Over the course of a long and busy professional life, Bobby Fowler has come full circle. He got his start in wholesaling over 30 years ago, and has returned to it with Exit Sales, as a distributor specializing in selling fishing equipment for independent retailers. "I was in the wholesale business back in the '70s, when I was a very young man, selling hang-up cards and notions to mom-and-pop stores," he says. "That's when the Walmarts started moving in, and the small stores just started closing right and left. Walmart and the other discounters just kind of took over. So I got out of it."
He then pursued a successful career in highway construction as an estimator. "I just had a knack for it," he says. "I worked all the way up to vice president of one company, then they had me running another company." Unfortunately, a lifelong tendency toward headaches took a turn for the worse, and Fowler started to experience seizures and memory problems. "I had a medical setback from a scar in my head that happened when I was three years old," Fowler says. For a construction professional that had specialized in estimating job costs to the penny, it was a life changing blow. "It was kind of like going crazy. I was just losing it," Fowler says. "I'd be driving home, and I couldn't find my way home." However, Fowler found a solution with a new doctor, a new marriage, and a new business in wholesale.
"A few years ago I did a big study on the tackle business, and I studied the product categories that have not been run over by discounters in different markets. I studied what Walmart was doing and not doing, and so I chose to get into the tackle business." Fowler enjoys fishing, and had been making a study of the fishing gear retail business for quite a while. "I had been fooling around with selling fishing tackle off and on, dabbling in it, experimenting with it on eBay and all for ten years," he says. "I had knowledge of some places you can go for closeouts." With an insider's knowledge of bargain price sourcing, he got his start in earnest about three years ago.
Fowler had two buildings to use for the business, investment money in hand and no overhead, because he was using facilities that were in the family. "I had operating capital of my own, so I didn't have to borrow money. I said, 'We'll give this a shot,'" he recalls. "And little by little it has grown and grown and grown, and as people find us, we're picking up more and more customers. I've taken a bad situation and turned it into a survivable situation," he modestly explains. Speaking of bad situations, Exit Sales faced a serious challenge last spring, thanks to Mother Nature's less than gentle hand in Tennessee. "One major setback we had last year was one of the worst rains in 30 or 40 years," says Fowler. "We got flooded, and we've got a full basement. That was a tremendous setback, but we came out of it." The company lost a significant quantity of goods that were damaged by the floodwaters, some of which were sold at extremely low prices.
Nine months later, though, the company has recovered from that incident, and Fowler says he is ready to expand the business even further. "We've been remodeling this building and getting ready to move to the next step," he reports. "We'll carry more product. Little by little, the pieces are falling in place." Part of Exit Sales expansion plans include a move to the Internet. Although Fowler is reaching his established customers simply by telephone, he says that Exit Sales needs to reach out to new customers, and that means moving online. One way to do that is through email and an electronic catalog, which can be updated easily when new inventory comes in. "Our stuff changes so fast," he says, "I'm trying to figure out a way to do it. The customers I've been dealing with for a while, I just talk to on the phone. It's the new inquiries I'm having trouble with. I'm putting together a PDF catalog that I can send out. When they inquire, I'll email that out." He started moving online through a site on WholesaleCentral.com, and the speed with which progress can be made online came as a bit of a surprise. "We didn't know WholesaleCentral.com was going to launch us out as quick as they did, but we've had a lot of response," Fowler says. "We were just caught off guard without any kind of catalog to send them. I have to get that online catalog that Wholesale Central offers."
Although years ago he sold product on eBay, the importance of that channel has waned. Now Fowler does not sell on eBay because he does not want to compete with his customers. However, on rare occasions, Exit Sales will use eBay to sell "very odd lots," just to get rid of excess merchandise. Exit Sales also has a showroom in Milan, TN, and Fowler uses that to sell odd pieces to a walk-in trade. He does a decent business in lady's handbags there as well, surprisingly enough. "We have a section set aside for lady's purses. It's right when you come in the door. People think that's kind of odd, but the thought behind it is if a man wants to look at fishing tackle, it gives his lady something to do." Fowler sells a lot of handbags that way, he says. Of course, most of his trade is to small retailers. "We wholesale fishing equipment. We've lined up bait shops across the country, and we sell to flea market people. I've tried to reach out to customers far away from Tennessee," he says, explaining that he wants customers from all over the country. "A lot of these resellers don't have a good source and can't find product at a decent price." He says that his customers who are small retailers have trouble finding discount prices in small lots. "The problem they have is that they are hard to service, because of their volume. They are buying from guys coming by in trucks, and their prices are way, way higher. A guy who is a sporting goods distributor does not want to fool with them because their volume is so low." By catering to small specialty customers, Fowler is able to do a good business selling relatively inexpensive goods. "We buy closeouts all the time, so our customers get tremendous deals from us," he says.
Fowler has some concrete examples of the very low prices he can offer small shopkeepers. "I often pick up bargains on the closeout market. For example, I might buy a major brand of plastic worms that retails for $6 per unit, and we can offer them to the small bait shops for $2.25 or $2.50. Well, that puts them back in a competitive market," he says. "We were selling line for $2.50 or $3 per spool. We had 3,000 spools we got at a tremendous closeout. My customers would probably pay about $4 or $5 from another wholesaler for them." Exit Sales keeps things simple for the niche retailers who buy from the company, with no minimum and no preferential deals, no starter kits, and no first-time buyer specials. "We don't really have a minimum, says Fowler. "Probably about $100 is the least we would want to sell after we pack it up and all." He prides himself on selling at the lowest possible price, so that there are no deals possible. "We start at the lowest price we can. We just set our price, and that's kind of the deal," he says. Fowler says he can make deals on caseload sales, and sometimes he'll pick up merchandise at a special price that he can pass on at a lower cost.
Because Fowler empathizes with small vendors, his goal is to pay the bills, not to get rich. "We buy direct, we get the deals, and we offer low prices," he says. "I've met a whole lot of people along the way, and I allow these smaller dealers to compete with the larger dealers because we're not trying to make a ton of money off of them." He estimates he has about 1,000 products for sale, though it varies depending on what he has bought lately, and his rich assortment is a selling point. "I've got a much bigger line than Walmart has," he says. "Our biggest sellers are Quantum and Zebco," he adds, mentioning two of the best known brands in the field. Zebco makes fishing rods, reels and apparel, and Quantum makes freshwater and saltwater fishing reels and rods. Exit Sales is an authorized dealer for these and other popular brands.
Fowler is always introducing new products. "I keep my eyes and ears open, and I have salesmen who call me. We're constantly working on something. We're closeout distributors. There are distributors in other parts of the country that will call me when there is a big deal out there, and they ask me how much of it will I take," he explains. "I go in with a guy about once a year, and we import some rods. I take part of a load. That's been working pretty well for us." He also sells bargain no-name rods to flea market vendors. "They normally buy off-brand rods." Vendors also buy damaged rods that they can repair and resell. "When we got flooded we broke the tips on a lot of rods, so I sold them cheaply. I have a guy who buys them, puts the tips on them, and then sells them at flea markets."
For more information:
Exit Sales Company
1108 S. Main Street
Milan, TN 38358
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