Bass Pro vs. Cabela’s in battle of outdoors giants

The battle of the big box outdoors stores has begun.

With Wednesday’s opening of a Bass Pro Shops store in Tacoma, sportsmen and sportswomen now have the choice of shopping there or the Cabela’s outlet in Lacey.

It will be interesting to watch how these two outdoor retail giants will fare with stores just 30 minutes apart.

During discussions with friends on the topic, I wondered how many people from Tacoma and communities to the north will drive past Bass Pro Shops store to get to Cabela’s? If you are running to get a few items, will it be worth the extra hour of driving time (there and back, assuming you avoid traffic backups by Joint Base Lewis-McChord)? Will folks coming down from Seattle take the time to visit both stores?

Both retailers tout their locations as more than just stores. The Bass Pro Shops manager even used the term “retailtainment” to define how such stores use entertainment to keep customers in the stores longer. That’s why they have large fish tanks, a bowling alley (Bass Pro Shops), shooting gallery (Cabela’s) and restaurants. The longer customers stay, managers say, the more those people will spend. I remember when Cabela’s opened in 2007, representatives estimated the average visit would last three hours. It’s an experience, they said, not a shopping trip.

Having shopped at both retailers, I find them to be quite similar. I think the customer split will come down to personal preference — much like the allegiance of NASCAR fans is often split by car manufacturers. Some like Ford, others prefer Chevrolet, and Toyota has its own following.

Both stores are the proverbial candy shop for anglers, campers, hunters and wildlife watchers.

But along with all the hoopla that comes with the opening of a store like Bass Pro Shops, there is a serious economic side to the story.

While the big boys are taking on each other, there are other retailers watching the action as well. They range from larger outfits like Sportco in Fife and Sportsman’s Warehouse in Puyallup and Federal Way, to independently owned stores like Puget Sound Fly Co., Gig Harbor Fly Shop and Great Northwest Archery.

All these places survived the arrival of Cabela’s seven years ago. Can they do the same with respect to Bass Pro Shops?

I would hope so, especially the locally owned stores. I recently sat in on a discussion of the global economy, and the impact Walmart has had on independently owned businesses was the hot topic. Backed by economy of scale and discounted pricing, such big box retailers can drive the small mom-and-pop operations out of business.

I’m hoping our local outdoor retailers can survive this latest challenge, and not just because they offer good local information, expert advice and are fun places to hang out. It turns out, according to a number of studies, these smaller stores are better for the economy.

Small independent retailers, these studies report, help fuel the local economic engine at a greater rate than do the large national stores. A 2012 study done in Salt Lake City showed such independent retailers return 52 percent of their revenue to the local economy while national chain retailers returned just 14 percent. A similar study done in 2011 in Portland, Maine, came to the conclusion that if residents shifted 10 percent of their spending from chains to locally owned businesses, it would generate $127 million in additional local economic activity and 874 new jobs.

I’m not saying I won’t shop at the new Bass Pro Shops store. But I will still do what I can to support our local outdoor businesses as well.