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The Big-Box Race to the Bottom

Posted by Michael Blanton on 2/10/2017
The Gaylord Box of Bows

While touring the factory of a major bow company a few years ago, I spotted an open gaylord box (those huge corrugated boxes used to display watermelons and pumpkins at the grocery store). What caught my attention wasn't really the box, but rather what was inside the box. The entire box was full to the top with compound bows and bow parts - current year stuff - all thrown in there loosely with no packaging or padding. Pieces and parts were mashed together and entangled. Some bows were broken. Some looked scratched-up and badly dinged. You could see sights and loose cams, cable rods, broken strings and all sorts of debris intermixed in the pile. And it was all just crammed down in there like someone had stood on the pile and packed it down with their boots. I couldn't believe it. There were dozens of bows - maybe hundreds - basically stuffed into a sad cardboard bow dumpster.
photo of big empty box
Who Would do Such a Thing?

How could anyone treat these bows with such disregard and contempt? Who would treat brand new bows like garbage? Here at Hunter's Friend, we protect every new compound bow like they're newborns. We practically freak-out if a bow gets a single scratch, and if a bow ever has a problem - we immediately fix it and return it to proper health. This just didn't make sense. How could someone ruin all those great bows by trashing them in a cardboard dumpster? To me that seemed like a sacrilege. Bows are a precious commodity here. Heck, we only handle our bows on carpeted work benches and tables. When bows are ready for the customer, we wrap them in foam and bubble-plastic and we carefully secure them in cases, etc. Seeing a giant watermelon box of mangled bow carnage practically turned my stomach. I thought, "Who in the world would mistreat and mangle all these bows? Who could be that wasteful?" The answer was ... A BIG BOX STORE. It turns out, that watermelon box full of broken bows was simply a big box store's monthly shipment of returns back to the bow manufacturer. OMG!
The Big Box Nightmare

You might be surprised to learn that big-box stores are a particular nightmare for archery manufacturers - bow manufacturers in particular - but it's a love-hate relationship they must endure. Since big box stores are the financial powerhouses of our industry, they place the biggest (wholesale) bow orders. Every bow manufacturer surely wants to sell tractor-trailer loads of their new bows. And that sounds great, right? So making a major sale to a big box store (Cabelas, Academy, Dicks, etc.) is a bow manufacturer's dream come true, right? Well, the answer is yes, and no. Here's where things start to get ugly. You may have heard about the Golden Rule ... whoever has the gold makes the rules? Well, that's precisely how it works when a niche industry manufacturer dances with a big-box store. Big box stores call the shots. They command the terms, the rules and the discounts they want. Whatever they want - they get. And it's all nice and legal, thanks to something called a "Retailer Agreement".
The Big Box Vendor Contract

A retailer agreement is a detailed sales contract between the big-box store and the bow manufacturer. Every conceivable detail of the vendor relationship is outlined in this long and often non-negotiable contract. And big-box stores are always smart enough to demand a "no questions asked" return policy with all their vendors. Generally, the big-box contract states the big box store can send anything back to the manufacturer, in any condition, at any time, for any reason, for full credit on the account. There's no ceremony. The big box store simply deducts the value of any returned items (plus a penalty fine) from their next invoice, and that's the end of the story. There's never any discussion about warranty or how/why an item was damaged or returned. The big box store has zero liability for customer service or warranty service beyond the sale. So it literally doesn't matter why the bow was returned (or what happened to it). The return is accepted, the bow is discarded into the gaylord box and the bow manufacturer eats the loss. Period. End of story. Even if a big box store were to deliberately crush an entire pallet of fresh bows with their own forklift ... it still wouldn't matter. Contractually, they're not responsible in any way. So when the slightest thing goes wrong. for all problems real or imagined, everything just gets thrown into the return dumpster without a second thought.
Penalty Fine Profit Center

To add insult to the situation, big box stores use customer returns to generate additional profits. The "penalty fines" mentioned earlier are no joke. Big box stores have a complex (and often outright silly) set of rules which each vendor/supplier must strictly obey. Any violation of the rules results in a fine on the account. For example, if a shipment arrives a day early or a day late, that's a fine. If UPC codes are not positioned on the boxes in a particular way, that's another fine. If a product is opened or returned by a customer, that's another fine. The list of rules often borders on ridiculous but vendors have no choice but to comply. If you want your products represented in the big box stores, you play by their rules. When things go wrong, no matter to what degree or level of legitimacy, the manufacturer generally has no recourse. They lose. Their account is docked, and that's the end of the discussion. The owner of a popular bow sight company once told me that after all of his penalty fines were tallied one season, he actually OWED one of the big box stores more money then he had "sold" to them throughout the year. It's a fantastic racket. Big box store managers and executives are acutely aware of the extra revenues generated by returns and fines. So big box stores are almost eager to fill up those gaylord boxes. The more the merrier. Archery companies understand they're being railroaded, but it's a take it or leave it situation. If they don't like the rules, they can leave. Some do, but most of them have no choice but to keep coming back for more big box abuses.
Who Cares? I Like Easy Return Policies

As a consumer, you might be thinking, "So what! That's between the store and the manufacturer. That has nothing to do with me." Oh ... but it does. It really does! The gaylord box of discarded bows (and other archery gear) directly contribute to four distinct problems you should care about:

1. Declining product quality
2. Increased pricing on all archery gear
3. Poor success rates for new bowhunters
4. The gradual decline of our sport

Let's start at the top. If you think those friendly "no questions asked" return policies are free, you are mistaken. We all pay for them, whether we think we do or not. In an effort to make products cheaply enough to be treated as "throw-away" items, the quality of many major archery brands has plummeted. Many of our beloved brands have moved their manufacturing operations exclusively to China, resulting in an unmistakable decline in product quality over the past decade in particular. It's the only way archery manufacturers can remain profitable while battling the big box stores ravenously munching into their margins. They have to make things cheap - really REALLY cheap. Archery manufacturers must produce items that are nearly worthless in order to navigate the big box gauntlet AND stay in the black. But don't think that means the consumer benefits from the low-cost Chinese manufacturing. It's quite the opposite. To absorb the margin losses of the big box store contracts, archery products are often dramatically overpriced at the wholesale level. A junk sight that cost $10 to make, might wholesale for $40 and retail for $59.95. That's the only way the manufacturer can cover the unavoidable losses from the gaylord boxes and penalty fines. For the consumer, the end result should be outright insulting, because as the quality of the product is pushed lower and lower the price still goes up and up. So in the end, the consumer gets to pay top-dollar for Chinese junk gear. The real rub is, that same $60 could have purchased a totally decent American made sight (from a manufacturer like Viper or Sword) right at the pro-shop counter. So what is the real cost of big box store business practices? Customers end up paying dramatically inflated prices for low-quality archery gear that isn't really worth 20 cents on the dollar, yet somehow we think we're getting a better shopping "experience". It's a sad dupe to us all. You like those big box stores? Sure you do - I do too. I love enormous aquariums inside a giant log cabin. Who wouldn't? But despite how warm-and-fuzzy the big box experience makes us feel, you should understand it comes at a very high price to our sport. Ultimately, we all get to pay more for less. So much less, in fact, the big box store will happily refund your money and throw the product in the dumpster if you don't like any little thing about it. It doesn't matter to them. Either way, they get to laugh all the way to the bank.
Do Not Return to the Store

Have you ever bought something and found a note inside the box that says "STOP! DO NOT RETURN THIS ITEM TO THE STORE"? It's usually printed prominently on a brightly colored card or placed in the manual or packaging in such as way as to get your attention. The card will instruct you to call the manufacturer's customer service line if you have a problem, right? Do you know why manufacturers do that? They're trying to avoid the gaylord box. Manufacturers know that big box stores have no interest in providing technical support or troubleshooting. Why would they? The big box store has no financial incentive to save an item from the gaylord box. That's why manufacturers practically BEG you not to return items to the store. They know if you return an item to a big box store, even for the most minor problem (or even for no problem at all), that item will likely be tossed into the cardboard dumpster of death. And when that product dies, so do the resources it took to manufacture it. For the consumer, the whole issue seems irrelevant and inconsequential, but the spiral of declining product quality accelerates with each lap of the big box customer service bowl.
The One Thousand Dollar Bow

Have you noticed that many of the popular bows are now priced near $1,000? Some even higher! It wasn't so long ago that a "high-end" bow was $599, but today we call that a mid-priced value bow. Higher bow prices are a function of many things, but you can bet big box store losses are priced into the equation. Over the last ten years, we've seen a steady 5% annual increase in bow prices (both on the wholesale and retail levels) but the annual inflation rate has been less than half of that. Ironically, the cost of aluminum is down compared to ten years ago. So are gas prices. So what's driving these price increases? Obamacare? Probably not. Over the last ten years, the bulk of industry bow sales have been transitioning away from traditional brick-n-mortar specialty shops to big-box/mass retailers. So the pesky problem of big box business tactics has now become a full-fledged industry changer. Every gaylord box of dead bows and spreadsheet of chargeback fines pushes retail bow prices up another notch. Bow manufacturers can't just absorb those losses forever or they'll go out of business. So prices have to go up - costs have to come down. And that means one thing ... China! Our arrow and accessory companies have been manufacturing in China for many years, but American consumers aren't so willing to accept the Made in China stamp on their compound bows - not yet anyway. So bow manufacturing, for the most part, has largely been done here at home, but even these last remaining holdouts are wavering. Sooner or later, we guarantee our compound bow manufacturers will follow the archery accessory companies to China. Some already have one foot out the door. We hate to tell you this, but there are already MANY compound bows on the market today that contain Chinese-machined parts. A significant number of bows are being "assembled" here, with the bulk of their parts being manufactured in China. Frankly, it turns my stomach. The inevitable invasion of Chinese-made compound bows is coming. It's just a matter of time before big box pressure sends all our major brands overseas, and one day you'll look around and find the compound bows all hanging on metal peg-hooks, neatly pre-packaged in clear plastic clamshells. The big box infiltration will be complete. The concept of the archery pro-shop will be dead, and the high-school kid working behind the JC Penney customer service desk will be your bow technician. But not to worry ... if you don't like it, you can always return it.
Speaking of Returns

With all this talk about returned merchandise, you might be wondering why so many bows come back. Well get this: those gaylord boxes aren't full of defective bows. In fact, very few bows are returned for legitimate technical malfunctions. Most bows come back for other reasons. The most common reason for a bow return at a big box store is simply that it didn't fit. That means most compound bows get returned to the store having never even been used or shot a single time. The buyer simply couldn't pull it back - or couldn't figure out how to adjust the draw length. Other common reasons include didn't like, didn't want and the generic favorite didn't work. Of course, the clerk working the big box return desk couldn't care less about the details. At the big box stores, a return is a return. Your money goes back on your card and the bow goes into the gaylord box. Done deal! And that means the bulk of the returned bows were really fully functional and undamaged units prior to being tossed into the bow dumpster. But as I noted standing on the bow factory floor, by the time it all gets smashed down into the gaylord box and shipped back to the bow manufacturer, the whole lot is trashed. That's catastrophic waste - and we ALL ultimately pay for it. So so sad.
The Real Problem Never Gets Fixed

Industry economics aside, if a customer returns a new compound bow, something about the experience wasn't good. Simply processing a refund doesn't change that. There is a reason the customer bought the bow to start with, and a return only gets us back where we all started. Whether the issue was fitment, or tuning, or sighting, or initial setup ... something made the customer give-up on his new bow. Something soured the experience, and that's not supposed to happen. If our sport is going to continue to survive, it is essential that new bowhunters are outfitted correctly and have a positive experience (otherwise they just won't participate). Here at our store, an outright return of a new compound bow is exceptionally rare (happens at the rate of about 6/10ths of one percent actually). And amusingly enough, half of those returns aren't due to dissatisfaction from the buyer, but objection from the un-consulted spouse. The point is, you're supposed to LOVE your new bow. Our entire Hunter's Friend pro-shop program is setup to make sure that's exactly what happens. We suspect all good archery pro-shops run their businesses with this goal in mind. Because frankly, getting a refund doesn't qualify as a positive bowhunting experience. If our industry is to survive, we need happy successful bowhunters, and to accomplish that we need more archery professionals solving problems and helping customers - not more clerks to process RMAs. Like it or not, all those big box bow returns aren't from bow failures, they're from the failure of industry policy, for which the only beneficiary is the big box store itself.
Setting the Customer Up for Failure

