Brainstorming on the “Pro Deal” Conundrum

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By Kirk Deeter

I read with great interest the following Facebook post by my friend Charlie Craven, who owns Charlie’s Fly Box in Arvada, Colorado, is an author, fly innovator, and well-respected member of the fly-fishing business community. https://charliesflyboxinc.com/

“So this guy just comes in the shop and says, ‘Straight up, my buddy is a guide and he’s hooking me up with a pro deal and I just have some questions about some of the things if you can help…’

I told him, ‘Straight up, no. There’s nothing in it for me.’

What the serious ****? If you’re sharing your pro deal with your bros you’re a piece of ****. And if you’re dumb enough to come in and tell me about how you’re gonna screw me, don’t get huffy when I toss you out. This business is hard enough as it is without this crap.”

This post obviously touched a nerve, producing 163+ comments, almost all of them sympathetic. Not that that’s surprising. Ask any retailer (and I have been asking many since this post came out), and every one of them will tell you that a) the “pro deal” system is out of control, ineffectively monitored, and hurting their businesses, and b) though few are willing to admit it on the record, most believe that some manufacturers don’t really care.

I think we should all care, and while we’re at it, we should also add “media deals” to the conversation, because from where I sit, that scene is equally screwed up.

I can remember a long time ago when I was starting in this business, how I just drooled at the prospect of a rod or reel company giving me a “pro” discount. The truth is, however, when I really became a pro (by pro I mean it’s your job… your sole, at least primary, source of income that requires a specific level of expertise which you have invested years of study and effort to achieve), it immediately became obvious that pro deals weren’t that much of a “perk” at all… the “excitement” factor of product pro deals in a real, working scenario rates at about the same level as having dental insurance or a box of business cards.

But for whatever reason, there’s a massive cadre of anglers out there who think chasing pro deals is as much a sport as chasing the fish themselves. Sure, maybe that’s because some products are too flippin’ expensive for the average angler to buy… but then again, maybe they’re so expensive because so many who don’t really deserve the break get them for free.

I personally do not think it is truly about the money—some of these people fly their own planes to the river resort, then ask their guide if they can get hooked up on a rod for half-price. It’s about being a part of the “secret society.” I think it’s more of a cool factor for people who are successful but maybe not cool. After all, fly-fishing is a wonky/nerdy sport that somehow is cool (at least to us). So getting a pro deal is a status thing for folks who haven’t really enjoyed much of that (outside the business world) since they were first-chair clarinet in their middle school band.

We can talk in circles about all of this, but I’m going to throw out 10 suggestions that might help solve the whole pro deal/media deal situation. I don’t want to start any fights or point any fingers. But I do want to move the dialogue along, and if you think some of these things have merit—or if you think I’m nuts—I welcome your feedback (kirk@anglingtrade.com) because we’re going to keep bird-dogging this issue, and we’re going to do a deeper-dive story in the next print issue of Angling Trade to coincide with the IFTD show in Denver this coming October.

  • Make the “pro price” the actual price of producing the product. In other words, make the discount even deeper so the manufacturers don’t make any money on pro-discounted products. That way, we’ll all find out who’s really in it for the promotional value, and who’s in it for the cash. As you know, the typical pro deal is @ 50% off, or roughly the wholesale price the retailer pays to buy the product. When I buy the rod for $400 instead of $800, the manufacturer doesn’t bleed; the retailer is cut out of the picture. The manufacturer is, theoretically, making the same money, whether they sell it to you the retailer, or me the magazine editor, or Susie the guide somewhere out in the middle of Montana.

As long-time manufacturers’ representative Michael White pointed out in Charlie’s comment thread, the original purpose of the pro deal was to get new product in the hands of influencers like guides and writers. That’s seeding the market, and that’s smart business. Heck, if someone is really a bona-fide influencer, the manufacturer should give them the product. Period. Some get it, and some do that. But now some manufacturers are actually factoring these sales into their revenue streams and that’s the root of all this muckiness, in my opinion.

