Seeking to fill gaps in each other’s merchandise lines and boost buying power and locations were some of the motivating factors spurring a recent merger between two home-grown outdoor outfitter companies.
Southern Reel Outfitters and Trader Bill’s Outdoor Sports joined forces earlier this year under the umbrella Innovative Outdoor Management, a move that would help the company grow and compete with national big-box retailers, said one owner.
“Both companies have the same outlook on business and ethics,” said Mandy Short, daughter of Trader Bill’s founder Bill Elliott. “We’re really big on service and we hire people that know their industry and that know hunting and fishing. They know the area. They know the lakes. I hire professional hunting and fishing people in the marina.”
“A lot of times if you go to a big box store, they’re really not so familiar with the products. Everyone we hire uses the products. They can show you how to fish. They can show you how to tie a knot. They can show you how to work the bait. They can do it all.”
The merger brings together two retail locations, each to operate under its own brand going forward, and will soon open a new Trader Bill’s Outdoor Sports store at Otter Creek and I-30. Short said plans are to have that unit open next summer. The merger is expected to add more than 10 jobs to the company between the new brick and mortar and increased investment in IOM’s online channel.
Short said the merger also helps rounds out complementary inventories for both brands.
“Southern Reel did not have marine and boats, while Trader Bill’s has been doing the marine and boats since 1983. We are expanding to Little Rock with our boats and marine side,” she said. “Southern Reel has more clothing, so we’re expanding that side also. We did have some clothing at Trader Bill’s but not quite as much.”
“[The merged company is] going to give us more buying power. We are members of a buying group which also helps a lot with companies of our size to compete with the big box stores. A lot of people think the big box stores are less expensive, but they’re really not.”
Trader Bill’s Outdoor Sports was established in 1983 and acquired by Short and her husband Reji in 2000. Southern Reel Outfitters was created in 2014 and owned by local entrepreneur Rodney Thomason. The two merged under the IOM banner in late July; altogether the company employs about 50 people.
Short said despite the challenge of large national competition, local stores like Trader Bill’s and Southern Reel continue to mine a profitable niche among local outdoor enthusiasts, something she expects will continue under the new corporate structure.
“It’s fun. We’re not selling washing machines. When people come to see us it’s to have fun,” she said. “We do tournaments also. We do that for the camaraderie and to have a relationship with our customers. It’s important to have relationships and let people know they’re not just numbers. Our customers are our friends.”
Short also said unlike other business segments, the outdoor market has enjoyed boom times during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You can social distance on the lake,” she said. “The tournament guys buy a different type of stuff than your everyday fisherman that just enjoys taking their kids out. [Sales] might have come down a little bit on one side of that, but the other side has gone way up.”
“Actually, we were just about out of boats on the Fourth of July. Water toys, that has been crazy, crazy. People are getting out, spending that family time. The coronavirus is a bad thing, but I think it really did stuff for families rediscovering quality time together. And that helps our business.”