Taking the direct route

by T&T on July 5, 2012

Thomas & Thomas just recently announced a return to its direct-sales roots. With the addition of online purchasing functionality to our existing dealer channel, this “hybrid” model will allow us to engage with customers on a one-to-one basis more readily and give customers far more purchasing flexibility, especially in locations where T&T does not have a fly shop presence.

To elaborate on the move and what it will mean for customers and our dealer channel, here is a Q&A with Mark Richens, owner of Thomas & Thomas:

You have just announced that Thomas & Thomas will sell online. How will this work?
Commencing July 5, 2012, all products featured on thomasandthomas.com will have an add to cart button (with the exception of bamboo fly rods). Clicking on the button will take the customer through a checkout process culminating in their secure online purchase. The basics mechanics are similar to many other websites that offer online sales.

Why have you taken this decision now?
My first year at Thomas & Thomas was all about improving our internal processes as they relate to new product design, manufacturing and post-sales service, particularly warranty repair. I am somewhat satisfied with the strides we have made in these areas. We’re by no means perfect yet but we have made dramatic improvements – our warranty turnaround times are back to acceptable industry standards, we have available inventory across all our graphite and fiberglass rod offerings and we have many exciting rod designs undergoing field-testing right now.

We are now ready to focus more upon distribution, sales and marketing. I believe that the internet will continue to transform all industries, including our own. This tells me that Thomas & Thomas cannot afford to ignore this important channel. We made a decision a long time ago to stay out of ‘big box’ stores, primarily to support our existing dealers. We cannot afford to restrict ourselves from another large route to customers.

I feel it is “upfront” to announce this change in strategy now – before we embark upon major efforts to recruit new dealers and distributors. This way, shops that we approach can make an informed decision as to whether they wish to work with us in the future. I hope they respect our honesty and can see beyond the headlines – by offering a serious protection program I believe Thomas & Thomas is demonstrating support for their businesses rather than just paying lip service to their importance.

So you do believe specialty fly shops have an important role to play?
Yes I do. Both for Thomas & Thomas and the sport of fly fishing in its entirety. I do not anticipate huge online sales for T&T. I think most customers still prefer to purchase through specialty shops where they can test cast rods and receive additional advice on matching lines, balancing reels, specialized techniques, etc.

However, there are other customers who may want to purchase direct. Perhaps they don’t have a local shop that stocks the product they wish to purchase or they don’t have the time to go there. There are groups of enthusiasts who are less reliant upon their local fly shops than they were in the past – they now learn tips and tricks from the guides they fish with, their casting tuition comes from independent certified instructors, their line recommendations from knowledgeable fishermen on internet forums, they share their photographs with friends on facebook and they get their social interaction through the fishing clubs and conservation groups they are involved with.

The internet has fragmented the traditional infrastructure of manufacturer / representative / local specialty store / end customer, which served fly fishing so well for so long. Shops are finding ways to live with this changing dynamic – for example by selling online and developing their own label rods, reels, lines and apparel. As a manufacturer of fine fly rods, Thomas & Thomas must also adapt to this new era.

Tell us more about the T&T dealer protection plan. How will it work?
Dealers that truly support Thomas & Thomas by placing pre-season orders and educating their staff about the feature benefits of our products will be assigned a geographical territory. If we receive an online order where the billing address falls within that territory, the dealer will be credited for the sale. In effect the margin they make on such a sale will be comparable with what they would make had they of made the sale through their shop.

In no way do we wish to cannibalize sales from a dealers existing customer base. In fact we are going further than just avoiding that. Even if the sale comes from an individual that has no relationship with the fly shop in question we are still going to credit them. I believe this is right since the dealer has been instrumental in spreading the word about Thomas & Thomas in their locale.

I can see the attraction in this for dealers – for example it is better for them that a customer orders online from Thomas & Thomas than from another fly shop on the other side of the country. But how can they trust you will pay them the credit?
We have deliberated hard on this one. The solution we have arrived at is that the website functionality will be our sole mechanism for retail sales order processing. In simple terms, every order we receive will be entered through the site. At the end of each quarter these sales will be subject to an audit by an independent third party. We have appointed a Massachusetts based CPA to perform this role.

Orders will be cross-referenced with dealer territories to calculate credits due. Dealers will be informed by email. Upon receipt of credit notification, dealers will be able to order more product from Thomas & Thomas and apply the credit against the order.

It is possible that dealers in strong locations could find themselves in a position whereby they have T&T rods on their shelves that effectively stand them at $0.

How will you determine any given fly shop’s territory?
We have already made these decisions in consultation with our existing base of fly shops. The territory is assigned on a case-by-case basis and at a minimum will extend to a 50 mile radius from any given shop’s location.

Switching attention to the end customers – will they buy fly rods online without the expert advice of specialty fly shop professionals?
Some will. Thomas & Thomas sold many rods via its catalog in its early years. It wasn’t until the mid-nineties that we moved to dealer-only sales and that was solely for graphite fly rods. Bamboo rods have always been available directly from Thomas & Thomas. Lots of shops sell rods online and more and more brands are also offering equipment direct. Others sell through huge online portals, offering the customer no way to test cast the rod before purchase. You would think it would be extremely hard to sell products such as waders online since traditionally the customer has wished to try them on before purchase. However, every major wader brand now sells online.

Thomas & Thomas will offer customers in the USA the opportunity to change their mind. They can put a line on the rod and give it a test cast. Should they decide it does not suit their casting style, as long as the plastic wrapper on the cork is still intact and there are no other visible signs of use they can return the rod for a full refund. The rod must be returned within 14 days.

Will you ship rods internationally?
Yes we will ship to most countries in the world but not to those where we have an established, exclusive distributor. International customers will be responsible for paying import duties and any applicable taxes. Other than that their purchase will be straightforward. Their credit card will be billed in $US and the product will be shipped via cost effective and trackable freight service providers such as UPS, Fedex and USPS.

We have some excellent dealers around the world and the Thomas & Thomas dealer protection program will apply to them also. In reality it will be simpler for customers to buy through these fly shops if their country has one. However, where T&T does not currently have a presence, for example in the UK and Norway, online sales gives us a much needed way to provide products to T&T enthusiasts.

If you have further questions relating to this topic please contact Trevor Bross by email to trevor.bross@thomasandthomas.com

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