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Jay’s Blog: The Certainty of Uncertainty

“What’s in store for 2017?,” said Jay McAninch, ATA CEO/president. “I’m certain the uncertainty of our market, especially bowhunting, will continue.”
Photo Credit: John Hafner

Author: Jay McAninch

Our industry has seen a troubling downturn the past couple of years, especially in 2016. Sales in many categories were not only down – double digits in many areas – but sales patterns were erratic and unpredictable compared to past years. What’s in store for 2017? I’m certain the uncertainty of our market, especially bowhunting, will continue. And beyond 2017? I have some optimistic thoughts to share later in this piece, but let’s work through our challenges first.

What factors contribute to the bowhunting market’s uncertainty? Here are two:

1. Hunting license sales in many states have been on a steady downward trend. Year-to-year changes weren’t drastic, but over the past several years license sales in individual states were steady at best and decreasing at worst. Wisconsin, a bellwether deer hunting state, experienced sales declines of over 50,000 total hunting licenses the past decade. In addition, evidence is mounting that many license-buying hunters aren’t participating as they once did. Some observers characterize bowhunting as “soft.” I think that portrays the situation nationwide.

2. Deer populations are stable to decreasing in many areas, especially in some of our nation’s traditionally strongest hunting regions. A few old-but-steady problems are habitat lost to development, destructive land-management practices, and access limitations caused by changing land uses and land-ownership attitudes. Two emerging challenges most concern me:

  • Chronic Wasting Disease, which is present in 23 states and spreading within those states, has been found to reduce deer populations in outbreak areas. Since CWD was discovered in Wisconsin in 2002, this 100 percent fatal disease has been verified in 18 of its 72 counties, and triggered more restrictive hunting regulations in 43 counties. In the worst areas, four in 10 adult bucks are infected. I think nearly all bowhunters are concerned about CWD, especially if their hunting spots are in a CWD area. I suspect some are hunting less, hunting differently and hunting elsewhere.
  • Predator populations (primarily coyotes) continue to impact deer nationwide. Meanwhile, some areas are experiencing significant bear predation on fawns, and gray wolf predation on all deer. Wolf populations continue growing unabated in 10 states (not counting Alaska), and impacts on hunting success are measurable in key bowhunting states like Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. With trapping and predator hunting also in decline, and wolves under court-ordered protection, we can expect predation on deer to increase.

As of 2016, Millennials (18 to 34 years) are the largest generation of adult Americans, and they’re the toughest generation to gauge yet. We must learn more about how millennials think about archery and bowhunting equipment, and what motivates them to go afield. Photo Credit: John Hafner Photo

I think changes in hunting participation were triggered by a perfect storm of differences in generations, differences in the extent and intensity of individual hunters, and differences in how people engage in hunting. Declines in hunting participation were predicted for years, but these past few years brought a startling change in both numbers and characteristics of bowhunters. To wit:

1. Participation by baby boomers (50-plus years old) is rapidly changing. Many in my age group (I’m 64) hunt less and/or hunt with easier-to-use equipment (crossbows), which means purchasing behaviors have changed. Overall, baby boomers drove bowhunting’s growth through the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, and our buying behavior fueled much of our industry’s great success. That’s changing rapidly for baby boomers as bowhunting’s financial and physical challenges increase with age. Our ATA team is investigating how much longer we can count on the baby boomers’ contributions to our industry.

2. Bowhunting participation by Gen-Xers (35 to 50 years) differs in many ways from baby boomers, and those differences impact our industry. Instead of hunting weekly or several times a week as my generation did, Gen-Xers more often hunt periodically. I’ve observed it’s more often a few days here or a week there, but then they don’t hunt at all for periods of time during the long season. We don’t know much about this behavior’s net impact on the Gen-Xers’ purchasing behavior, but our ATA team will investigate this specific concern in the weeks ahead.

3. Millennials (18 to 34 years) are the toughest generation to gauge yet. As of 2016, they’re the largest generation of adult Americans. Many of them are immigrants, which means much information about bowhunting isn’t available in their native language. They might have little or no access or opportunity to participate. As I read about Millennials on ATA’s Archery 360 and Bowhunting 360 platforms, I realize these young people go afield with different motivations and aspirations than do baby boomers, and their measures of success differ from mine. We also must learn more about how millennials think about equipment, which might differ from how my generation views and enjoys the gear.

To expertly navigate uncertainty, businesses – including our industry – must make decisions based on numbers, including numbers from retail sales, general economic indicators, and broader market segments. Photo Credit: Shane Indrebo

Another seldom-considered factor affecting our industry is bowhunters who hunt many other species, including fish. For example, the boating industry just had its best year in over a decade, which means some bowhunters chose a new boat over a new bow. Further, off-road vehicle sales have been steady, and firearms and fishing tackle remain longtime competitors for the bowhunter’s wallet. We must also assume that the ever-increasing cost of archery and bowhunting gear is having an impact. Many retailers tell me about inventory that’s harder to move because steadily rising prices reduce the number of bowhunters willing to buy.

Unfortunately, I think all this uncertainty will continue, especially in bowhunting. I’m sorry to send such bad news as we enter a new year. After all, uncertainty breeds doubt, anxiety, worry and confusion. Yet, much of our uncertainty stems from the way we’ve done business up to now: by the seat of our pants. We benefited for years from steady growth and big markets available for the taking. During those good times, market data weren’t necessary to turn profits. The industry needed only innovation, efficient operations and good customer service.

Business is now more complicated, but the sophistication of modern market data makes me optimistic about our industry’s future. These data deliver insights into consumer behaviors and trends, and will help drive business decisions industry-wide. If what we did before no longer works, we must seek solutions and act on what we learn. Fortunately, our industry will enjoy many opportunities to adapt, evolve and grow as we use all that data for business planning.

In fact, the current uncertainty in our markets makes bowhunting resemble most other consumer goods. That’s good news because most businesses use numbers – hard numbers – to deal with uncertainty. Consumer-generated data, and numbers from retail sales, general economic indicators, and broader market segments provide the context in which we operate. To expertly navigate uncertainty, businesses – including our industry – must make decisions based on numbers.

Insights and information about our customers will help us better predict their purchasing habits and guide new-product innovations and changes to existing products. Photo Credit: Shane Indrebo

For 2017, ATA is launching a data-collection and research effort that will generate lots of helpful, insightful numbers. We’ll have industry sales data of all kinds, as well as data on participation, license sales, and other relevant information. We’ll also conduct surveys and focus groups to understand what’s going on among the three generations of bowhunters, and what’s driving their purchases in the marketplace.

What does this mean for you, an ATA member?

Data can and will help us understand past trends and future possibilities. Insights and information about our customers will help us better predict their purchasing habits and guide new-product innovations and changes to existing products. Imagine a marketplace in which you understand trends, plot clear paths to success, and confidently place faith in a partner with real-world data that help you make tough decisions.

Well, the ATA is that partner. Our staff is certain to end the uncertainty of doing business in this ever-changing world. We’re excited to present new solutions that help ATA members adapt to change, and turn challenges into opportunities.

Together, we can and will maintain profitability while growing archery and bowhunting. As always, it’s all in the numbers. That’s why I’m so confident and optimistic.

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