St. Croix Rods completely changed its production schedule for its bass fishing products during the past few years, joining a growing list of companies that debut products to coincide with the Bassmaster Classic Expo each March.
“We’re literally not selling the rods until the very first day of the Bassmaster Classic. Five to 10 years ago, that was unheard of,” says St. Croix marketing director Jesse Simpkins. “That’s how important the Bassmaster Classic has become not just to St. Croix, but to the fishing industry. It’s almost turned into a mini-ICAST. A lot of it has to do literally with the fact that the face of advertising and branding has changed. There’s so much more social and digital behind this.”
The fishing industry used to debut products almost exclusively at the International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades, or ICAST, produced by the American Sportfishing Association and held each summer. Traditionally, they’d start shipping new product in the fall so retailers could stock for the holidays.
St. Croix still debuts products at ICAST, Simpkins says, but it’s also pushing to unveil other products at specific events. St. Croix used this year’s Classic to debut its Legend Xtreme Series, its most sensitive (and expensive, at $650) line of rods ever, which the company says will likely become the “single most-significant new-product launch in the company’s 70-plus-year history.”
Eleven days into the Legend Xtreme marketing campaign — before the rods were even available for purchase — St. Croix had sold out. That excitement can be attributed in part to online marketing in conjunction with the event, Simpkins says. “I mean this with humbleness — I forecasted the entire year’s inventory for 70 percent of the SKUs, and we are sold out beyond the year,” he says.
Shimano uses the Classic for its freshwater debuts, and the Fred Hall Show in Long Beach, Calif., for saltwater product debuts, says Shimano America vice president Steve Ferrera. Getting the increasingly rare opportunity to talk to the end user has made those types of shows invaluable.
“It was all about the trade show, but when the bass market grew and exploded, you attend a couple of events and see the excitement and the participation,” Ferrera says. “For the last 10 years, the Bassmaster Classic has been on our radar. People know the show is a launching pad. They come to our booth and ask what’s new from Shimano, especially because we have a reputation for creating markets and bringing technology to markets.”
Shimano this year pulled out of the Fred Hall Show and the Bassmaster Classic — as well as the Houston Boat Show — because of coronavirus concerns, a move that proved somewhat controversial, says John Mazurkiewicz, with Catalyst Marketing, a firm that handles Shimano. Some customers said they would never buy Shimano products again. “The thing is, at the corporate booths at the Classic, the Houston show and the Fred Hall Show, Shimano doesn’t sell anything out of the booth,” Mazurkiewicz says. “We direct folks to exhibiting retailers, where of course we have sales reps and pro staff working those booths, as well. It’s been interesting reading [and] hearing all the reactions.”
Technologically driven products tend to be popular at events like the Classic. Anglr, Lowrance and Abu Garcia unveiled a virtual fishing rod that can plan, record and relive experiences while using data to catch more fish. “The younger group of anglers, they expect things in less than two days, and they want to look at it on their phone and have personalized marketing to drive that brand affinity,” says Anglr COO and co-founder Landon Bloomer. (Anglr also uses Fred Hall shows to debut saltwater products.) “The Classic’s a great place to debut anything. There’s a large audience of enthusiastic anglers. It makes all the sense in the world to use that as a platform.”
Shows have become increasingly important in the online age, says Gordon Sprouse, marketing director of Lowrance parent company Navico America. “Customers in the electronics world, a lot of them want to see and feel and touch,” Sprouse says. “It’s a high-dollar item. That’s why you go to the Bassmaster Classic or Miami boat show, and it’s why hundreds of thousands of people attend those shows. They want to talk about what they want to install on boat or refit on their boat. The conversation always starts out, ‘I’ve got this space. I want this kind of plotter.’ Most buy from the dealer.”
The shift in timing is largely the result of the information era, Simpkins says. “Even when companies put out what were traditionally trade releases, these trade releases are getting into the hands of anglers so quickly that the expectation is that when they hear about a new product, they want the opportunity to purchase it immediately,” he says.
Because advertising and media have changed so much, and e-commerce has influenced buying trends, St. Croix has augmented its product-development cycle for most of its bass-centric products, and its high-profile bass products. “Our product-development cycle has probably changed 18 months since I got here four years ago,” Simpkins says. “We have to start sooner than we started before because it requires a more thorough market analysis. In the meantime, we’re able to develop information, messaging and digital assets.”
The most recent series had more video and photo assets than any St. Croix product, Simpkins says. “Those have become necessary evils,” he says. “If you don’t have the right assets for launch, you almost shouldn’t do it. That requires your timeline to elongate. We are adamant about every single one of these rods getting tested by experts in the field and refined so we can deliver to our anglers that it’s the best rod on earth. Especially with something as technical as this rod. Our favorite success story is a post to our social with a rod they just got and a fish in their hands.”
Companies then have to track how their brands are being represented and priced on platforms such as Amazon, making it a polarizing topic among some manufacturers, Ferrera says. “For smaller companies that have limited exposure, Amazon is the greatest thing since sliced bread,” he says. “But even for brands that are established, the statistics are outrageous. Fifty-five percent of people start their search on Amazon, so you’ve got to make sure your brand is well-represented. It’s not our goal to grow sales on Amazon because it’s a hot ticket, but we’ve got to make sure we’ve got the right brand recognition there.”
Shimano doesn’t sell directly to Amazon, but it does open the door for its retailers to sell on the platform, Ferrera says. The company uses an MSRP policy, which is a bit stricter than the minimum-asking price, or MAP, policy.
St. Croix doesn’t use two-step distribution, meaning it does not sell its products to a distributor to sell to someone else, so it can better control pricing, Simpkins says. “We tell our retailers you cannot sell or advertise this product below this price,” he says. “Because we’ve done this since inception of the St. Croix brand — for 72 years — we have outstanding compliance.”
The e-commerce trend makes retailers stronger, Ferrera says, but manufacturers like Shimano can’t lose sight of those brick-and-mortar retailers, either. “If we’re going to do something with e-commerce, we’ve got to make sure there’s a fair shake for the brick-and-mortar guys,” he says. “At the same time, they can think about, How do you change the experience at retail to make sure it’s an experience that can beat Amazon?”
Shimano relies heavily on its independent dealers because they share the same passion for fishing as the company. And anglers ultimately want to touch and feel a rod and other tackle before purchasing it. “That will never go away,” Ferrera says. “Retail is not dead; it just has to be reinvented. Unfortunately, some of our dealers threw in the towel and gave up. The ones that are persistent and want to succeed, they’ll find a way to fight against that Amazon component. We’ve got to be accessible to all our consumers. What we see is huge transition where brands and retailers had all the power — where I could dictate where consumers [are] going to shop for product — and today that power has shifted to the consumer. He can buy whenever and wherever he wants.”
Rods are still purchased based on a personal and tactile connection, Ferrera says. “You can’t replicate that online,” he says. “The brand that can replicate that online wins the game, but for right now, that’s a touchy-feely part of industry, and you need that brick and mortar.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue.