Thursday, September 16, 2021

Covid and the Fly Shop
By Greg Thomas

Fly Shops and Survivability Amid Covid.

The internet and online stores have saved some shops while others are struggling to stay afloat. When Covid 19 hit the United States back in March, and the country shut down, it was anyone’s guess what might happen to the fly-fishing industry and, especially, its small fly shops. Some people said that many of these shops would finally die. But a strange thing happened on the way to the tank—those with an existing online presence may have thrived, and those that quickly jumped into the digital fray may have kept themselves alive.

Or, it may be more accurate to say that shops with a strong digital presence were able to at least offset in-store retail losses with their digital efforts. Those that lacked an online presence and couldn’t quickly shift retail sales to the digital arena . . . well, the jury is still out.

Kelly Galloup, an author, speaker and the owner of Slide Inn on the banks of Montana’s Madison River, said, “It’s a weird time, but business has been ok. And I kind of get the impression that people are going to say ‘Screw it” and start fishing. Three weekends ago I counted 31 vehicles at Three Dollar Bridge at 10 a.m., mostly from Utah and Idaho—so they didn’t fly in, but they were here fishing.

“We didn’t really see them in the shop—they’re still watching TV and are afraid of the boogieman—but we are seeing some trends from the people who are coming in,” he added.

“We aren’t seeing the high end items going out the door like in other times, but people are buying flies, wader repair kits and tippet and stuff. And a lot of them who might have bought six flies some other time are saying, ‘Give me twelve of those so I can help out.’”

Galloup and other shops may not need bodies in-store to survive. Slide Inn was well positioned to capitalize on online sales, and the 10-year effort to set that up paid off in spades.

“Our online presence was gigantic in getting through this so far,” he said. “And I think anyone who put the time in over the past 10 years got paid back in full for their work. People were quarantined and had nothing to do, so we launched a Kill The Corona Virus fly-tying competition over our instagram and we saw massive growth. We ran videos on our You Tube channel and that drove people to us. We earned a lot of new customers and it was really fun. Without the internet, things would be bleak. Essentially, this offset our spring losses and the effects of this effort are going to help us into summer, too.”

Even shops that were just getting into the digital arena when the outbreak hit saw positive results. Sunrise Fly Shop, near the banks of Montana’s Big Hole River in Melrose, is one of those.

“We’ve been struggling through this like everyone else,” said co-owner Eric Thorson. “But we got lucky—we started our online store process last fall. We hadn’t really put the effort into it that we needed to, but when we got shut down and couldn’t open our doors we didn’t sit there and whine. We sat down for a couple weeks and split-up our product line and said you take this and I’ll take that, and we got our inventory up. It took a couple weeks and our web development company in California was right there with us teaching us SEO and everything else. I’ve been in retail my whole life, but I didn’t have experience online and it was challenging, a steep learning curve, but a good learning experience, too.

“We’re not a big player in the online arena,” Thorson added, “but every incremental thing you can do to stay alive in this helps.”

Another thing that helped Thorson and other shops was a willingness for vendors to work with small shops to control inventory. Any shop that bought too much and couldn’t return that merchandise was SOL, so to speak.

“Our vendors were really good to us,” Thorson said. “We scaled down our preseason orders because we didn’t want to be sitting on a lot of inventory, and not knowing what was going to happen. We make our decisions based on solid data and projections and we just didn’t know any of that this year. And we still don’t know if there will be another surge of Covid this summer and fall or not. We won’t have the margins that we had in the past, but we have flexibility and our vendors have said we can order as the year goes on and we’ll do just that.”

Other shops weren’t so lucky. In researching this article I heard of several shops that tried to get online stores running at the last minute and failed in their attempts. I also spoke to shop owners who were so distraught that they couldn’t really discuss their situations without breaking down, some sounding to be in tears. Personally, it was difficult to hear. Time will tell if those shops survive.

One of the problems fly shops have encountered, across the country, is a mass of guided trip cancellations. While shops may be able to partially compensate for those losses with increased online sales, guides are left to ponder what’s next.

At Sunrise for instance, which relies heavily on guide trips during March, April and May, bookings were down 85 percent last month. June has half of the bookings as last year. At Slide Inn, Galloup said, “We didn’t have a rush of cancelations in the beginning and then it went crazy. I lost $50,000 in one day . . . actually in a morning. I talked to one outfitter that day and asked how he was doing and he said, ‘I’ve just had the  worst 40 minutes of my life.’

“When this setback started I got a real eye-opener on how some guides live,” Galloup said. “A lot of the Montana guides work here and then they head south to guide in the Keys or elsewhere. Some of these guides have lost 20 percent of their season here already and they lost the work in Florida, too. It may go back to the way it used to be in the 70s where you do as much guiding as possible and then you go somewhere to pound nails. Some of them can get unemployment, some can’t. I think it’s going to be real tough for a lot of them.”

One of Galloup’s biggest takeaways from the crisis is how many people are getting into fly tying, in all age groups, and how that has influenced his business. Galloup, as you may know, has been at the forefront of American fly-tying for a couple decades and is best known for his go-to streamer patterns and his books on the subject, including Modern Streamers. That interest has directly affected his business, to the extent that Slide Inn recently added 1,5000 square feet of retail space for fly-tying materials and accessories only.

“The funniest thing about all of this, is that this has been the most positive time in my life in the industry,” Galloup said. “I’ve just seen that people are really stoked about fly tying. People of all ages whether they are 70 or 80 or under 30 or anywhere between. There’s not much ego in it. It’s been the exact opposite of the grab-and-grin I-am-the-best-in-the-world-mentality. They love the online videos to help them and they are tired of the shitty books and the bad tutorials.

“People aren’t buying the rods and reels and clothes because a lot of them can’t even go out and fish right now, but they are buying fly-tying gear,” Galloup added. “We saw an uptick in this four or five years ago on social media so we went more into fly tying at that time and its been positive and sustained growth. Real growth. It’s been ridiculous to see how much fly-tying material we’ve sold this year. Toward the end of the lockdown we couldn’t even get enough hair and feather in here.”

While there are hints at normalcy returning to fly shops and our waterways, it’s not all bright and sunny. Galloup has been in this game for a long time and he knows when the real verdict will land.

“In the spring you need an influx of cash to pay your bills and that is what the early season guide trips represented,” Galloup said. “And then you need the last two months of the season to be good and profitable because that is the money you’re going to live on. If you don’t have the internet, and you don’t have customers, and you’re sitting on a ton of inventory, you have no way to pay the bills. The whole equation is still playing out. We won’t really know what the effects of this will be until October.”