The fundamental problem, in my judgment, is that compound bows aren't really a suitable mass retail product. They require specialized tooling and qualified service - particularly on initial setup. So it's very difficult to successfully sell compound bows as "factory sealed" items. Nevertheless, this is the sales model predominantly used at the big box stores. You place the order. They smack a shipping label on a box and UPS quickly trucks it to your door. Most of the time that's the sum of the service you receive from the store. The customer ultimately gets whatever the manufacturer put in the box - still nice and "factory sealed". Sounds great, right? Works for stereo speakers. Works for coffee makers. We like factory sealed things, don't we? How many times have you shuffled through several boxes at the store to find one that hasn't been damaged or molested in any way? We've all done it. We assume the most pristine and properly sealed box must contain the best product, right? Nobody wants the box that someone else has been into - or the box with the ripped corner. No way! Regrettably, this consumer lesson WORKS AGAINST YOU when you buy a new compound bow, because WHAT'S INSIDE THE FACTORY-SEALED BOX IS NEVER READY TO USE. NOT EVEN CLOSE! We've been freeing new compound bows from their factory-sealed boxes for over fifteen years, and the vast majority of those new bows have one thing in common ... they still need a lot of work. We don't find many new bows to be defective, per say, but rather just significantly out of adjustment and/or sloppily assembled. We hate to say this, but bow manufacturers have spotty quality control (yes, even your favorite bow company). It's VERY common to unbox a new bow and find significant cam lean, loose fasteners, uneven limb tiller, unsatisfactory cam timing, axles spaced incorrectly, improperly set draw-stop pegs, unset cable clearances, unchased mounting holes, cables crossed on the wrong side, etc. A bow that's dead nuts perfect right out of a box is fairly rare. Now, this doesn't mean the bows are bad, they were just assembled too hurriedly. The bows need a little more time and love to be "right", and that's tough to do in a mass-production factory environment. Fortunately, a good bow technician will have any of these bows back in-spec and laser straight in twenty minutes, but as a practical matter THAT'S OFTEN THE DIFFERENCE IN A CUSTOMER WHO LOVES HIS BOW AND A BOW THAT ENDS UP IN THE GAYLORD DUMPSTER BOX.
Making the Wrong Conclusions & Assumptions

The industry's combination of poor sales-channel strategy and unmet service needs become the perfect setup for failure. Bow manufacturers always think their production quality is fantastic, and consumers think bows are plug-n-play (both of which are false). So all too often, a customer gets a new factory-sealed bow, then immediately struggles with setup and tuning. This causes the consumer to make some unfortunate assumptions about the bow and its manufacturer (bow is junk, bow is inaccurate, brand sucks, bow doesn't work properly, etc.). The new bow owner then does what any smart consumer would do. He returns the bow to the store, writes a nasty Google review and gives the bow a 1-star rating on the big box store's website. And of course, you can you guess what happens to the poor bow? That's right. It gets pitched into the gaylord box with the others. Sometimes this buy & return process continues for multiple cycles. If you call the customer service line of your favorite big box store and say your new bow is "defective", they're likely to offer you a complimentary replacement - or perhaps a different model. That's only good customer service, right? But since the solution doesn't even attempt to diagnose or treat the real problem, the next bow is just as likely to be "defective". And every week the gaylord box gets more and more full, the cycle of waste and disappointment repeats and our industry ultimately loses a potential long-term customer to frustration. Bravo big box stores!
What About those "Outfitter" Bows?

A number of the major bow manufacturers started pushing their outfitter (kit/package) bows a few years ago. By including a basic sight, rest, quiver, stabilizer, etc. with a new bow, bow manufacturers hoped to alleviate the "setup issues" customers experienced when purchasing a bare bow. Many bow manufacturers advertised these kits as "Ready-to-Shoot". One company even named their kits "Ready-to-Hunt" after our program (flattering - but woefully inaccurate). Unfortunately, this only made the customer service problem more complicated. Since the factory bow packages still suffered from the same mass production shortcomings, and their "kit" accessories were generally selected from bulk stock low-end Chinese parts, the failure/return problem actually got worse. Essentially, the bows had the same technical faults they always had, but now, so did the accessories attached to them. And as a matter of customer perceptions and satisfaction, consumers didn't differentiate between a problem with the bow and a problem with one of the accessories. A single stripped screw or a loose quiver bracket meant the whole bow was deemed "defective". So instead of giving consumers fewer issues to unravel, the factory "kit" ended up giving consumers more issues (and reasons to assume fault with the product). And when one of those "outfitter" bows came back to the big box store, for whatever reason, guess what happened? Exactly! The entire bow WITH the outfitter package got tossed into the gaylord dumpster box with the rest. Another unhappy sportsman - another pile of wasted product - another lap of the drain.
It's Just the Wrong Methodology

