Anglers Habitat learns, presses on

Wayne Johnson: “It’s a matter of survival every day. Every year we are thankful we get to celebrate another anniversary. Any time you’re in business, it’s difficult.”

By Brad Carlson

MERIDIAN, Idaho — Sometimes when Wayne Johnson tells you about a change he’s making in his business – and adds it may not work as planned – he sounds like he has owned a fly shop for one year instead of more than 21.

And that’s fine with the Anglers Habitat operator, who even hesitates to say he survived a recession-assisted, high-turnover decade among southwest Idaho fly tackle retailers.

“It’s a matter of survival every day,” Johnson said. “Every year we are thankful we get to celebrate another anniversary. Any time you’re in business, it’s difficult.”

A willingness to change his business and consistently question its viability serves him well as he works to expand the Anglers Habitat brick-and-mortar footprint and tweak its historically sizable Internet segment.

Johnson owned and operated a fly shop in Wasilla, Alaska from 1994 to 2002. He opened Anglers Habitat in June 2002 in Caldwell, eventually moving the shop to a 5,700-square-foot building he bought at 716 Blaine St. He added a 2,800-square-foot store at 2483 E. Fairview Ave., Meridian in early February 2015.

Fly shops develop specialties. For Anglers Habitat, building and repairing fly rods – and teaching others to do so – has been an emphasis. Johnson also likes to carry a fairly large inventory across many brands, enabled in part by emphasizing Internet sales from the early days of high-function websites and other online platforms.

Opening the Meridian store, west of the high-traffic Eagle Road, was a calculated risk. Johnson wanted more walk-in business and less reliance on an increasingly tough Internet segment, which he said produced about 80 percent of total revenue as recently as 2013 but contributed to 2014’s first-ever drop in total sales. He’d like to see revenue grow, and come mostly from in-store sales.

Current challenges include running product between Caldwell and Meridian stores, and dealing with Internet developments such as restrictions by vendors, costlier online platforms and greater competition.

Wayne Johnson has seen his fly fishing business pick up in September and he hopes for a good holiday season. (Brad Carlson photo)
Wayne Johnson has seen his fly fishing business pick up in September and he hopes for a good holiday season. (Brad Carlson photo)

A couple of years ago, some major vendors wouldn’t allow Anglers Habitat to sell on certain online platforms, and “we lost over half of our (Internet) sales overnight,” Johnson said. He added product lines he could sell on those platforms, launched a stand-alone website geared to rod-building kits, and considered adding a store.

Sales at the new Meridian store have been “up and down, and to be honest, a little disappointing,” he said in late July, when revenue was about half what he expected. “I think it’s because of mistakes we made.” The store had to discount clothing bought in high volume in anticipation of a pre-Christmas 2014 opening and the launch of a related niche website, shelved in favor of other Internet projects.

Anglers Habitat needs to repay debt it incurred to open the store, and “if we don’t do it, we won’t be around a year from now,” Johnson said in July. “We are working really hard on it.”

But sales had improved and stabilized by mid-September, helped in part by better-than-usual fishing conditions locally. And efforts to boost the Meridian store’s inventory of flies and tying materials, and rebalance its clothing selection, were starting to pay off.

Anglers Habitat is resilient. It lost a couple of high-profile brands, but later regained them. A few years ago it was selected as an additional Boise-area dealer for Orvis, which Johnson said is now its highest-revenue brand.

The Caldwell building has been listed for sale. If Johnson sells it, he plans to open a small store in Caldwell and move call center and warehouse operations to Meridian, he said. The combined headcount of 11 includes full- and part-time staff. Wayne’s son, Ben, manages the Caldwell store – where merchandising and displays have been improved, Wayne said – and helps at Meridian.

Wayne Johnson recalls his early years owning a fly shop, where he also sold belt buckles, paint-ball supplies and parts for remote-control cars so he could bring in additional money for fly fishing gear. His diverse-income tradition continues as he rents four motor homes to traveling anglers and others.

“The best thing (about the business) is the relationships you foster with customers and vendors – the camaraderie,” he said.

That means sharing experiences as well as an enthusiasm for new adventures.

“Living in Alaska always sparks interest,” said Johnson, who spent 22 years there. “People are interested in such stories.”

His Alaska fly shop attracted many out-of-state visitors who did not have much experience fishing there; they wanted to know where and how to fish, and with what gear. His Idaho shops draw many local anglers looking to improve or augment their own fishing, or to gather information about an upcoming trip to Alaska, he said.

Brad Carlson is an Idaho writer who, when not writing about fishing and the great outdoors in Idaho, is often found meandering on his favorite waters in Oregon, Montana and points in between.