Temple Fork Outfitters actually effectively addressed this a few years ago. Having been approached by so many charities, specifically TU chapters who want a free rod to auction off at their annual rubber-chicken dinners, TFO just said, “Hold it… we’re not giving away any ‘free’ rods, but we will give you rods at our cost.” Thus, they don’t make a penny, but they don’t lose a penny. And, yes, they get the “promo” value, which is really what it’s supposed to be all about, right? I work for TU national… I run the marketing department… and I am saying on the record that if every rod and reel manufacturer in the world would adopt the same policy, I’d be fine with it. That would clean things up, and clear away a lot of $800 rods that come to the banquet for “free,” leave the banquet for less than the actual wholesale price, and hose the dealer in the process.

  • Pro-rate “pro” deals, based on “pro” performance. I personally have a real beef with any product manufacturer who sends me a product to review, and then expects me to send it back. Like I need to borrow your new rod, write a story about it, give it the exposure you want, and then have the honor of paying to ship it back to you. (Even if you include a paid shipping label, it’s a pain in my butt to box it up, drive it to the UPS store, and send it to you. My time is worth money, including the time I spend playing around with your product, and the time I spend writing about it.) Moreover, my media space is worth money, and if I’m putting you in a magazine where the rate for a full-page ad is north of $5K, or the digital space online is also valuable, the least you can do, Mr. Manufacturer, is invest the couple hundred bucks it actually cost you to make the product. At the levels I’m talking about, anything less is an insult.

But I understand the reason more and more manufacturers are implementing this policy is because the world is now filled with a bunch of basement bloggers and Instagram gurus who beg for product and deliver some level of exposure. Which is fine, I guess. But there’s still a difference between playing in the minors and playing in the Show. And the manufacturers need to do more homework to figure this out.

I would suggest to you all that that scenario is exactly the same with guides. There are some guides who are whacking out 200 trips a year, for their main income, and when they are not on the water, they’re talking to fishing clubs, going to consumer shows, working with conservation organizations, writing books or articles, and so forth. Tim Linehan, for example, is a helluva lot different player than the part-time summer shop guide who takes 20 overflow trips a year to make some extra coin until he/she goes back to college or decides to run the chairlift when the snow falls. I’m not saying we don’t need the part-timer any more than I’m saying we don’t need the basement blogger. I think it’s all good, to a degree.

But maybe they don’t get the same discount. Maybe, in a media context, your discount is commensurate with your actual audience. And maybe the guide discount should reflect the volume of trips you actually do. And the shop owner should be able to categorize guides when they’re working with their reps to place orders, and help everyone understand who is playing big-league ball, and who is still a prospect.

  • Eliminate the Warranty on pro deal products, or actually enforce the “original owner” policy for all warranty repairs and replacements. If you eliminate the replacement warranty, or at least offer the opt-out, everyone could get a price break. What’s lame is people getting rods second hand off E-Bay or through a guide pal, breaking the rod, and getting a new rod. The second-largest rod producer in the world is Sage’s repair shop. That’s a whole different discussion… but I think if manufacturers aren’t willing to look at the warranty issue on a full-market level, they ought to at least pilot some revised approach, and I think the pro programs might be the place to do that.
  • Inscribe the name (or initials) of every pro on every pro-priced product. Go ahead and charge me an extra $10 to put “KD” on my pro-purchased rod or reel. I think it makes the rod or reel more special. It’s certainly going to stop me from handing it off to someone else (unless Kevin Durant takes up fly fishing). I’ll wait the extra month if that’s what it takes, especially if I think it’s going to help the dealer (which I do).
  • Limit the window of pro purchases to two months of the calendar year, preferably in the off season. This eliminates the “impulse buy” where a favorite client is going on the big trip to Russia and asks the guide for that special hookup favor. If you’re a serious working guide, and you’re buying spare rods for your boat, or whatever, you should have a pretty good sense of what you’ll need in, say, February and March. And if you break something, and get in a crunch, there should be a fallback option as well… read the next bullet.
  • Manufacturers should make their pro databases public and have them in formats so the shop can instantly access them online… or, alternatively, issue a pro-program card/accreditation that a guide or media pro can carry into a fly shop. So… the guide breaks the favorite 5-weight, and is SOL a day before their next trip. No problem… he/she is a card-carrying pro. He/she walks into the shop, picks out the rod, buys it, and BOOM, that’s a 25% discount, right there. Moreover, there’s an additional 25% manufacturers rebate owed to him/her. So that’s a 50% total discount, but the burden is equally shared by the retailer and the manufacturer. And because the guide (or a client) broke the rod, and they need it now… too bad, they don’t get the full 75% “actual cost of product” discount. The retailer gets some scratch for saving the day, and the manufacturer gets a tad more margin for playing the rebate game.

