The Business Journal Q&A: T.J. Foy, General Manager, Cabela’s, The Falls, Bristol, Va.
Replete with a deli that serves wild game sandwiches, a fudge shop and a full array of powersports offerings, Cabela’s will open the doors of an 82,000-square-foot store at The Falls development in Bristol, Va., Oct. 1.
The opening marks the end of a long wait for all involved, from city officials to the store management team. Perhaps no single individual is more eager for the archer to cut the ribbon (yes, Cabela’s has an employee who cuts the ribbon at grand openings with a well-placed arrow) than T.J. Foy, general manager.
Foy spoke with The Business Journal in September as around 70 of the store’s 190 employees were stocking shelves, placing mannequins and putting the finishing touches on what has been a two-year process.
Business Journal: So the heavy lifting is done as far as construction and hiring. With less than a month before grand opening, what’s left as far as high priorities?
T.J. Foy: Getting in the continuing education for the outfitters (Cabela’s refers to sales associates as outiftters) on product knowledge, making sure they know exactly what they’re selling and continuing to ingrain the culture of the company, that sales culture. That’s the biggest thing in the remaining amount of time we have.
BJ: How do you define that culture?
TJF: They need to understand the customer is No. 1. That red carpet level of service is what it takes for us to be known by the title of the world’s foremost outfitter. It means that when I, as a customer, walk into this building, I’m going to be treated with an unbelievable amount of customer service from people who are knowledgeable about the products they’re selling.
It means they’re going to get me what I need when I need it, not necessarily what I want, but what I need. You can have customers come in prepared to spend $1,000 on an item when all they really need is a $10 item.
It’s making sure the customer walks out of here with the experience that they have come to expect from Cabela’s.
When it comes to sales, you need a customer culture. You also need to know how to complete a sale. We do a lot of that kind of training. A lot of it is formal training, some of which is web-based and some of which is classroom-style training.
Using those tools, we ingrain in the minds of our outfitters what customers’ expectations are when they walk into a Cabela’s.
When you walk into Walmart, you have one expectation for the level of service. When I walk into Cabela’s it’s completely different. We have to meet a very high level of customer expectations if we want repeat business.
The retail environment is becoming ever more competitive. What segregates us from everybody else is the level of service. Everybody sells virtually the same things. There might be a brand difference here and there, but essentially the products are the same. What separates us from the competitors has to be the world-class customer service.
BJ: When you talk about creating a culture in a store where the vast majority of the employees are brand new to the company, that implies a longer, more intense training period at start-up than one would expect from most retailers. Is that a fair assumption?
TJF: You’re right, but you would be surprised how many outfitters already know a great deal before they set foot in the store. When we did the interview process, I wasn’t necessarily looking for work experience so much as, “Do they play with the toys that we sell?” So, for example, in archery, we have hired a large quantity of outfitters who know how to use a bow, who know what the differences are between bows and they know how to work on them. It’s the same thing in firearms. They don’t have a firearm sales background per se, but because they use almost everything we sell, they can talk from personal experience about what they use, and apply that in their own sales and customer service work. Some positions are going to be more background-specific than others, but those will be more in the operations side of the business.
BJ: And using customer service as a unique selling point is a nice choice in today’s retail environment because you’re not just competing against the other brick-and-mortar direct competitor across the street, you’re up against the Amazons of the world as well.
TJF: Amazon is the No.1 online retailer out there, but we do have a very strong online presence. We have an initiative where you can buy it online and pick it up in the store for free. All our stores are generally going to be regionally-merchandise-specific. So if someone walks into the Bristol store looking for something we only sell in Lehigh, Penn., we can still order that through any of several kiosks here in the store and I can get it within a matter of days.
BJ: This particular store is the mid-size version of a Cabela’s store, called the NextGen store. Is this the direction the company is moving?
TJF: Yes. As the company expands, from a business standpoint, the legacy stores (the older, larger stores) work very well when you don’t have any other stores within four or five hours’ drive from them. They draw from four hours away. We also have outposts, which are smaller stores, and I think we’ve learned that some of them were almost too small. This is the compromise between the legacy and outpost formats.
If you were to take this floorplan, add a mezzanine and about 60,000-70,000 square feet of libraries and museums, you have a legacy store. So essentially, if you look at the downstairs portion of a legacy building, that’s what you have here.
Those library and museum spaces in the legacy stores are expensive to maintain. From a cost standpoint, the maintenance costs associated with those kinds of operations are very expensive.
BJ: What challenges are unique, and maybe greater, in running an outfitter store than any other retail platform?
TJF: Without a doubt it’s making sure you meet the customers’ demands. In my past life, I spent 12 years with Kmart where there was no expectation for service. But I also spent 13 years with Home Depot, where there is a huge expectation for level of customer service. That expectation is higher here.
I have to make sure we get customer demands met while at the same time taking care of my outfitters. There is no more important asset to me than my outfitters. When they truly feel and embrace the environment we are building here, they will pass that on to the customers.
One of the things we talk about is how many times you walk past an associate in some other store and don’t get greeted, smiled at, or even acknowledged. They don’t even talk to each other, let alone the customers. So we have talked from day one about the fact that we have to build relationships with each other. If our outfitters don’t have that experience of having solid relationships among themselves, how will they pass that feeling along to the customers?
We’ve all walked into retailers where as soon as you walk into the building it feels dead. When you walk through our doors, we want you to feel electricity, a sense of “wow.” That happens when you have outfitters who are having a good time doing what they’re doing. Those are my expectations, but yes, they are the toughest thing to get instilled.
BJ: If you can get that buy-in, though, then the store becomes more profitable as time goes by because low turnover means you’re doing less training, correct?
TJF: The heavy lifting is upfront. Most retailers, especially in the part-time ranks have high turnover. But the less training you find yourself having to do, the more efficient the entire process is. You have better performance.
And again, that’s relationship-driven. A firearms customer who bought from Bob will have learned over time that Bob is someone he really trusts. That customer will come back to the building to buy again from Bob.
BJ: You mentioned your expectations earlier. What are the expectations for what this store will gross in a year?
TJF: (Laughs) I know what I want to do. We still haven’t really finalized a 2016 budget yet. I personally would like to see $800,000 to $900,000 a week. Is that doable? I don’t know, but that’s my personal goal.
BJ: The best of success to you.
The Bristol store is Cabela’s first to open in Virginia. Additional stores are slated to open in Short Pump (Richmond area) in spring 2016 and in Gainesville (Washington DC metro) in spring 2017.
Cabela’s, based in Sidney, Neb., currently operates or plans to open 74 stores in North America.
The Bristol Cabela’s location is five files from the Tennessee-Virginia border. There are no Cabela’s stores in Tennessee, though the company serves Tennessee customers from three other locations near the state line: Bowling Green, Ky., is 23 miles away. The Huntsville, Ala., store (scheduled to open the day before Bristol) is 23 miles away as well. The Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., store is less than two miles from Tennessee.