The gaylord box is the prosperity vortex of the industry - not a tool of good customer service policy. It's the unfortunate result of executing the wrong strategy to market and sell a specialty product line - and it's incredibly destructive to our sport. The big box sales methodology ultimately results in a race to the bottom - a death spiral to oblivion every archery enthusiast should be concerned about. Manufacturers have to make it cheaper and cheaper and sell it for more and more to offset the waste - and customers find themselves paying for top-quality merchandise, but getting poor quality parts with little or no technical support. Buyers get frustrated and lose interest, and the truly "good" products and manufacturers fade away. That's what the big box stores do for our industry. In the end, everyone loses - except the big box store. The simple truth is inconvenient yet undeniable. Modern compound bows need real pro-shops. Compound bows are frankly too complex (and dangerous) to be self-serve products to the masses. They need to be adjusted, setup, tuned, and serviced by people who know what they're doing. When compound bows are served-up as sealed-box items, like Shop-Vacs and power drills, we invariably get poor results. It's just the wrong distribution and service methodology for the product line. Nevertheless, some bow manufacturers just can't resist chasing that big box dollar. Truckloads of new bows keep pouring into the big box stores - and people keep on buying them (and returning them). Manufacturers keep trying to scratch out new ways to cut costs and make a profit, and the big box stores just keep smiling and laughing at all the little archery people jumping through their hoops.
Why Don't Bow Companies Fight Back?

I know what you've been thinking. Why would a bow manufacturer put up with this? Why wouldn't they tell those big box stores to stick it ? Why wouldn't they negotiate better vendor contracts? Here's where it will all start to make sense. You may not know this, but even the largest bow company is barely 1/10th the size of a major big box sporting goods store. The major sporting goods box stores (Cabelas, Bass Pro Shops, Academy Sports, Dick's Sporting Goods, etc.) are multi-billion dollar monsters. Just those four stores represent over $17B in annual sales (that's billions with a big "B"). In contrast, the entire archery equipment industry, all sales combined, from Apple bow presses to Zebra bow strings, is about a $400M (that's million with an "M"). So this is a David and Goliath kind of fight. Even the biggest bow companies can't push their weight around at a big box store. Besides, archery is just an annual side-dish for big box stores - small potatoes compared to sales from clothing, fishing, boating, camping and other outdoor sports. We archery enthusiasts often think of bow companies as powerhouse operations - but that perception is sadly inaccurate. In the bigger scheme of things, archery is a small niche industry, so our corporate tail feathers don't unfurl very far. We really are "little archery people" - not even in the same financial league as big box retailers. So being "big" in the archery industry is the classic case of being the big-fish in a small pond. Nobody in archery is a "big player", and that means bow companies get no special treatment at the big box stores. Either they comply with the big box rules or they take their toys and go home.
What's the Answer?

The trajectory of our industry is not good. Sales and participation are sagging and it seems as though we've all lost our way. Product lines which were once exclusive to authorized dealerships and specialty shops are now being offhandedly distributed at unrelated retailers of all sorts (hardware stores, home goods stores, department stores, drug stores, outlet stores, even furniture stores). Through seller affiliate programs and easy ecommerce APIs, archery equipment has become just another downloadable shopping cart category for ecommerce merchants. As a result, archery equipment SKUs have spread like an invasive species throughout the web, and we now find modern archery gear at sellers who literally have no idea what it is, what it does, or where it goes. So it's a mess out there right now. But the destructive nature of this chaos won't last forever. The negative impact to the customer experience is too profound. The question is, how long will we all circle the drain before the manufacturers wake-up and get control? There's no way to know for sure, but in the meantime, we will happily accept your [product ID] for return or exchange within 90 days of your purchase on [purchase DATE]. Simply click here for your RMA and printable return shipping label. We value your business here at [store ID] . We're sorry you didn't enjoy your new [product NAME] purchased on [ purchase DATE ] from our store, but this convenient return authorization will resolve the problem and make it all better. We hope you have a successful [category=archery] experience and we look forward to serving you again.