An aside… as a media person, I go out of my way to buy flies, and guide trips, and other things from my retailer friends. Ask The Fly Shop, or the Steamboat Flyfisher, or Charlie’s Fly Box, or Trout’s, and so on. But I do get rods and reels sent to me all the time, and I don’t like going into a shop, and getting the “eye of Mordor” from fly shop guy when I want help spooling up a 5-weight line (which I buy) on my new reel that was sent to me (doesn’t ever happen in the shops I just mentioned). Fly shop guy doesn’t know who I am or what I do… but if I could flash him the gold ID card, or he could look me up in the computer and know I’m on the team (the person who’s going to drive the next 100 consumers through the door to buy the reel I’m playing with), and not some person who got his guide buddy to hook him up on a pro deal, that would make those scenarios a lot more comfortable all-around.

  • Ship guide pro orders to the shop. I’m all for the notion that pro deal product shipments should drop ship to a shop or outfitter, so the retailer/owner knows what’s going on. That won’t work for media, so maybe it’s apples and oranges there.
  • Allow limited, seasonal gift purchases for those who do something good. The coolest companies with the coolest pro programs are the ones that allow a pro to purchase something for someone as a gift… e.g. Costa, Patagonia, etc. Maybe for a limited window and all of that… but I think I should be able to buy my father a shirt or some sunglasses for Christmas, and save the markup, given how involved I am with the industry. And I think all working guides are owed the same courtesy, on a limited basis, for family, or a great client, or friend, whatever. I think setting firmer parameters and making it truly “gifting” will eliminate some of the nonsense. Sometimes taking the pressure off in one sense will alleviate the perceived abuses of a program in another. Maybe someone has to do something for conservation to earn this privilege, or do a benefit trip, or some good deed. Again, the shop owner is empowered to decide who qualifies.
  • Make pro products look different. I’m not saying you need to make the pro-rods and reels purple (though that’s a thought…). But if a pro is buying a rod or reel for a real-work scenario, he or she is not going to care what a rod or reel looks like as much as he/she cares about true performance. So, if the butt-section of the rod blank is yellow, but everything else is the exact same, so be it. In the very least, when Barney the professional accountant, who casts like Barney the professional accountant and not Barney the professional fly-fishing guide, shows up at the boat ramp with the “pro” rod, everyone is going to call bullshit. And even Barney is going to feel like a dumb-ass, despite the steep discount he so happily obtained.
  • Throw serial abusers out of the pro programs. This one will be really hard to police, and the line in the sand will be hard to define. But if someone is obviously, undeniably breaking the rules, they get a warning. And if they break the rules a second time, they are banned for life. Period. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. Serious talk should be backed by serious resolve, and AFFTA could serve its members by tracking this… and Angling Trade would be happy to help also.

Again, this is just brainstorming, but I am eager to hear what “pro” dealers really think. I think some of these ideas (or a combination of a few) could go a long way toward addressing what I know retailers think is a serious, pervasive problem that is causing friction in manufacturer-dealer relationships at a time when that should be avoided at all costs.

