For years, I’ve dreamt about walking into my local fly shop one day and seeing a section specifically dedicated to tenkara gear–they way they do in Japan. Well, it’s been well over a decade now and it still hasn’t happened. Buying a rod (especially if it’s a first rod) is a big decision for most people. They want to be able to make a tangible decision and be given advice from a trusted source face-to-face. Who’s going to buy a $1,000 Sage unless they can take it out for a test cast and compare it to an Orvis while getting the lowdown from an experienced fly shop employee? It’s an experience you can’t really get online, and so far, choosing a tenkara rod has remained a cyber roll of the dice.
Some companies have tried to break into retail but haven’t really been a success. Many gave up and decided to just keep selling online. And fly shop owners aren’t exactly beating down the doors of tenkara rod makers begging for their business. So what’s going on here?
As both a customer and as someone who’s worked in the fly fishing retail industry for many years, I believe it’s based on a phenomenon that is rooted in reluctance and self-fulfilling prophesy. It’s a self-feeding cycle that perpetuates itself and will be unbreakable until one thing changes to stop it (I’ll reveal that later).
Let’s look at 2 personas:
The Fly Shop Owner
“We heard about this ‘tenkara’ a few times but it doesn’t look worth trying. A couple of our customers asked about it so we decided to stock a couple rods and see what happens–a trial basis. I don’t want to invest in inventory that won’t sell when it looks like a fad. Those rods have a low profit margin too, so I’d rather sell a Winston. Plus, none of my employees know anything about tenkara and aren’t interested in it. I don’t want to waste time training them on it. And don’t get me started on what our serious customers would think of our shop image if we started pushing tenkara. It’s just not worth it. It’s not even real fly fishing. So I’ll just stock a couple of rods and see if they sell; then make a decision from there. But hopefully, the buzzword will bring a few people in and they’ll buy something else I can actually make a profit from.”
The Tenkara Customer
“I was excited to see that one of my local shops is now a tenkara dealer! I’ve been looking for my first tenkara rod and have done some research online but thought that it would be great to go cast some side-by-side (that’s what everyone told me). I drove down there and sure enough, they had a tenkara sticker in the window! I went up to the clerk and asked where the tenkara rods were. He moaned, ‘I think we have one in the back’ and begrudgingly trudged towards the stock room. He came out and laid one rod tube on the counter without saying a word. One rod. One model. One brand. ‘That’s it?’ I said. ‘Yep. We don’t sell many of ’em.’ I could already see I had wasted my time. They guy knew absolutely nothing about tenkara. He couldn’t answer any of my questions and didn’t even know which knots to use to set it up. I thanked him and as as I walked out he said desperately, ‘I have some nice Sages I could show you.’ ‘I don’t want a Sage. I want a tenkara rod!’ I replied, letting the bell slap the back of the door as an exclamation mark to my utter dissatisfaction.”
Imagine being the customer in the scenario above. You might think I’m exaggerating or embellishing to prove a point. But this has actually happened to me play by play! And I’ve had countless others tell me nearly identical stories. I get constant reports of not being taken seriously as soon as the word “tenkara” is mentioned and being condescended to. The employees have stamped a scarlet “W” on your forehead (“waste of time”) and you’ll quickly be abandoned for the customer over there peeking into the reel case. Or worse, you’ll hear the employees snickering as you’re halfway out the door (this has happened to me too).
So it should be pretty obvious what’s happening here. The fly shop owners know nothing about tenkara, aren’t interested in it, don’t believe in it, and don’t want to invest in stock because it’s “risky”. Therefore, they try to ride on the coattails of a hot new buzzword but end up providing the worst possible customer experience.
The customer goes in with high expectations but soon has their excitement extinguished by apathy, ignorance, and a feeling of being misled. The shop views them as someone who isn’t serious and probably wouldn’t have bought anything anyway–contributing to the negative “tenkara-as-consumer” stereotype. So now the owner’s decision to not stock tenkara is reaffirmed. And the cycle goes on and on …
So who is to blame?
The fly shops? That might be one’s first instinct. But look at it from the owner’s perspective. Buying any new inventory is a risk (multiplied if it’s a completely new genre of products). If a new dubbing came out, and you wanted to see if it would sell or not, you wouldn’t order just color. You’d order a few of every color offered–it wouldn’t be a true test otherwise. Now think about trying to break into tenkara. To provide the best customer experience and to run an accurate experiment, you can’t just have one rod sitting under a pile of dust in the back. You’d want to order every model of at least the top 6 or 7 brands. That turns into a very substantial upfront investment quickly. What if it fails? Not only are you stuck with a sizeable amount of unprofitable product that’s taking up valuable real estate on the sales floor, but you’ll have to pay inventory tax on it. From a business perspective (and let’s not forget that fly shops are businesses), it ‘s simply not worth the risk.
So is it the consumer? I highly doubt that. Ever since I can remember tenkara anglers have been chomping at the bit to see tenkara gear in brick and mortar stores. Of course, it’s easy to be enthusiastic about such a thing when it’s of no risk to you.
