Grabbing the rope hand over hand, the bearded man in camouflage clothes pulled his crossbow to where he sat at the top of a tall tripod deer stand. He drew its string and loaded an arrow. The man shook slightly as he took aim, pausing to look at the target before returning the stock to his cheek. He pulled the trigger, and the arrow hit the target dead center. His quarry wasn’t a big-game animal deep in a forest. It was a grand-opening ribbon stretched across foam targets stacked in front of the 104,000-square-foot Cabela’s Inc. store in the Charlotte suburb of Fort Mill, S.C.
It’s the first of 13 stores the Sidney, Neb.-based outdoor-gear retailer will open this year, including one of similar size in Garner. The company expects to keep expanding across North America at that pace for the next three to five years, which seems counterintuitive for a business that began with a classified ad for mail-order, hand-tied fishing flies in 1961. By 2013, Cabela’s had revenue of $3.6 billion, mostly from catalog and Internet sales. But it is part of a wave of outdoor-gear retailers aiming at North Carolina. Privately held Springfield, Mo.-based BPS Direct LLC, for example, opened a 105,000-square-foot Bass Pro Shops store in Cary in 2014 to complement its 150,000-square-foot store near Charlotte. St. Paul, Minn.-based Gander Mountain Co. has nine stores here. Its Internet and catalog operations in Greenville also support Overton’s, a water-sports-focused subsidiary based there that the company bought in 2007 for about $70 million. They and others are stalking the 3.5 million Tar Heels who spent $3.3 billion — $1.4 billion for equipment alone — to hunt, fish or watch wildlife, according to a 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study. Their numbers are growing, along with the options of places to buy the latest gear. Of 12 major outdoor-gear retailers in the state, eight opened in the last three years.
Cabela’s builds its stores — which numbered 65 in mid-April — where most of its catalog and Internet sales originate. With its mountains, rivers, lakes and coast, North Carolina is at the top of that list. (The Fort Mill store is next to Interstate 77, half a mile from the state line and 12 miles from downtown Charlotte.) The pool of potential Tar Heel customers is stocked. In fiscal 2013, 13.9 million people visited the 74 sites in the state-parks system. From 2004 to 2014, when the state’s population grew 17% to almost 10 million, the number of inland fishing licenses sold increased 20% to 390,571, according to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, and vessel registrations increased 9% to 113,779.
Hunting equipment makes up about 44% of Cabela’s annual sales. While North Carolina hunting licenses fell 38% to 60,637 over the last 10 years, background checks for gun sales quadrupled, indicating people are buying guns but not necessarily using them for hunting. A mandate of the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, every gun customer must be entered in the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which works to stop sales to people with criminal records or other restrictions on possessing firearms. In North Carolina, about 1.2 million checks were made in 2014, up from 276,000 in 2004. That leap is attributed to streamlined state gun laws and fears that federal ones would tighten after several mass shootings, including one at a Newtown, Conn., school that left 26 dead in December 2012.
Two days prior to Cabela’s ribbon shooting in March, the first customer arrived at the Fort Mill store hoping to be one of 500 shoppers who were given gift certificates worth up to $500. The queue stretched to 50 at midnight the day before, says Liza Barrett, the store’s marketing manager. More than 2,500 entered during the first two hours of opening day. They weren’t all looking for ammunition or tackle. “You don’t have to be a big outdoorsman to come into our store,” she says. Like its competitors, Cabela’s also sells home décor and clothes, including brands recognized more for fashion than function, such as Alameda, Calif.-based The North Face Inc., owned by Greensboro-based VF Corp. The stores are destinations, complete with boat sales and service, aquariums, children’s activities, taxidermy displays and restaurants. Bass Pro Shops says more than 120 million people visit its 90 stores each year, and its average customer travels at least 50 miles to spend more than two hours inside. Concord Mills mall, where Bass Pro Shops has occupied an anchor spot within view of Interstate 85 for more than 15 years, draws 17 million visitors annually, according to the Cabarrus County Convention and Visitors Bureau in Concord.
The allure of the state’s endless outdoor activities is not lost on economic developers. It’s one enticement that John Lassiter, chairman of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina Inc., says the state can leverage to draw businesses here. The western part of the state, for example, has seen an influx of craft brewers partly because of recreation opportunities for their outdoor-loving employees and customers. No incentives were used to bring Cabela’s to Garner, despite those stores typically employing about 200 full time and part time — though that number fluctuates with holidays and fishing and hunting seasons. The South Carolina store didn’t receive any direct incentives, either, but it will benefit from a $1.7 million improvement planned for nearby Carowinds Boulevard, says Jason Flora, a project manager for Fort Mill, S.C.-based York County Economic Development.
As with any influx of big-box stores, there’s inevitably a concern for the survival of small, locally owned retailers. About 40 miles north of the Fort Mill Cabela’s and 20 miles northwest of the Concord Bass Pro Shops is Doyle Myrick’s store, Carolina Fishing Tackle LLC in Mooresville. Its neon logo covers the window as well as his car, which is parked out front. He had been looking to leave his job with a NASCAR race team when he got hooked on fishing and started thinking about running a tackle shop. That was three-and-a-half years ago, and the store opened about a year later. He specializes in hard-to-procure tackle made mostly by Japanese companies that are to lures what the Italians are to sports cars. The intricate baits feature lifelike paint jobs and engineering innovations, such as rattles that make noise and shift aft when the lure is cast, forcing longer distances. Some of his items cost more than $100 and are locked in cases like those in jewelry stores. “A lot of things, I’m the only one in U.S. with,” he says.
Myrick is not worried about the large outdoor retailers with their hundreds of aisles of outdoor gear. Perhaps it would be different if his inventory closely matched what they sell. But his business has built a large following. Anglers from as far away as West Virginia, Virginia and Georgia routinely travel to the shop, while others order from his website. He works alone except for a couple of part-timers. He takes a minute to help a customer, who requests a specific lure from a small California-based company. “That’s my niche — hard to find, hard to get. I can’t compete against Bass Pro Shops, so I don’t.”