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15 Comments

  1. I most certainly agree that pro deals have gotten out of control especially in the last 8-10 years. When I first started in fly fishing/outdoor retail 26 years ago pro deals were strictly policed by the reps and vendors-it was truly a privilage and not a God Given Right. It also allowed shop employees to personally use the gear in the field, gain more product knowledge, and have an easier time selling it while paying for it at a price someone earning the typical shop employee wage could afford. Whenever a customer called me out on any employee discount, I would always say let’s compare paychecks and more often than not they’d realize I paid what they pay. for product. Back in the day when employees left the shop I worked for they didn’t come back begging us for pro deals mainly because they knew “their day in the sun was over”. In the past 5 years, the number of former employees that asked me for a pro deal because they didn’t want to pay retail is astonishingly high, downright shameless/ful. The straw that really broke this camel’s back is the number of high salaried professionals-some National Trustees/Officers with TU-who are receiving pro deals whether from a guide/shop owner friend, vendor friend, or because the pro deal program has gone rogue and been poorly managed. These are the retailer’s customers who should be paying retail for their product, and they’re being canibalized. This is one of the reasons some retailers are closing their doors including one that I used to work for.

  2. Some great ideas. Couple.of thoughts: 1.) You write: “Ship guide pro orders to the shop. I’m all for the notion that pro deal product shipments should drop ship to a shop or outfitter, so the retailer/owner knows what’s going on. That won’t work for media, so maybe it’s apples and oranges there.” — why won’t that work for media? If we are writing/publishing about fly fishing, chances are we have a good shop (or two or three) nearby, and if we don’t, or our local shop doesn’t carry a particular brand, a shop somewhere else can forward it on. Might help create some relationships. 2.) If the purpose of putting, say, rods in the hands of guides or journalists is to gain new customers, there is probably some value in having the exact product in their hands. I dont care how well that yellow-butt rod casts, if it looks ridiculous in a photo or if it’s not attractive to a client, that’s probably not very helpful. The pro’s initials though? That seems easy enough. Didn’t Ross Reels do that for a while?

    • Thank you Aaron. I am in agreement most of the way… However, when it comes to media, I think the editor/assigner of stories is better positioned to vouch for the bona-fides of a pro applicant than the local fly shop. So while I am all for the relationships, I think shops should monitor guides, and editors should monitor writers, and maybe there’s a way that shops and editors communicate and share. I think the main point is that there should be some form of clearinghouse on both ends… some responsibility. And yes, there should be clear communication. But I wouldn’t want a fly shop vouching for my writers, any more than you would want me as an editor vouching for your guides. Also, I wouldn’t want to make a product ugly, just to designate it as pro, but I do think some level of aesthetic differentiation would be important, even if it is subtle. I was just throwing some spaghetti against the wall.

  3. I ran an independent fly fishing guide service in Alaska for many years. I wore Simms and used Sage and Ross. I appreciated the deals and developed relationships with the companies. I purchased new products every year and put them directly into service. I watched the majority of my repeat clients switch to Simms gear and end up with Sage rods over the years. Exactly as things were intended. I got asked a few times to “hook up a client”, but I always told them straight up that it was not an option.

    Now I’m full on into retail and I support a variety of excellent brands. I recently sold a $900 rod to a customer as a gift for her husband. He returned it, because his guide told him he could hook him up with a Pro Deal for another premium brand. $900 retail loss to our store. In the last month, I’ve had several part time summer guides shopping products for themselves or their friends that they planned to purchase on Pro Deals. It’s very frustrating to say the least.

    I believe pro deals are essential for working guides and full time shop employees and they can definitely help manufacturers with sales, but there does need to be some strict criteria to receive them. I’m not saying this is standard practice, but it’s an example of how easy it is to appear as an industry insider. In Montana, I can purchase a guide license for $150. Without an outfitters signature, it’s worthless, but I could show it off to a manufacturer or a retailer who provides a guide discount and possibly get hooked up. Then I could share the deal with all my friends.

    I definitely think you are on the right track Kirk and this needs to be discussed within the industry if the industry cares about retailers. Guides and those who qualify for discounting need to fully understand that the discount is for equipment use or review and not for resale or sharing. This needs to be hammered in.

  4. I have been begging for just this very thing for many years from anyone (Manufacturers and Reps) who will listen. I think it’s an easy solution with guides and media persons. All “Pro’s” must select a fly shop that will be there point of record. This way the fly shop can validate the “Pro’s” status to the manufacture. It will also help keep track of abuse, the shop will know if a 6’2″ 250# guide is ordering medium short waders. Yes, it will be more work for the fly shop, but it will be time well invested.