No, I think the key to breaking the cycle is this: growth. Think about this … You’re a fly shop owner and have heard of tenkara but casually dismissed it. Maybe 1 in 10 of your customers have even heard of it, let alone tried it or actively fish it. It’s not your demographic. Plus, the margins aren’t worth it when you could sell one Orvis rod and make 3X the profit.
Now, what happens if more and more people start coming in asking about it? After a while, you realize that segment is growing and every time someone walks out the door empty handed, you not only lost the sale of the rod, but also of potential add-on items: flies, fly boxes, tippet, tools, waders, wading boots, etc. I’m not sure what the tipping point would be, but if I were a fly shop owner and 3 or 4 people were coming in asking about tenkara every day, my ears would perk up.
All it takes is for the right mindset to believe in tenkara not only as a credible form of fishing, but also as a viable product segment. But that will never happen without growth. It has to be there first before inventory buyers have confidence to make the leap. And if it succeeds, there could be a chain reaction as there typically in in a competitive space like fly fishing. One shop sees their rival succeeding with tenkara so they start looking into giving a try. And so on … If the snowball effect works, it could mean that one day, a customer could walk into many fly shops to find themselves with a decent selection of tenkara gear and (hopefully by then) knowledgable staff.
What can we do?
If you want to be able to run to your local shop and pick up some last-minute fluorocarbon level line you just ran out of instead of paying shipping and waiting for it (and afford others the same convenience), there is only one thing you can do: help grow the sport! Many of us have already been doing this altruistically, but I’m pointing out that we have a clear benefit in spreading the word. Wouldn’t it be great if you could hop over to the shop and test cast that new rod you just saw online 10 minutes ago? Or grab some spare lilian for the one you just noticed was broken 5 minutes before you left for a 3-day trip? Want to see it happen? You can make it happen!
Start a blog, offer to write guest posts on non-tenkara sites, make videos, start a group, give lectures or seminars, start a local club and invite outsiders to come, leave free tenkara stickers on the counter at fly shops, talk to fly shop owners and tell them the tenkara story, do podcasts, live video, Q & As for beginners, take a friend tenkara fishing, talk to local fly fishing groups and offer to give a free demo … There are probably hundreds of things we could all do to promote tenkara to the exent that it would ultimately benefit everyone: beginners, experts, and, yes, even fly shops.
I can’t say where I got the data from but I happen to have a pretty good estimate of the number of extant tenkara anglers in the U.S. right now. Doing some rough math, if even 50% of us converted just one or two people per year, the growth of our sport would be unlike anything we’ve ever seen–enough for the industry to take earnest notice.
Tenkara has given us so much in so many ways. I know anglers whose lives have been transformed by it far beyond the stream banks. And whether we consider our motives selfish or altruistic, I think only good can come from fostering its growth. So please think about what role you can contribute. No matter how large or small, it all makes a difference. It all adds up. It all matters. And the world could certainly use more things that truly matter.
Great article Jason! Reading it I feel like you we’re telling my tenkara story… I am the owner of Red Brook Tenkara and I started my company after looking for some support while still new to the method and finding no help locally. One shop never heard of it, another laughed and said it was a fad and the last one had a rod but didn’t know how to use it. After being frustrated with the lack of retail presence I went online and learned as much as I could on my own. When I got better at it I began to teach friends, who in turn convinced me to start RBT. Since then, I have been doing tenkara presentations for Trout Unlimited chapters, fly fishing clubs, and anyone else who would listen, including a striped bass club. It’s been a long journey but very rewarding on a personal level. I love the method and I love it when someone I teach catches the fever too. Since the start I have been showing up at all the fishing shows that I can with my tenkara booth and converting people one at a time. Each year my booth gets better and the tenkara following gets bigger as well. I have been lucky enough to get my RBT gear in some local shops as well. But it took a personal approach to get there. I met the owner of North Country Angler at a show and he was very interested but wanted a first-hand experience before putting it in his shop. So I went to his shop to demo some gear and we went to one of his favorite spots to try it out. Since then his shop has been supporting me and tenkara 100 percent. He even put it in his latest book. I agree with all of your points! I have been concentrating on the New England region and have stayed out of some of the national scene for two reasons. One to focus on being an ambassador for tenkara in the region I know and love and two because at the time there were a lot of “tenkara wars” over things that I found way too negative for me. This is just a brief (seems long huh?) piece of my experience. I would love to talk more with you about it sometime. Anyways, thanks for all that you do for the tenkara community. It is important to all of us! Sincerely, Bill Holleran, Founder Red Brook Tenkara
Great story Bill. I’d love to hear more about it. My number is 303-803-2740
A few years ago I was in a fly shop, shooting the breeze and avoiding work. A guy rolled up on a motorcycle, came in and asked if the shop had any tenkara lines. The shopkeeper, who knew very little about it but had heard me describing fixed-line fishing, looked at me and said “Wanna jump in?”
I ended up giving the motorcyclist/angler an extra furled line and I rigged up a #3.5 level line for him as well. I forget what the rod was, an Amazon special, 12 feet probably. Nothing exciting but perfectly serviceable. He then bought some tippet material and a few flies from the shop, at my urging.
