Carl, our own urban bon vivant and raconteur, recently made an excellent comparison between two full service department stores.
He wrote about the benefits and drawbacks of Macy’s and Nordstrom, two of Chicago’s premier retailers. Carl endorsed Macy’s. I second his choice, Nordstrom, is way too gay for me and by that I mean it’s way too chick and fashion oriented. Go ahead, call me a simple redneck hick from Indiana. I yam what I yam.
But what’s a country boy to do?
Where do we go for the necessities of gracious yet humble rural living, Cabela’s or Bass Pro? My own recent experiences aside I have shopped at both stores. They are as different in their appearance as they are in their offerings for the most part. On the business side Bass Pro is the #186 private company according to Forbes while Cabela’s is publicly held.
During the late 90’s I happened to be in Springfield MO on business for three days checking and approving a huge press run for a client at a large printing plant. Since Springfield was the home of the only Bass Pro retail store I just had to spend one evening there. It was huge! Bass Pro is known for boats and their boat sales area was gigantic. Even more impressive were the acres of RV’s. Inside the fishing tackle selection was the largest I have ever seen. It was like a WalMart for fishing tackle alone.
During the late 80’s I was traveling home from a Colorado vacation and stopped in at one of the only two Cabela’s retail stores in Kearny NE. Greeting customers were the lifelike taxidermy displays and a huge freshwater aquarium. While fishing tackle was well represented I was most impressed by the enormous selection of hunting gear and clothing. They seemed to place a high priority on fly fishing. After all, Dick and Jim Cabela launched their empire selling two hand tied flies for $.50 via mail order from their Nebraska garage using a small classified ad in Outdoor Life magazine back in the 50’s.
While both retailers began as catalog operations both have expanded into full retail outlets across the country and are in constant expansion mode.
When driving up to a Bass Pro Shop retail store one sees a lodge made of quaint rustic weathered looking wood, beams and antique glass. It just screams outdoors adventure. Once inside you would swear you are entering a long standing and timeless lodge somewhere in the Ozarks. Wood is everywhere along with weathered photos, antique decoys, antlers, rusty traps, baits and antique outdoor paraphernalia. But it’s mostly fake Disneyish props. But it is realistic, very well done and inviting.
My local Bass Pro is the place to go for fishing tackle and gear hands down. The selection is outstanding and the staff usually knows what aisle the Hawaiian Wigglers, Hula Poppers and assorted scented rubber worms are opposed to where the garlic flavored Chomper salamanders, long shanked Aberdeen hooks, fat raps, Zara Spooks and clacker-style buzzbaits are.
In a display case I once noticed a fishing reel that cost $400. It wasn’t one of those saltwater stainless steel Hemingwayesque monsters, it was a lightweight open face freshwater spinning reel. When I asked to take a look at it the clerk held it with reverence as he handed it to me explaining the ultra light alloy gear mechanism and ball bearing features. It weighed ounces and with one crank it spun like a top. He was knowledgeable and swore once he earned enough money he would be purchasing one for himself. Would it put fish in the boat I asked? Well, ummm…no…butitsureisreallyverycool, he replied.
Bass Pro Redhead brand clothing is a far cry from the $400. top-drawer reel. It’s not that well made and the price reflects it, but it's good enough. If one is an occasional outdoorsman it may hold up for a few years. Used for rugged expeditions year after year? Probably not.
Moving upstairs to the hunting department most of what they stock is camo clothing. They have tons of it in every woodland, cattail and leafy pattern imaginable. The gun selection is good and the ammo choices are expected. They stock all sorts of calls and seem to be most enamored with turkey hunting supplies than waterfowl. The archery department is good as is the variety of dog training supplies.
Back downstairs they spend a lot of square footage on Uncle Buck’s gift shop stuff like scented candles, fish pillows and a thousand brands of the same old hot sauce, peanuts and coffee you can find anywhere.
The one thing Bass Pro has (but I have never eaten there) is their Islamorada seafood restaurant. I have talked to locals who are not outdoor types but go there just for dinner. Fine dining it isn’t but for northwestern Indiana it could be the best of its genre according to a few folks I trust. That’s impressive.
On to Cabela’s. This store opened five years ago closer to the Illinois state line and two years after Bass Pro opened and for good reason, idiotic Illinois gun laws and the shortage of gun stores in Chicago and Crook County in general make it the choice for both Illinois hunters and firearm enthusiasts. Both stores are located on I-90/94, on the path between Chicago and Michigan and beyond. It is a major highway for cross-country travelers. Cabela’s is in a smarter location with more vehicles passing by since I-65 feeds into it from the south heading toward Chicago.
When approaching this store it is noticeably large but not too different looking from most big-box retailers. The expected vaulted log entrance and bronze deer statues set it apart from a Sears or Best Buy. The parking lot is huge but seldom full.
Once inside it is bright and large, a far cry from the quaint rustic warmth of a Bass Pro. Like their original, Cabela’s has a huge taxidermy display with stuffed wild critters everywhere, including some from Africa.
Not too different from the original, the fishing department is large but nothing compared to Bass Pro. When it comes to camping gear they cannot be beat and it is all top drawer stuff. The clothing is also above average and at times a sale offers some good buys on name brands. The outdoor clothing, especially the Cabela’s brand is outstanding in quality and not too pricey. They have a better guarantee that Bass Pro lacks in their Redhead line. Cabela’s brand waders, backpacks, cold weather clothing, camo clothing, rainwear along with luggage and duffels are top rate and cost no more than the name brands.
Cabela’s also has a gift shop area but it’s nothing like Uncle Buck’s at Bass Pro. The Cabela’s restaurant doesn’t even rival Long John Silver so we won’t even make a comparison.
Past experience tells me to go Bass Pro for fishing tackle but for hunting, camping, clothing and outerwear Cabela’s is the place. Upstairs in the hunting department is the largest selection of ammo around along with reloading machines and supplies. The Cabela gun counter is staffed by very knowledgeable firearm enthusiasts who will help the buyer make the best choices. There is also what they call a “Gun Library” which is separate and looks like a stately men’s club cigar room with used and rare firearms all in very good condition. But the prices are very high, top dollar is what they ask.
They have a boat sales department but it’s not big at all with very few models on display. But the bro and I both highly recommend it for boat and motor repair, service and maintenance since we take ours there. They do good work in a timely manner at a fair price, a far cry from most boat dealers. Since I have never taken it to the Bass Pro store for service I will not compare the two. I have always questioned the quality of Bass Pro boats. I hear that the motors they sell are name brands made especially for Bass Pro and not the same quality as ones bought at a conventional marine dealer. Again, consider that is what I was told by a credible source at a marine dealer, not a fact.
My advice is if you want a good fishing tackle selection, a good seafood dinner and affordable clothing in a charming environment that will amuse the entire family then Bass Pro is the place.
When looking for top quality and a larger selection of hunting and camping gear and rugged outdoor clothing at a fair price then Cabela’s is a better destination for you. It’s nothing fancy or overdone but the do have the goods.
In conclusion, neither fully satisfies the full “all-in-one-store” outdoor outfitter promise.