No question about it, big box stores are a retail reality in this country. Walmart, Lowes, Home Depot, and Best Buy are household names. And many of us frequent wholesale clubs like BJ's and Costco in search of deals as well. Getting most of your shopping done under one roof saves time and money spent on gas. With gas prices creeping up, and lead prices now high, saving money at the gas pump, and in some cases, on daily necessities may be the only way some of us will be able to have any money left over come the shooting season.
The outfitting industry has their big box stores too. Cabela's, Bass Pro, and Gander Mountain are this countries big three, with cataloges full of glossy pictures of everything a sportsman could want, and then some. But in reality, the idea of the big three falls short of the expectations. My experience has been that the selection, and in many cases the hired help aren't exactly dialed in.
I've been to two Cabela's, the Maine store, and the Connecticut store. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. The lay out of both stores seemed to be nothing more than a afterthought, and the selection at both stores was lacking, with large gaps, both on the racks and in the inventory selection. To make matters worse, I've found the atmosphere at the Maine store, to which I've been several times, rather depressing. While the store was still filled with lots of goodies, the customers all seemed to just be wandering about in a fog. Perhaps they were in a the same state of increduliousness I found myself in every time I went there; perplexed that a store so large, and with so much stuff, didn't have a single thing I was looking for. How does that happen?
Gander Mountain left me a little less disappointed. I'd detoured to Watertown NY to visit the store on the way home from grouse camp last year. Id only gone there to take a look, wanting to buy nothing more than an atlas. The atlas they had in stock, but the general impression of the store left me with the feeling I was shopping in a Building 19.
Bass Pro Shop isn't quite the disappointment the others turned out to be, but suffers in other ways. Perhaps the biggest blunder at Bass Pro, and something Cabela's suffers from too, is lack of a regional marketing strategy. The store in Foxboro, Massachusetts sells camo patterns that would look great, and be efficient on an antelope hunt in Wyoming, but fail to carry much in the way of upland bird vests, or pants. I guess they haven't noticed that in Mass deer and pheasant are the two most widely hunted species. Why carry a sex scented bear lure? Bears mate in the spring, and here in New England our bears season is in the fall. A food scent, such as anise, which is in the catalog would make more sense.
Even worse than not finding what you want is finding something you do want, but also finding out it's way over priced. I don't bother to look at the gun selection at Bass Pro anymore. Twice I've pointed out to the management guns that were tagged too high. One gun was a discontinued model that even with a sale price $300 less than the ticket was still over what I could have bought it for down the street. That was before Christmas, and as of last week at least one of those guns was still there collecting dust. But let's end on a positive note; Bass Pro's interior, and atmosphere is lively and exciting. Walking through the store is almost like being in an outdoors themed Disney park.
I'll not rant about the hired help, but will say this; working at an outfitter five days a week still means you're only hunting two days a week, if your wife lets you. If you hunt more than two days a week, your experience, and expertise may be of a higher level than those in the embroidered uniform. Trust yourself, trust your judgement. This assessment doesn't only apply to employees of he bigger outfitters either. Here is Mass we've got a family run outdoor store that I've witness passing along extremely suspect advice, and even make stuff up as they go. When the employee behind the gun counter looks at a shotgun for a full sixty seconds, and still can't tell you the make or gauge of the gun, I say shop elsewhere; Even if the outfitter has nifty commercials on TV.
All hope is not lost, however, and I am not as cynical a man as the previous paragraphs might have you thinking. There are a couple of places here in New England where one can, in my opinion, comfortably shop for, and usually find what they need. Number one on my list is The Kittery Trading Post in Kittery Maine. What makes this place special to me is their marketing departments understanding of what hunters and fishermen in New England need. If you need it, they'll have it. Maybe not the brand you wanted, but another version. They've also got some knowledgeable people working there; the shotgun department in particular. I'm quite fond of LL Bean, too. Though I've not had many conversations with the employees there, I've also never failed to find what I'm looking for either. I find LL Bean to be a no frills outfitter, with a good selection of the basics. As a die hard grouse hunter, I've no trouble pointing other bird hunters towards Bean when they might need to replace some gear.