What’s Better?

O n the way to and from outdoor adventures, my young son and I play a game called “What’s better?” I’m going to play one round of it now, with all of you.

What’s better: Customer service, or low prices? (And yes, I know that if you’re smart these days, you know where to find both.)

Aside from ham, pumpkin pie and my mother-in-law’s killer prosciutto-cauliflower-heavy cream casserole, the holidays served me four memorable customer-service experiences. Two were good, and two were dreadful, stereotypical examples of small-business self-sabotage. 

None of mine was related to the outdoors, it should be noted, although I’ve heard plenty of gear- and tackle- store nightmares over the years.

I asked that “What’s better?” question in hopes that your answers might help me with a question I’ve been throwing at myself. Is it just me, or are we seeing a revival of outdoor-related entrepreneurship in this country? 

When I was a kid, fishing tackle was available at bait shops, through catalogs and magazines, and down one aisle at Sears. There were a handful of sole-proprietor tackle stores in Houston then, but I couldn’t get to any of them on my bicycle.

It wasn’t until I was a grown man with dependable transportation that I discovered nothing-but- tackle stores. That’s where I went for specific purchases, maybe a hard-to-find plug in a particular color or a premium line that wasn’t available elsewhere. It’s also where all of us who deeply loved fishing went to share time with others who spoke our language. 

In department and discount stores, even where rubber worms and gold spoons and stinkbait hung from the pegs, the person you asked for help may have wandered your way from the shoe or bedding department.

Service matters, and that’s equally true before, during and after the sale. The man or woman behind the name tag should know about the products on the shelves. He or she also should be able to explain store policies (and any nuances attached thereto) —and to make a customer happy even if that means the occasional bend of a store’s rules.

Know up front that I’m all for big tackle stores. The more and bigger, the better. Houston has three huge stores that only sell fishing tackle and two dozen more that carry legitimate fishing inventories. I’m a fan of the former and plenty familiar with the latter. 

There also are a few smaller independents in the game, and that’s healthy for competition. All those larger stores started similarly in modest, affordable-lease places. They grew into behemoths because they got to know their customers, and their customers got to know them.

I’ve heard favorable and unfavorable customer-service stories on nearly every tackle retailer at every level. The sour ones range in severity from nit-picky to serious. Some are more believable than others, but each of them sent a disgruntled customer away into the fishing community. 

An issue that haunts some large retailers is its employees’ lack of authority to make right-now concessions that might smooth a wrinkle before it becomes a crease. In an independent shop, the owner is likely to be on site and available to resolve a problem regardless of its size.

The flip side is that the desk at which the buck stops in a small store isn’t far from the cash register. If an on-site owner is in a bad mood, there’s nobody else to whom you can plead the case for refund or replacement.

In a larger store, there’s a chance that the next manager up the chain of command might listen and, to secure the relationship, offer a solution.

I dealt this past fall with an auto repair shop that nicked me pretty good on something for which it claimed no responsibility. I disagreed and asked the store’s general manager to reconsider. He refused and pretty much told me he didn’t care if I ever came back. Good thing, because I’ll never go back, and I’ve shared the name of that place with friends.

Customer service is an art, an ability to make customers believe they’re right even when that’s not the case. All it would have taken for that mechanic’s manager to hold my business is to say that although he couldn’t do anything for me this time, he’d take care of me next time.

It’s the same in tackle stores. If I show up with a broken whatever that carries a long-term guarantee, I’d like to see it replaced. If there’s disagreement on the cause of the break, then maybe offer to meet me halfway.

In the tackle business, that means understanding your products and the people who use them. People who don’t fish, read from the company manual. A fisherman might understand a fishing story that ends with an unexpected snap or crunch.

Working against customer service is this: The average young person changes jobs every 18 months or so. Some of them don’t care whether you return to the store, because they don’t expect to be there when you do.

I like seeing familiar faces where I buy tackle. They give me a chance to develop working relationships, mutual trust. I work hard for my money. All I ask is that a retailer put a little effort into earning my business. 

As consumers, we have nearly unlimited choices these days. Online shopping is great for some purchases, but I’m still an old school, brick-and-mortar guy when it comes to most fishing tackle. Deep inventories, reasonable return policies, good answers to questions and an occasional smile (which you can’t get on the internet) are what lure me and hook my money.


Email Doug Pike at ContactUs@fishgame.com

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