June is prime time for fishing in South Florida, as the weather turns favorable for trips to the Bahamas and easily caught dolphins are abundant and hungry. But at Capt. Harry’s Fishing Supply, the local catch is only half the story.
In addition to a retail store near Miami’s Little River district, the company operates a catalog and Internet business. From a second-floor warehouse filled with closely spaced floor-to-ceiling shelves, pickers fill orders from nearly every U.S. state and 120 countries.
Since the early 1980s, Capt. Harry’s has relied on overseas sales to balance the ups and downs of the domestic market. “This is our business plan,” said company president Carl Liederman. “We drive our business through our international exports.”
That strategy helped Capt. Harry’s increase sales by 24 percent last year, while fishing-supply sales in general rose about 5 percent, said consultant Rob Southwick.
“Marine fishing went way down when the economy took a dive,” said Southwick, who heads Southwick Associates, a fish and wildlife research firm in Fernandina Beach. “It looks like they’re doing better than the average,” he said.
The company’s international focus was born in the early 1980s when visitors from Latin America flooded downtown Miami to go shopping. About 40 percent of the foot traffic in 1982 was from foreign customers. So the store created a small catalog. “Everyone who came into the store walked out with a Capt. Harry’s catalog,” Liederman said.
Soon after, the store began getting mail orders from tourists who took the catalog home. When Latin shoppers migrated away from downtown in the 1990s, there was already a comfortable base of business coming in from overseas.
Capt. Harry’s reaches out to global markets with its 148-page catalog and through attendance at overseas trade shows, advertising in foreign fishing publications and its command of complex international shipping rules.
A random check of seven outbound orders on a recent weekday found one shipment headed for Connecticut. The other destinations: Antigua, Australia, the Marshall Islands, France, Slovakia and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
This year, Liederman and Harry Vernon III, vice president and the son of the company’s founder, are debating the firm’s Internet strategy. Although e-retailing is more cost-efficient, many in the shop’s prime age demographic of 40 to 55 prefer to browse the catalog first and then place their order online, rather than click through the site.
Sometime in June, the company will bring website operations in-house, which will allow for faster price and selection changes. Eventually, Liederman expects everyone to use the Web for remote shopping.
Although Latin America and the Caribbean are currently prime catalog territories, Capt. Harry’s also gets orders worth tens of thousands of dollars from Japan and wealthy buyers in the Middle East. Its shipment to Guantánamo Bay is going to the military Base Exchange, where it holds a license to export fishing gear.
The top international market varies from year to year, sometimes because of currency fluctuations. Overall, the business has revenue of between $5 million and $10 million, Liederman said, with about half coming from foreign sales.
Florida is also an important source of revenue. More fishing gear is sold in Florida than in any other state, accounting for $4.4 billion annually, according to a 2008 report based on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data.
Capt. Harry’s trolls for local anglers with an 8,000-square-foot sales floor packed with rods, reels, sinkers and lures in every color imaginable. The store stocks 20,000 items, including at least a thousand lures and teasers designed to tempt fish onto an angler’s line. The biggest is nearly two feet long and the smallest less than an inch. There are scented lures, mirrored lures, lures with holographic features and ones designed to move like a frightened fish.
“As far as saltwater fishing tackle, they’ve probably got the biggest selection,” said Jimbo Thomas, captain of the 42-foot Thomas Flyer charter fishing boat at the Miamarina. “A lot of hard-to-find stuff, they have.”
The vast assortment lets customers choose the lure they think will work, said Jeffrey Liederman, who is Carl’s son and works in the business.
“There’s so much personal preference,” he said. “We’re here to try to meet everyone’s need as opposed to what we think.”
But many anglers go to Capt. Harry’s specifically for the advice provided by Jeffrey Liederman and Vernon.
“They have a plethora of knowledge of the best way to do things, all of the information you need to give you a little more edge in fishing,” said Bouncer Smith, a well-known charter captain working out of the Miami Beach Marina. “They are on the cutting edge of networking with the different fishermen as to what’s working.”
Capt. Harry’s was started on the Miami River in 1970 to serve commercial hook-and-line boats, a vanishing species in South Florida. More than a few customers say they came to buy equipment from founder Harry Vernon II when he was one of the only big tackle shops around.
“He was instrumental in buying my first rod and reel,” said Pam Marmin, a Miami Shores tournament champion who has fished for 25 years.
Harry Vernon III remembers life at the store on Southwest Sixth Street as a simpler time. He grew up in the business, but by the 1990s, Capt. Harry’s was being pressed by big-box sports stores that had deeper inventories and more marketing muscle. So, like other independents, it honed the expertise of its staff into a competitive asset.
Fishing for fans
The company’s 30 employees have all gone on fishing excursions, even those who just handle Internet or phone orders. That helps them respond more knowledgably to customer questions, Liederman says.
In addition, Vernon is a frequent guest on cable-TV fishing shows, which enhances the store’s reputation among fishing fanatics.
By 2005, growth at the Northwest 11th Street store had plateaued and customers started to grouse about the shabby surroundings. So Vernon and Liederman began searching for a new location. To boost local traffic, they wanted a high visibility spot on a major roadway. They found one along Interstate 95 at a site leased to a XXX-rated video store.
They bought the property and hired architect Les Beilinson to create a concept that would attract attention. The result was a striking installation of 46 leaping blue marlin fastened to a metal mesh screen on the side of the building.
“We felt we needed to make a statement,” said Liederman, who notes that the building at 85th Street is exposed to 257,000 cars daily, according to Florida Department of Transportation estimates.
The store opened in 2008 and motorists still venture in simply to learn what the marlin display is all about. Sales have grown every year since the opening, except for 2009 when they were flat, Liederman said.
Demand this year started strong but has softened a little in the second quarter, perhaps hurt by rising fuel costs. But overall there’s reason for optimism, said industry researcher Rob Southwick. Recreational boat sales rose in 2011 for the first time in five years. “That growth translates into more boating-supply sales,” he said.