KEEPING THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE
Let's start at the top. Undoubtedly, the modern compound bow is a fantastic hunting weapon. Modern compound bows are now capable of delivering more KE to a target than a .25 ACP Bullet. Awesome! But let's try to keep things in some reasonable perspective. The compound bow is still a relatively low-tech product - despite all the industry yammer about cutting-edge technologies and predatory bliss. The compound bow is still a hand drawn weapon, made largely from aluminum, fiberglass, and some plastics. There are no circuit boards, power supplies, or chemicals which contribute to its performance. So there's only so much technology which can be applicable to the design and production of a compound bow. Compared to the iPhone in your pocket, the compound bow is little more than a sharpened stick.
However, most bows are specifically marketed as a "high-technology" product. Why? Because bow companies know what modern bowhunters want the most - an edge - particularly a "technological edge." Bowhunting is a primitive sport with a historically low success rate, so it is no surprise that compound bow advertising campaigns focus on offering bowhunters a technological advantage - even if it's a little stretch of the truth. They also know that outdoor product consumers love big scientific words flavored with impressive abbreviations and acronyms. So beware. Your new compound bow could be packaged with a few Ultra-Lite Hyperpolyresin Fibers of CBT (cock-n-bull technology).
Don't be too eager to embrace every technological-sounding feature as a must have innovation. Sometimes a new feature is just a simple thing with a fancy marketing spin. For example, if a bow manufacturer decides to place a small piece of rubber between two adjacent surfaces, the marketing people are likely to spin the feature as something like "Now with Santoprene Pivot-Point Silencing Technology" instead of saying "We stuck a piece of rubber in there to keep it quiet." We're not suggesting a conspiracy - just don't be so easy to impress. Keep things in reasonable perspective. The truth is, a toaster oven is more of a high-technology product than a compound bow. Still, technology is the magic word in the industry. So be on the lookout for those Ultra-Lite Hyperpolyresin Fibers.
BRAND NAME PERCEPTIONS, AND PARITY
YOU MAY BE UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF A MIND-ALTERING DEVICE: The archery industry is often plagued by a "better than your bow" mentality - as brand loyalty sometimes gets out of hand. Some bow manufacturers even seem to develop a cult-like following of shooters - who'll openly malign any other brand of bows (just visit an online archery forum). This is unfortunate for beginning archers who'll surely hear brand-biased advice, which may or may not be helpful (or accurate). Of course, this kind of brand bias is to be expected. In fact, the expensive process of training you to prefer one brand over another is precisely the point of most marketing campaigns.
WATCH MY FINGER. YOU'RE GETTING VERY SLEEPY NOW: Some bow manufacturers spend millions upon millions of dollars developing their brand name recognition. And frankly, it supposed to work. A good advertising strategy is designed to burrow into your psyche like a hungry chigger. If that logo is plastered in enough places and enough smiling celebrities hold a particular brand aloft, it's easy to begin thinking that Brand-X is the way to go. But that's no different than how we learn to prefer a brand of automobile, or tennis shoe, or soft-drink. With enough immersion in the brand name Kool-aid, most people eventually drink.
FAN-BOYS: Some of our happiest customers are those who begin with an open mind. Unfortunately, many shoppers begin their quests with preconceived brand preferences and biases. In most cases, those preferences and biases are based on casual familiarity and hearsay rather than direct experience or specific product knowledge. Even worse, some shoppers choose a brand because they simply think one brand is "cool" and another is not. If you're shopping for a new compound bow with the infantile notion that one manufacturer is vastly superior or inferior to another, or that one brand is sic and another is whack, you're just being obtuse. Unthink those foolish thoughts right now. Among the major bow brands, there is much more parity than you might think. What separates one maker from another is really a combination of styling choices, technology licensing, sales channel choices, pricing structures, dealer programs, and marketing strategies. The fan-boy idea that one brand inherently sucks and another rocks is childishly inaccurate.
RESEARCH AND REVERSE ENGINEER: As soon as the new bows arrive each season, we get numerous requests from our friends at the various bow manufacturers to send them samples of the competitions' bows for research. It happens every year. We gladly play along - and it's almost comical to watch as the bows pass through our shipping department on their ways from one manufacturer to another. And guess what happens when one manufacturer gets a sample of the other's bow? That's right. They shoot it, test it, examine it, take it apart, and try to see if they can learn from it. All the bow manufacturers do this. This might seem like dirty tactics to some, but it's very commonplace for manufacturers to examine the goods of their competition. There is certainly an F-150 (probably many) sitting in the General Motors Tech Center. But that's how product lines improve. Everyone wants to stay a step ahead of their competition, and a big part of that is knowing thine enemy.