    As for the Social Media crowd, STOP! They are not earning there living on Instagram and Facebook these are for sharing, I don’t care how popular they are, they pay retail!

  5. You hit the nail on the head……your ideas are great and I would support them ALL. I’m tired of sending back pro deal rods in for repair by not only my guide staff but for those buddy AND banquet deals as well. Fly Shops have taken it in the rear end for far too long on both the life time warranty and pro deal discounts. Throw in direct sales on top of that and manufacturers wonder why they don’t see any growth in sales. Now to add icing on the cake, we have short sighted manufactures jumping down the Amazon abyss hole never to resurface or care about the specialty shops again. That is, until it’s too late and we are all out of business! Until specialty fly shops band together to form our own trade organization (sorry Affta I really can’t say you’re going to bat for specialty fly shops on these type of issues) that contains our own board members, our own buying policies from manufacturers that don’t adhere to our concerns and ideas, our voice will not be heard. Sorry for the rant, but I’ve been at this for over 25 years and the slippery slope is getting steeper in my opinion.

  6. I’m the manufacturer of 406 Fly Lines and get asked frequently for a “Pro Deal” on our fly lines. Since we’re are a small company we have a blanket policy of no Pro Deals on our lines. While I will happily send a sample to a fly Shop to try out. If I sent out all the lines to guides who asked for them we would soon be out of business. It’s a difficult decision to make, potential sales from guides showcasing our lines vs. limiting our exposure, but as a small business we need to make decisions like this everyday just to stay in business. Contrary to popular opinion we, as manufacturers, do not have unlimited resources. 406 Fly lines has been fortunate in that word of mouth and targeted advertising has help us grow and remain viable in the face of the competition.

  7. Scott Wells on

    I’m for comparisons sake: I guide part time, and take advantage of the occasional pro deal, when available to me. I’ve also been a small business owner for the last 16 years, working as a carpentry subcontractor, with 26 years on the tools all together. I’ve never once been offered or sought out a “pro deal” on my tools. They just don’t exist. Certain tool manufacturers have demo programs that allow you to try out a tool before you buy it, but those are few and far between. Warranties on even the high end ‘professional grade tools are pretty basic at best. I can assure you that I’ve never sent in a broken 8 year old power tool and had it replaced for $50, nor has anyone I know. The long and short of the matter is that you can’t do the job without the tools, weather it’s guiding or nail bending, and if you can’t afford the tools to do the job then you need to find something you’re good at ‘cause this ain’t it.

  8. Great article. It’s insane to me that retailers are subjected to honoring pro deals, instead of those transactions being handled strictly direct to consumer. Especially when the retailers aren’t the one signing the pro deals, nor are they receiving the benefits of the marketing. Brand X gets the shoutout, not the shop that sells Brand X. As more quality small manufacturers pop up, it will be interesting to see how the industry will react. It seems like shops will call it quits with the corporate mothership in favor of a manufacturer who’s willing to pass up cannibalizing retail profits or, at least, fixing the system.

    That said, I don’t think we can blame the manufacturers giving them in general; the industry-wide execution just seems to have been butchered. Obliterating the profit motive for retailers is a shining example. Why the hell would you sell something for nothing?

    But as far as marketing strategy goes, it’s prudent. “Sponsor” a bunch of people with small to medium sized audiences that don’t know how to price themselves and convince them to purchase your product at a discount. Depending on the influencer, you’re getting the same reach as a paid media campaign, except you don’t have to cough up the ad dollars to Facebook, Instagram, Google, YouTube, etc. The folks with smaller audiences are taking less than 50%, sometimes like 20%-40%. Social media is still the Wild West of marketing because it has all the attention, but operates almost lawlessly. So why pay thousands out of pocket to run a commercial on TV or place an ad in a print magazine, when you could just offer discounts to a bunch of people that will offer the same distribution for a small share of potential profit?

    Will be interesting to see how it all plays out. I believe that people will begin to judge brands on the values of the influencers repping them, which means companies sponsoring less than reputable figures will be on the chopping block for the actions of their reps. Good, old fashioned capitalism usually has a way of righting the ship.

