Love of the outdoors fuels family businesses
In any retail business, odds of success increase if you can build a loyal customer base, folks who come to you first and return often. This seems especially true in the world of retail outdoor sporting goods, especially in the arena of hunting and fishing. Hunters and fishermen can become customers of the most loyal sort if they perceive you share their passion for the sport and can enhance it with expertise and education.
When it comes to high-end purchases, it is not uncommon for a sportsman to travel halfway across the state to his or her expert of choice to purchase a new bow or rifle. To become that choice, a retailer has to provide a smart selection of quality merchandise at a competitive price, but what’s likely to give him an edge is product knowledge, dependable service and a palpable passion for the outdoors. Ray Sislo Sr., founder of Willow River Outdoors (WRO) in Deer Park, is counting on that.“I love competition. I’m very very competitive. I’m pretty confident it wouldn’t matter where I located this business. A lot of companies out there use MAP pricing, minimum advertised price. I won’t ever advertise my stuff for less, but I will certainly, if you ask me, give you a pretty good deal that’s going to keep you coming back,” Sislo said.A passion for fishing and hunting, particularly bow hunting, is something Sislo shares with his sons Josh, currently serving in the military, and Ray Jr. To be able to make a living working in the industry they love has been a big part of what inspired him to start his online business — Willow River Outdoors — two years ago. Sislo, who works full time as a safety coordinator for Donaldson in Baldwin, actually grew his online sporting goods business out of a dog breeding and training business he started 30 years ago.“I’ve been in the dog business for 30 years. Willow River Kennel started with a kennel and line of Labrador retrievers. I’m no longer doing the breeding and training like I used to, but I still sell collars and training equipment,” Sislo said.As a result of his dog breeding business, customers kept asking Sislo about more and more hunting-related products. Eventually, his website became less about breeding and more about the sporting goods to accommodate his customers’ requests. Currently the online store carries about 1,500 products. Sislo expects that number to grow to 5,000 in the near future. The online business is a nice complement to the new store.“The online business keeps the doors open,” Sislo said.Sislo hopes that once the retail store takes off, he’ll be able to turn over much of the day-to-day website operation directly to vendors, enabling them to load up their own merchandise, freeing him up to spend more time at the retail store.Sislo, with the help of his wife Linda, opened his retail store in August.“Because of the demand, we keep adding more products here at the store. We’re outgrowing this location in a hurry,” Sislo said.In addition to the dog training gear, WRO carries bows, traps, ammunition, ice fishing gear and their own line of scent control products: Willow River Scents.“This is stuff that we’ve used. People are starting to say it works better than some of the brand name products,” Sislo said.In 2006, Ray Sislo (Jr.) spent four weeks in Edgerton, Wis., attending Dan Rinehart’s Taxidermy School. Certificate in hand, Ray Jr.opened All That Is Wild Taxidermy. Ray Jr. works full time as a welder but hopes that eventually the new store, in conjunction with his growing taxidermy business, will justify his full-time attention.All the mounts on display in the store are his work. In the last year, he started offering a new service: hydro or camo dipping.“You can dip anything that can get wet. It’s a growing part of taxidermy,” Sislo Jr. said.That includes everything from skulls to bows and gun stocks.“This has been my passion my whole life. Fall is my time of the year. This is what I look forward to. Most of the shops around here are more specific to certain things like archery. We feature archery but we also have traps and nobody really has the dog training equipment we have. I hunt and trap everything, so I kind of want to bring it all together here, so we’re the one place you can go. One day, we’d like to be full service, anything outdoors,” Sislo Jr. said.Sislo Sr. abides by a tried and true business philosophy: know your product inside out and, “If you are going to sell something, know how to service it.”To that end, both Rays traveled to Tucson, Ariz., to take a one-day certification course offered by PSE Archery to become qualified bow technicians. You’ll find Lindsey Tudahl, Ray Jr’s fiancee holding down the fort weekdays at the store.Although she is not officially certified, Tudahl has benefited from the training both Rays have shared with her, so she’s comfortable helping customers, particularly women, with their archery questions. Given that women are the fastest growing segment in the archery market, Sislo Sr. recognizes Tudahl as a real asset to the business.“Women are a huge segment. I’ve sold as many bows to women this year as I have to guys,” Sislo said.“Initially, I decided that we were going to open up an archery shop with a 3-D course out by my house. At that time we figured we probably needed to have a storefront too, at least for people to drop off their taxidermy and to do the DNR hunting licenses and ATV registration. At this point, we’ve started some of the preliminary trail work out by my house,” Sislo said.Once the 3-D course is completed, Sislo expects it will complement his retail bow business.“Once we are established here, customers can go out to our course and try their bows,” Sislo said.Sislo said soon he’ll be able to sell guns as well.“We have been listening to a lot of the people who come into the store, so now we’re adding guns, which, at first we were not even thinking about. The NIX registration is complete and we’ve got our federal firearms license, so we’ll be able to do gun transfers, and trade-ins and we’ll be able to order guns for people. We’re just waiting on the ATF registration,” Sislo said.Sislo understands that building a credible reputation today will be invaluable down the road.“I’m heading toward retirement. Eventually this business will belong to these guys and my grandkids. That’s really why I want to take it to the next step, then they can take it from there.”Willow River Outdoors is located at 101 North Main Street in Deer Park and online at willowriverkennel.com. The store is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m to 5 p.m and Saturdays 9 a.m to 5 p.m.