EVERYONE PLAYS WITH EACH OTHERS' TOYS: If one bow manufacturer really does have a better idea, that idea is quickly incorporated into the designs of the others. Although consumers seldom hear about it, bow companies are constantly squabbling about licensing and patent issues, and they're all probably guilty of infringing on something or someone at one time or another. Any useful innovation in the compound bow market doesn't stay exclusive to one bow company for long (usually no more than a season or two). That's just how it goes. We have personally been to the R&D labs of several major bow manufacturers, and each of them have one thing in common - piles of bows and bow parts from other bow companies. The point is, there are no secrets in the compound bow industry. Everyone takes apart everyone else' toys and plays with them. So the idea that one manufacturer has a significant technological advantage over another is simply laughable. They don't.
DIFFERENT TARGET MARKETS: What often separate the various bow manufacturers is their general philosophies, sales channel strategies, and target markets. Some manufacturers, like Bowtech for example, clearly try to target younger generation-X buyers. While manufacturers like Bear tend to focus on conservative core bowhunters. The difference is apparent in the actual bow designs and aesthetic appointments. For example, Bowtech tends to offer more edgy angular designs with menacing graphics and eye-catching aesthetic contrasts - while the Bear designs tend to be more muted and subtle with aesthetics that better blend and into the profile of the bow. This isn't to say that one of these designs is better than the other. But the designs are intentional - not incidental. Each bow company knows where they fit into the market, and they attempt to appeal to the specific buyers they believe their brand can best attract.
SALES CHANNELS & PRO-SHOP ONLY MYTH
Here's another infantile notion that needs swatting ... the idea that a "pro-shop" bow is professional grade and all others are somehow standard grade. If you don't know what a pro-shop bow is - it's a brand of bow that's reserved for sale only in a local walk-in store (not sold online or by mail-order). Here's the point of confusion. Local archery stores are commonly called pro-shops, even if they're just a bait-n-tackle store with a little archery section in the back. Whether they're a real dedicated archery store or not doesn't matter. Any independent walk-in store that sells a line of compound bows is called a pro-shop. And since the word pro seems to imply professional, some consumers assume the pro designation refers to the quality grade of the bows (e.g., the professional grade bows are only found in pro-shops). But that's an unfortunate myth. The phrase pro-shop refers to the type of store - not to a grade of bow. In fact, there is no such thing as a professional grade bow - nor is there a set of standards that would designate any bow as professional grade and another as standard grade. So unthink that thought too.
TWO MAJOR SALES CHANNELS: To better understand how this works, you have to understand a little about the archery market. As with most things, the truth can be found by tracing the path of the money. About 45% of the archery market is sold/served by the network of local archery pro-shops (usually independent Ma&Pa style stores, bait shops, gun stores, mini-mall shops, garage/basement shops, etc.). There are about 3,500 retail locations in the U.S. which could be considered an archery pro-shop. These small stores typically have no internet presence, conduct business only over-the-counter, and they're generally known only to local buyers. While very few local pro shops sell more than a few hundred bows per year, the local pro shops collectively control a good portion of the overall market (again, about 45% of gross revenues). The other 55% of the market is commanded by the major big-box retailers (Cabelas, Bass Pro Shops, Gander Mountain, Dick's Sporting Goods, Sportsman's Warehouse, etc.), a half-dozen major internet pro-shops (like us, Lancaster, Mountain, 3Rivers, etc.), plus a few powerselling eBayers.
NO! WE CAN'T ALL JUST GET ALONG: As you might imagine, the two sales channels are always at war. Pro-shops generally see big box/mail-order stores as illegitimate dealers out to destroy them, and big box/internet stores generally see local pro shops as nuisance operations that are behind the times. But one must respect the other - because bow companies pay attention to the politics. Now - in the best of worlds, all bow manufacturers would simply distribute their products to any type of store who wanted to sell them, and customers would go where they wanted to buy. In fact, research indicates that's exactly what customers want. Customers universally HATE restricted walk-in only policies. Customers like being able to buy a product where and how THEY prefer, rather than how the manufacturer prefers. A restricted sales policy is generally perceived as an irritation, particularly to tech-savvy buyers. Nonetheless, if demand is high enough, and customers like a product line enough, they'll tolerate it. This buying behavior literally keeps the local pro-shop from going the way of the Dodo. But the local dealer MUST have exclusive access to key brands - or they're dead meat.
LOCAL STORE POLITICS: Since small local retailers see big-box and internet stores as a major threat to their livelihood, they pressure bow manufacturers to give them exclusive bow lines to sell - free from big-box store and internet competition. In fact, many local pro-shops will outright refuse to carry any brand of bow unless it is a pro-shop only line. Some bow manufacturers exclusively embrace this sales channel. In fact, this is the "no mail order" strategy that Mathews used so effectively in the 90's - a strategy partially responsible for strong Mathews dealer loyalty even today. So in order to appease the local dealers and tap into that share of the market, bow manufacturers may reserve some (or all) of their products for sale only in the local walk-in stores.