  9. As a new guide service based in Colorado, I fully agree with Kirk on all points. It comes in handy to be able to buy a rod at a lower price to go out and use. That being said, I don’t have a physical store front. Myself and my guides are shooting for almost 200 days this year on the water.

    What pisses me off about the situation that Charlie discussed and that a few other shops here have stated is that they have lost sales on a number of products because of indiscriminate “Pro Staff”. It is totally unreasonable for guides to do this to a shop. I will be the first to say that I would turn in an offender who is breaking the rules of the Pro Program from any company.

    I have set a policy with my guides that, when it comes to Pro Programs that I have curated with fly fishing brands if I find that they have abused the program in any way, shape or form, I will contact said brand and have them permanently removed from the program. Also, they are removed from my guide roster and are no longer welcome to work for me.

    Keep up the good work Kirk!!! Those of you that are brands maybe take at least on of these suggestions if not all of them.

  10. Bryan Whiting on

    Have the privilege of doing a lot of fishing each year all over Western US and take two annual fly fishing trips to Alaska (one for Kings and one later for Silvers/Rainbows as well as a couple salt water trips each winter. I always buy my fly rods at retail, but haven’t purchased a rod/reel/or line in years that wasn’t first recommended by a trusted guide with whom I have fished for many days and was also allowed to fish with by the same guide. These long term guides had many rods at their disposal so their recommendation carried weight. They also could advise regarding line weight and type. Obviously their possessing the rod or reel was essential to their influence. I have never been disappointed with a rod after making a decision in this fashion. Since I was a return customer, the guide probably felt greater responsibility to make sure the rod suited me, because he/she wanted me to continue to be a return customer. I never asked them to get me a pro deal. I am not sure how best to make sure product gets in the hands of the veteran guide/outfitter as opposed to the summer guide picking up some extra bucks; maybe those that work at the lodges that require more of a trip such as Alaska and such compared to the two month guide at a local river. If the guide couldn’t get a pro deal on a rod they already had rec’d would assure they weren’t working the pro deal because they would only get one deal per rod type. Another solution may be for the rod manufacturers to share with one another the names of guides who are abusing the pro deal privilege; that would be similar to a retail employee signing an agreement that they will not use their employee discount for friends and others. Such is very common in the retail and restaurant industry.

  11. I had a guy tell me a story about getting a FishPond NET from FishPond and 1/2 price on the net retractor!
    When I have guys come in and tell me they got a pro deal I “play stupid until they they tell the name, then I call my rep and say WTH!? It is rampant and I have even had guide “want-a-be’s” come show me their pro guide stuff and ask me to trade out due to size/color/model preferences, which usually means a pro staff person gave/sold it to them.

  12. Tom Gagnon on

    I am 100% in favor of ‘bro deal’ crack downs. I’m one of hundreds of full time MT guides and see abuse all the time. The biggest hurdle I see is all these companies looking around at each other wondering who is willing to fall on their sword to lose market share by giving up those discount sales to their competitors. Unless it is an organized cut by all manufacturers across the board I don’t see how it would be effective.

    Another issue I see with some of your ideas is how I’m supposed to update discontinued gear (especially rods, reels) if they are altered to represent a pro purchase, whether it be with my name inscribed or altered colors as you suggest. If the true purpose of the discount is for me to have current product in my boat for client use; making that gear impossible or difficult for resale (which my boat rod brand of choice recommends for discontinued product), what am I to do with all these obsolete rods when a new series comes out? Companies would need to offer a trade in program for guides with this marked equipment to upgrade to current offerings.

  13. John M. Jones on

    Every item that is “given” or discounted is a loss for a shop somewhere. I agree with most of the solutions KD listed.
    A missed point may be from the manufacturers. Hearing about lots of deals available from some top names from the employees. Not that this is stolen items, but getting deals from manufacturing employees.

  14. Cut the deal to one a year for whatever the product is – period. With the databases of who is on pro deal, that should not be very hard to police. If someone needs multiple rods or reels or whatever a year, then you need to wonder if something a bit off if going on. At some point to get in the game you need to pay the price. When I was guiding in the 80’s it was very hard to get pro deals – even as a pro. Cost of doing business if you want to be in the business.

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