So there is an example of how to spread the word.
Nice work Patrick! And now when someone asks him how he got into it, the motorcycle guy will have a great story to tell. What about the shopkeeper? Did he start using tenkara?
As a fly shop employee, much of your analysis is true. Tenkara rods have low margin, are oftentimes hard to source (japan, direct to consumer, small operations) and are quite expensive for an item that may or may not move. It would take some compromise from both shops and manufacturers to truly see tenkara have a long lasting presence in fly shops. Manufacturers will have to put better margins in somewhere- as well as make an effort to incentivize putting rods in the shop. If tenakara brands would offer a consignment program, thereby removing the shops risk for carrying expensive, niche-within a niche product I think you’d see them in many more shops.
Hi Jackson, there are a lot of American tenkara companies now that would be much easier to deal with than Japan and I’m sure are still interested in retail. Another way to think of it is that the rod is not the sale. It’s the gateway for the add-ons they’ll need.
Unfortunately, the only thing that Fly shop owners really care about is margins. If the margins aren’t there, they won’t push the product. We all agree on that. On the other hand, a consignment program can have dismal results as well because there is no risk. Usually, a good sales person, and shop owners needs some skin in the game as well as a reward (Spiffs for sales people, Margins for shop owners). There needs to be both risk and reward. If there is no risk (cost of item) the item will just sit there collecting dust. They don’t care if it sells or not.
So, here are some things you can do:
1) Fix the margins issue to be competitive to other products in the shop. Shops need 50 points to start. Offer 55 to 60. Take a hit on the margins or adjust the pricing of Tenkara products to give the shops what they need.
2) Give the shops a good Tenkara experience. Insist that the sales people go out and fish Tenkara one evening. A quick afterwork seminar on set up and casting. Don’t sell to shops that don’t believe in the product. You’re doing a dis-service to Tenkara industry to have sales people who are not interested and don’t care. Their poor attitude is contagious and spreads to their customers. Get your stuff out of their shops, now. Only sell to shops that care. Dusty products are bad for the brands and in this case, bad for Tenkara as a whole.
3) Don’t be so “Culty.” Fish everything and every way and fish with other anglers who don’t fish Tenkara. Don’t be so “us” or “them.” Present it as just another fun way to fish. It’ll catch on eventually, but be adversarial slows the process. Fit in.
4) Change the sales person’s tactics/target customers. Instead of just carrying Tenkara and waiting for a Tenkara customer, better to assume that every fly angler walking into the shop can use this tool in his tool box. Give them reasons why. How many 9′ 5 weights can you sell someone? Not many, so sell them a new tool.
Personally, I Euro nymph most of time. It’s just the most effective on my waters. But I carry my Tenkara rod in my pack most of the time for two reason: 1) If fish start rising, I’ll take out my Tenkara rod and stop nymphing 2) If I’m way out in the back country and I break a rod, Tenkara keeps me fishing instead of ending my day. If my buddy breaks a rod I’ll lend him my rod and fish Tenkara. My point here is that I am the customer that fly shops should be targeting. The guy who wants more tools and not looking to be on one team or the other.
The other thing to consider it that you are taking on giants in the industry with big marketing budgets. Most people just want what the industry marketers tell them they want. The best way to grow any product segment is to have the big companies accept the product and promote it along with their other fly fishing lines. Earning credibility from one of the major brands would be huge boost to Tenkara. Don’t try to beat them, join them. And let their marketing horsepower grow the Tenkara segment. Good luck.
Keep up the great work, keep the ideas flowing!
“What about the shopkeeper? Did he start using tenkara?”
I doubt it. But he wasn’t hostile. When he said my description of Tenkara reminded him of a cane pole (and how many times have we heard that one), I said that a good fixed-line rod is a precision instrument compared to a cane pole. Also try fitting the latter in a backback. The guy laughed and said something like “point taken.”
Great article; honesty and reality are relatively rare today. Your ambassadorship of fly fishing comes from being a professional guide of conventional fly fishing and tenkara. Your temperament shows through. My son is a professional guide, and I have been fly fishing for over 65 years and have combed much of the globe in search of fly fishing adventures for half a century. Tenkara is now my way of fly fishing. Its portability gives me two hands for balance, and casting takes little energy, but releasing could be a problem, but I always fish with a guide now.
Another reason tenkara stays periphery to mainstream fly fishing, unfortunately, is a cult-like element that sees itself as a monitor and truth sayer and even threatens freedom of the free press.
Flylifemagazine.com recently came under assault because of an opinion not liked by the “truthsayers” and having miss identified a person and a link. They want court time for using in-the-news images and having views not appreciated by the “monitors.”
I hope more like you can promote what I’ve come to enjoy late in life, tenkara fished how I see it and enjoy it.
Thanks Skip! Thankfully, the whole “tenkara cult” thing has greatly subsided over the years. Believe me, it used to be really bad. But for the most part, I think the tenkara community is very open and welcoming these days. I hope it continues on that trajectory.