BIG BOX STORE CHALLENGES: On the other hand, big box retailers are financial powerhouses, capable of reliably moving millions of dollars of product. So for some bow manufacturers, working with the big box stores is essential to their success. They need the volume sales the big box stores can generate, and since it's logistically easier to deal with a couple-dozen major accounts vs. hundreds of small independent accounts, some bow manufacturers find that the big box stores and major internet retailers offer a better sales channel for their products. But there are some problems. Big box stores tend to have very strong sales for youth, entry-level, and mid-priced bows, but expensive bows tend to be slow sellers in big box stores, since shoppers expect low prices and better values in those formats. There's also another consideration on the wholesale side. Big box stores are demanding customers who don't hesitate to use their purchasing power to leverage special wholesale discounts and other financial privileges that small local stores generally don't receive. Even a healthy bow company can't push around a multi-billion dollar retailer like Cabelas. Small local dealers, on the other hand, are much easier to keep in-line.
DOUBLE AGENTS: In order to tap both sides of the market (local and broad market), some bow manufacturers offer a split bow line - a Pro-Series and a Mainline Series like PSE or Martin, or sometimes two separate sister brands like Bowtech/Diamond or Prime/Quest. The higher-priced lines go to the local stores (who want the "exclusive" bows with the high price tags) and the value priced lines go to the big box stores and major internet retailers (where those products tend to perform best).
YOU CAN'T MAKE EVERYONE HAPPY: But even this solution is problematic. Sometimes a bow manufacturer simply cannot find a political sweet spot where they can appease both sales channels. For example, some local dealerships refuse to carry the Bowtech line (which is a protected pro-shop line) simply because Diamond is not a pro-shop only brand. Bowtech is assumed (politically) guilty by association. Same with PSE and several other brands. Local pro-shops want total exclusivity - or nothing at all. So brands like Mathews and Hoyt are the preferred lines in the local walk-in sales channels, again, not because they're the best bows, but because those companies cater to the business politics of that sales channel. So this is messy. A number of bow brands have moved back and forth from one sales channel to the other over the years- trying to find the right equation of adequate representation and satisfactory sales volume. Brands have been created - and discontinued - brands beloved - and brand maligned - all as a result of the sales channel war. The actual bows really have nothing to do with it.
IT'S AN EQUATION YOU SEE: Don't think for a second that bow manufacturers care about market politics as a matter of principles or corporate righteousness. They care about market politics as a matter of revenue. Manufacturers care about money - sales volume - and profits. If a bow manufacturer thought they could maximize their profits by offering their compound bows for sale in vending machines ... that would be the sales channel they would support. Every bow manufacturer works their own equation as to how they should best navigate industry politics and bring their products to market. And if that equation changes, so shall the manufacturer's strategy. Don't believe for a moment that any bow manufacturer is fundamentally loyal to anyone ... that is except to Franklin, Grant, and Jackson.
THINGS CHANGE: Here is the point to remember. Brands aren't sold exclusively in local pro-shops because of how good or bad they are - that's ridiculous. Brands are sold in pro-shops because that's the sales channel that yields the best profit for that particular manufacturer and their current strategy. And as you might imagine, both the market and the strategies are subject to change. Our market has, in fact, changed quite dramatically in just the last ten years. The 45/55 balance was more like 55/45 just a decade ago. The local Ma&Pa sales channel is in statistical decline, losing more than 10% of their total market share since the turn of the millennium. In another 10 years, it will be unlikely that any bow manufacturer will be able to thrive without representation from the broader market stores. So perhaps this war will one day end. No matter the brand, when the profit equation tips away from the local sales channel, the political fight will become moot. The pro-shop only format will disappear.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON BRANDS
WHEN I COUNT TO THREE, YOU WILL OPEN YOUR EYES: As you might imagine, a fight about brands is really just a fight about money. Local walk-in stores are much more likely to recommend the brands they sell (Mathews, Hoyt, Elite, Bowtech, etc.) and broad market stores will recommend the brands they sell (Bear, Diamond, Martin, Parker, PSE, etc.). As a consumer, you can either choose to jump into the fray, or think for yourself. We submit it's far wiser to judge bows on their individual merits, and not on their family pedigrees. We've worked with every brand of bow on the market at one time or another. We've seen models from every brand disappoint. We've seen models from every brand shoot beautifully. So be objective and don't make your bow decision based on what "you heard" somewhere. Clearly there is no "best" brand. If there were, all the other brands would have already disappeared and there would only be Brand-X ... in which case, this entire section would not exist. We would all just shoot Brand-X. THREE! NOW OPEN YOUR EYES!