod and reel room.” In the fall of 2019, Fishing Pro Tech will host a swimbait expo and swimbait-only tournament on a nearby lake with appearances by a host of vaunted small-scale manufacturers.

“They help me with the learning curve,” he added. Bell is in late middle age, while his team members are younger, which makes them typically more adept with social media and, in his words, “better able to relate to that age group.” He can’t support a team of 20 like Green Top, but he has five trusted representatives. “The store is successful because I know I can’t be the Lone Ranger,” Bell said. “I’m up against some of my best friends in the industry, so I have to work to stay on everyone’s radar.”

Like Bell, Jasper Zhang, the owner of Pro J Tackle in Ontario, prides himself on having a unique selection of tournament-tested, high-end gear — albeit with a shorter tournament season and a different exchange rate. Unlike Bell, whose business has been in place in various forms since the mid-1990s, or Green Top, whose existence predates that by four decades, Zhang has developed his reputation in a hurry. He opened the store in the greater Toronto area in 2008. He’s worked with reputable and well-respected local anglers to build his brand and has invoked an informal three-tiered system to get the job done.

Zhang’s first level includes some of Canada’s best tournament anglers, the ones who consistently earn time on stage to push the brand and the underlying products. The second tier may not necessarily be the best anglers, but they’re able promoters with connections to lots of guides and other anglers

The third group consists of younger anglers who, in Zhang’s words, “are pumped up, have time and fish every day.” He wants to support the next generation and also values their typically heavy dose of online activity. There can be some overlap among the groups, and that’s why he doesn’t like to give them a set list of responsibilities.

“I never ask for anything specific, but I keep an eye on what they’re doing,” Zhang said.

In addition to selling high-end tackle, Zhang also rigs bass boats, so he’s able to trade some services in exchange for his staffers’ efforts. All three sources said they offered their team members some sort of discount program, possibly in addition to cash payments, but they declined to offer specifics.

“I also buy the swag and they wear it,” Bell explained, noting that whether his logo is on a hat, shirt or tournament jersey, it’s easy advertising and makes his brand ambassadors recognizable and approachable. He also requires them to carry a stack of store business cards in their vehicles at all times.

Local guides can impart knowledge to customers thanks to their many days spent on the water.
Local guides can impart knowledge to customers thanks to their many days spent on the water.

Competing With Giants

All three stores offer some online and mail-order sales, but it doesn’t comprise the majority of their revenue. Meanwhile, the rise of the online giants and next-day or two-day shipping have eaten into business over the past decade or two. That means educated and enthusiastic boots on the ground are critical, both in terms of full-time employees, as well as those who help out intermittently at boat shows, tackle expos and other special events.

“We don’t just hire a body,” Sadler said. “I’m very particular when I hire a member of the team. I consider how they will mesh with the rest of the team. My guys at the counter are all passionate about the sport, and I’m always looking for people who do the right thing and carry themselves well.”

Obviously, someone passionate about fishing and well aware of industry trends and products would likely do well working with any of these three operations — or one of many others — but all three “bosses” stressed that a positive and passionate attitude has to be complemented by an understanding of how a particular stores fits into the larger fishing ecosystem. “We do things our way,” Sadler said. “We’re not running lockstep with the big-box stores. We’re constantly trying new things, working to stay relevant within the industry.”

Because of the comparatively small size of their stores and their teams, Zhang and Bell are the primary forces involved in choosing members and remain in constant contact with them. At Green Top, which is substantially larger and has multiple departments aimed at hunting, camping, clothing and other outdoor pursuits, there’s a slightly larger “corporate” feel and structure.

Sadler remains closely involved with fishing team operations, but he also depends on Steve Camp — the one who brought the idea to him in the first place — to recommend new members and to guide some of their actions. He’s found a trusted liaison who has his finger on the pulse of local anglers who have integrity combined with skill and some marketing savvy. It is an evolving process, in terms of expectations, compensation and technology, and a failure to adapt will result in a failure to maximize return on investment.

“Our goal is that when they leave our store, they should carry their purchases out in a box, not a bag,” Bell concluded.

Having pro anglers or guides at your store event can be a great way to draw customers.
Having pro anglers or guides at your store event can be a great way to draw customers.

Bonus: Leveraging Staffers at Special Events

While pro staffers and team members are expected to be positive brand ambassadors at all times, both on and off the water, sometimes tackle stores need to leverage their manpower and expertise at specific events — either onsite or remotely. This can come in the form of seminars, special gatherings and other occasions to draw people together. Sometimes this comes in the “all hands on deck” approach taken by Green Top during their annual sales.

For example, Tackle Addict, on the shores of Lake Sam Rayburn in Texas, has an ample-sized parking lot as well as substantial meeting space. They might host a tournament sign-up or post-tournament cookout, each time with the added bonus of leading them to aisles where they’re likely to spend some cash without any heavy sales pressure. Or they might utilize local hammer Keith Combs, a three-time Toyota Texas Bass Classic winner, to give electronics seminars. Even if they don’t sell the products being touted and explained, the store is associated with helpful information.

If your store has the space to accommodate them, encourage bass clubs and conservation groups to use it for meetings.

Lin Bell knows that he can’t compete with many of the big boys on standard packages of worms and everyday crankbaits, so he’s established himself as a worldwide expert on harder-to-find gear. That includes JDM products and larger swimbaits that still only have an underground following in much of the East.

In order to boost that profile, he co-hosted “The Gathering” on Oct. 12-13, 2019. It involved calling in numerous small-scale lure and rod builders with swimbait specialties, as well as their fans and would-be fans, for a gathering of like minds. That sets him apart, and it requires the full effort of his highly educated team members to make it click.


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