Willie Marx handled the spinning reel, a new high-end model that he's stocking at his bait and tackle store. He gave the reel a touch, and it twirled silently and easily, its magnets and ball bearings giving it an effortless feel.
It's one of the latest high-end, but still affordable products that Marx offers to keep the clientele at his Cementon bait-and-tackle shop coming back.
Over at the display of lures, Marx can offer the latest in bass lures that will "outsell any other rubber on the market," he says.
You can get just about anything you need to catch the fish that swim the Lehigh Valley's rivers and lakes at Willie Marx's Bait and Tackle store.
But it's not so much the products that keep his shop on Main Street holding its own against the big retailers.
It's Marx himself.
The 53-year-old shop owner will special-order equipment, fix it and give you the best advice on where the fish are biting. He says his service is what keeps his shop going against the big-box stores.
That's a common theme among owners and managers of small, independent sporting goods stores that have persevered against the big retailers and online competitors.
Service keeps customers coming back.
A lifelong fisherman, Marx says his customers like the personal attention they get from a local businessman who shares their passion. Sometimes, before the spring fishing season begins, they'll come in the store to trade fish stories. That's when things are easy for Marx, whose son occasionally helps out behind the register.
Come the busy days of March, April and May, and Marx's enthusiasm for the business he's run since 1996 will be put to the test. That's when he says he's putting in long hours, working most days 6 a.m.-6 p.m.
It doesn't hurt, he says, that the Lehigh River -- right behind his shop -- is much less polluted than it had been years ago. "It's become one really decent fishery," Marx says.
The Lehigh Valley's natural resources, such as the river, and the personal attention its small-business owners can give to their customers, help keep independent sporting goods dealers alive in an increasingly difficult economy.
The most recent national statistics show that the number of single-store and multi-store full-line and specialty sports stores is on the decline, according to Larry Weindruch, director of communications for the National Sporting Goods Association. The numbers are from a 2002 retail census, he said, but it's difficult to imagine that the trends have changed, considering the growth of online sales and the recession.
Marx says he's bought out the inventories of around 10 small fishing shops that were going out of business in recent years.
Association research shows that sporting goods sales were a $53 billion industry in 2008, so somebody has to be selling and buying all that gear.
The one retail niche that has shown growth, Weindruch said, has been in specialty athletic footwear. The Lehigh Valley sports them, too.
The managers at Aardvark Sports Shop, in Bethlehem and Stroudsburg, take the same approach as Marx.
"Customer service is the top priority," Bethlehem store manager Brian Schafer said. Testimony to that is found on the Web site of the Lehigh Valley Road Runners, which links to only two equipment retailers -- The Finish Line Running Store in Emmaus and Aardvark.
Aardvark will supply hard-to-find track spikes, he said, and will offer discounts to local high school and college teams. Running-only brands such as Brooks and Saucony are among the leading brands at Aardvark, Schafer said. The adventurous soon will have the option of trying Five Fingers brand shoes, which wrap each toe and are designed to help people move as if they were barefoot.
Schafer said the store -- the Bethlehem shop first opened 26 years ago -- has managed to survive the economy and big retailers by making sure they know the customers' needs and the shoes they carry. "We try to fit people in the correct shoes and sizes and have personal experience with the shoes we sell," he said.
Weindruch said such agility and "intangibles" help independents find a lasting niche. "Even with these traits, local merchants are not immune from the ups and downs of the economy," he said, "but retailers who exhibit those traits have a better chance of success than those who don't."
It's no surprise that Nestor's, one of the Valley's best-known sporting goods stores, also has survived by adapting and serving its customers' desires.
The store has been known for its winter sports, camping and fishing lines, but owner Peter Nestor says biking, particularly trail biking, has become a growing part of the business.
He said service such as ski tuning and boot fitting don't bring in a large portion of the store's revenue, but the customer interaction is essential. "Our best asset is our staff," he said. "Guidance and product recommendations are very much a part of what keeps us going."
Like Schafer, Nestor was enthusiastic about a shoe product, the Aline Foot Bed, that is designed to help feet that have been pounded by years of running. It's the kind of innovation, he thinks, that can help all athletes, including aging baby boomers whose feet are worn out from years of running.
It's all good for health, good for business and good for fun.
"Sports are fun as long as [participants] are improving with it," Nestor said. "Otherwise, they'll get frustrated and bored with it. Our job is to open up people's worlds with it."
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