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Serving the guy who hates to shop
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Two huge stautes of whitetail bucks stand before the Cabela's in Owatonna. Visitors come from surrounding states to visit the store. It was Minnesota's second most popular tourist destination in 2002, after the Mall of America. (MPR photo/Rob Schmitz)
While most retailers are complaining about disappointing Christmas sales, sporting goods giant Cabela's reported December as its biggest money-making month ever. The company credits its success to breaking all the rules of retail and going after men who hate to shop.

Owatonna, Minn. — Like most Cabela's customers, Kyle Weinman holds a strong opinion about shopping.

"I hate it. I don't like to go shopping, I hate the crowds," says Weinman. "The only place I like to go is Cabella's, because it's got all the guy stuff."

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Image Cabela's Al Dorn

Cabela's has built its name on 'Guy Stuff.' In its 40-year history, Cabela's has always catered to the member of the family who is usually most reluctant to go shopping: dad.

It has done so with its popular mail-order catalog business specializing in hard-to-get outdoor gear, and now it's expanding its chain of successful megastores; all colossal tributes to the American outdoorsman.

Al Dorn, Promotions Manager of Cabela's in Owatonna, says there are many unusual sights at the store.

"This is a store where you'll see the gals up front tapping their foot and looking at their watch, not what you see in most other stores," Dorn says.

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Image Stuffing an elephant

When Cabela's began setting up its stores in 1991, the first thing it did was examine its catalog customer base. It began locating its megastores in what Dorn calls obscure locations.

But that's where Cabela's customers live.

All of Cabela's seven megastores are located in rural towns like Praire Du Chien, Wisconsin, and East Grand Forks, Minnesota. According to Chicago retail consultant Sid Doolittle, Cabela's doesn't just throw darts at a map when choosing a site for a new store. Doolittle says Cabela's does careful research on a population of consumers traditionally ignored by retailers: rural Americans.

He says they are much more professional in their approach to the outdoors than urban residents.

"They don't just go out and buy the latest Zebco reel around, they really buy very professional equipment, spend a lot of money on it, and they feel really good in these stores," says Doolittle.

A recent survey released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found the number of Americans who hunt or fish has dropped almost six percent in the last ten years. However, the amount they spend on equipment, licenses, and travel has jumped -- from $53 billion ten years ago to $70 billion today.

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Image Is that a tarp?

According to Al Dorn, each Cabela's is carefully planned to cater to this consumer: the outdoorsman usually averse to crowds and shopping.

"They want parking lots they can drive in with their truck pulling in a boat," says Dorn, "We have dog kennels, indoor and outdoor, at no charge. We have RV parking-- you can come in and stay with us, no charge."

Driving down Interstate 35 near Owatonna, it's hard to miss Cabela's. The huge building towers above the surrounding farmland. It's a Paul Bunyan-size log cabin. An enormous bronze sculpture of a pair of trophy white-tailed bucks stands in front of the store. It's a preview of sorts of what's inside.

Taking a tour of the store, Al Dorn points out scores of animals in the store's African Diorama. Cabela's also has a 40 foot-high mountain displaying North American animals. There is a wall of aquariums holding 60,000 gallons of water, stocked with Minnesota game fish. In fact, much of the store resembles a zoo, except that most of the animals in this zoo are dead.

Cabela's resident taxidermists Ernie Fortner and Darrin Kliment are working on an African elephant in the back of the store. Customers can watch from a viewing window. They're shaping an 800-pound foam block in preparation for mounting the animal's skin, which is lying on a pallet nearby.

"The skin looks like a big tarp," says Forner.

The elephant will be part of a display at a new Cabela's in Pennsylvania scheduled to open later in the year.

In a time when big retailers have been trying to save money by building large, cheap, warehouse-style stores in more locations, Cabela's has taken a very different approach. It takes years to choose a site and then to build and decorate each one. According to retail consultant Sid Doolittle, Cabela's stores are the most expensive stores per square foot in the industry.

Cabela's is a privately-held company and does not reveal its earnings, but according to the Owatonna store's Al Dorn, the company wouldn't be expanding if it weren't turning a profit.

"I've been in retail for years, working on both the manufacturing side and the retail side, and I never knew that you could do as much volume as this store does," says Dorn.

Last year, Cabela's Owatonna store ranked second to the Mall of America as Minnesota's biggest tourist attraction. Two hotels and a handful of restaurants have opened alongside the store to accommodate visitors. Cabela's aims to expand a typical store visit from what might normally be a couple of hours to a couple of days. To make this more likely, Cabela's employees offer workshops on hunting and fishing techniques as well as dog training on most weekends.

On this particular day, a Cabela's employee is teaching customers basic goose calling technique. The company's employees are an elite team of outdoor experts chosen from more than 42 states around the country. Dorn says Cabela's may be the only company that requires its employees to hunt, fish, and camp on a regular basis.

The store backs this expertise with a huge inventory. The store competes on price with discounters, but they carry 10 times the selection. Retail consultant Sid Doolittle says this depth of inventory will work well for Cabela's long into the future.

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