May 20, 2007 in Idaho

Sporting goods for good sports

By The Spokesman-Review
Photos by JESSE TINSLEY photo

C.J. Buck, of Buck Knives, engraves a pocket knife for 9-year-old Samuel Gerringer on Saturday at the Sportsman’s Warehouse opening in Coeur d’Alene.
(Full-size photo)

Three generations of the Walchly family came to Coeur d’Alene on Saturday to catch the grand opening of Sportsman’s Warehouse.

There was Ralph Walchly, of Kellogg, his 10-year-old son, Skyler, and his father, Dan. Hunters and fishermen, all three. The main point of the trip was to buy a hunting rifle for Skyler.

But as they wandered through aisles filled with reloading gear, spotting scopes and Ted Nugent’s “Kill it and Grill it” cookbook, Ralph Walchly wondered, “When is Cabela’s opening?”

Before the year’s end, Kootenai County will be home to two mega-retailers for outdoor gear: Sportsman’s Warehouse in Coeur d’Alene and Cabela’s in Post Falls. North Idaho’s hook-and-bullet crowd can’t wait.

“It’s like being a kid in a candy store,” said Ralph Walchly, who intends to patronize both retailers.

Sportsman’s Warehouse’s 60,000-square-foot store in Coeur d’Alene is the fifth Idaho store for the Utah-based firm, which expects sales of $750 million this year. Cabela’s, meanwhile, anticipates opening a 125,000-square foot store in Post Falls in November.

“We want to be the first to welcome them to the area,” deadpanned Stu Utgaard, chairman and chief executive officer of Sportsman’s Warehouse.

Customers like the idea of the competition. “The more stores, the better the prices are,” said John Wildhaber, of Hayden, as he filled up a shopping cart with $4 fishing rods Saturday at Sportsman’s Warehouse. “It gives you more variety for shopping.”

But the retailers are gearing up for a survival-of-the-fittest battle. Is there enough business in North Idaho for Sportsman’s Warehouse, Cabela’s and home-grown retailers such as Black Sheep Sporting Goods and Toys?

“Probably not,” said Utgaard. “Hopefully, we’ll be a survivor. … In Idaho, we’re bigger than Cabela’s.”

Black Sheep isn’t backing down either. “You’d better put your money on us, because we have the lowest prices,” said Dave Knoll, the founder and owner of Black Sheep, which has been in Coeur d’Alene since 1974. “We’re going to duke it out.”

Knoll, 55, got his start in the sporting goods business as a teenager, stocking shelves for his uncle at the White Elephant Surplus Stores in Spokane, another independent that’s been in business for nearly 60 years.

Independents can do well, if they pay attention to prices, Knoll said. He’s part of an 800-store wholesale buying group, which helps him compete.

Nationally, sporting goods is a robust retail sector. Wholesale sales of camping, fishing and hunting gear, including firearms, reached nearly $5.4 billion last year in the United States, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association in Washington, D.C. The figure represents 12 percent growth from 2005.

Despite the strength of the sales, everyone in the industry should be concerned about waning levels of participation in fishing and hunting, Knoll said.

“Hunting and fishing are declining because kids are sitting at home in front of computers instead of getting out,” Knoll said.

The decline wasn’t apparent from the crowd Saturday at Sportsman’s Warehouse. About 200 people – many in Carhartts or camo – lined up in the rain for the store’s 8:30 a.m. opening. Two hours later, the parking lot was full.

The mostly male clientele trekked through the “tent loft” around the store’s perimeter and tried out animal calls, filling the store with the sound of honking geese. A few women pushed carts.

Among the crowd were Francis Lange, of Orofino, Idaho, and her daughter-in-law, Amanda Lange, of Post Falls. They sized up a pair of lace-trimmed camo overalls for Amanda’s 15-month-old daughter, Alexis.

“She has other camo stuff, but she looks like a boy in it,” said Amanda Lange.

Francis Lange and her husband, Don, left their Orofino home at 5:30 a.m. to be in Coeur d’Alene when Sportsman’s Warehouse opened.

The couple’s son, Jared, talked them into making the early morning drive.

“I said it would be like Cabela’s, and my dad said, ‘Man, we’ll be there,’ ” said Jared Lange.

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