Homegrown Retailers’ Big Trek
Outdoor outfitters Susan and Mark Anderson’s early years were in a retail wilderness, but now they’re expanding and thriving in the midst of bigfoot competitors.
Susan and Mark Anderson’s Eagle Eye Outfitters in Dothan recently completed a major expansion, competing nimbly with national chains like Academy Sports + Outdoors and Gander Mountain.
How can a 20-something couple who met in church open a homegrown store and compete, over the long haul, with across-town powerhouses like Academy Sports + Outdoors, Gander Mountain and Dick’s Sporting Goods?
Like David did when he met Goliath, you might say. But it might not be as quick and easy as it was for the biblical hero.
Susan and Mark Anderson opened Eagle Eye Outfitters in hometown Dothan in 1999, a sporting goods store featuring clothing, equipment and gear.
The Andersons, barely out of college, had experience. Both had worked in retail stores, though neither had owned one. What could possibly go wrong? Plenty.
Both readily admit to having a dream back in the day, but not a clear vision. There were big ideas but not enough money and a great plan, but inaccurate research.
Eagle Eye Outfitters opened with Susan continuing her accounting job at Dothan’s Farley Nuclear Plant. Her nights and weekends were devoted to the new store. Mark was full-time Eagle Eye and received no salary. As Susan recalls, “It was pretty rough.”
Her husband notes, “I wish we could tell you there was a ‘What if something goes wrong?’ plan. But we were arrogant enough to think we could do this and it would be a piece of cake. We got our eyes opened quickly.”
After soliciting a dozen banks, one helped them secure a $100,000 small business loan. “But the $100,000 was for everything,” says Susan. “Inventories, payroll and vendors — it didn’t go far.” Neither did sales.
“You always hear how startups never have enough money,” Mark notes. “It is absolutely true. And just the sheer magnitude of starting a business from scratch, even though we had been in the industry, the hurdles were so significant, that all our training and experience had not prepared us.”
He continues, recollecting the early days, “We actually thought if we opened, they would come,” referencing the first location, with four employees — three full time, one part time — in Dothan’s Hillcrest Shopping Center. “Unfortunately, we didn’t think about negative consequences until six months into business.”
The first four years were brutal. The Andersons kept trying but at times wondered if they would make it.
The turning point came early in the business. Team Anderson had tried applying past retail experience that did not fit their new store. With retail backgrounds including Dothan’s The Barn, Mark explains, “We had basically opened another Barn. We said we were an outdoor store, but 70 percent of our inventory was fashion oriented. We did not sell what our store said we were about.”
Customers were asking for outdoor brands the Andersons had never heard of. That changed.
For months, they listened to customers, many loyal Dothan people, wanting their hometown store to succeed. In addition, relationships were nurtured with leading worldwide outdoor brands. Susan adds, “God’s grace and business mentors’ guidance got us through.” And Mark agrees, adding, “During those early years, what I learned about business and from listening to people wanting to buy what we did not have is priceless.” It forged one of Eagle Eye’s core beliefs: “Without customers, we are nothing.”
The Anderson’s did their homework. Eagle Eye regrouped, restocked, repented and was reborn. Word spread, and the outfitter store did just that — outfitted customers for the outdoors. The eagle soared.
In the early 2000s, the store expanded from 3,600 to 6,000 square feet. More expansion continued. In 2014, it moved to 3535 Ross Clark Circle, a former movie complex turned outdoor headquarters.
“This is where the projector room used to be,” says Susan, pointing out an upstairs window that looks down at the warehouse that once was Northside Cinema One. “We wanted everything in one facility,” adds Mark. “We were concerned about reconfiguring a movie house into a retail store, but it has been a good fit.”
The former theater offers about 40,000 square feet, showcasing 175 active brands, staffed with 70-plus employees and dedicated to a company motto: “See a need, meet a need.”
“The competition can’t touch our customer service,” says Mark, “or our selection.”
“We may have many of the same brands as the other guys, but we carry the breadth of the brand. Competitors may offer, say, two dozen Columbia items. We carry thousands.”
Eagle Eye Outfitters gladly promotes a hometown advantage. “We know our people,” says Susan, who juggles Eagle Eye activities with the life and times of two daughters, ages 9 and 13. “We grew up here in this community.” And they give back to it.
Mark, the son of a pastor, is executive director of a local nonprofit, Wired Ministries. Their faith influences their business, starting with its Mission Statement: Eagle Eye Outfitters is a locally owned outdoor specialty retailer that exists to glorify God by serving our customers, our staff and their families, and our community.” Their actions back it up.
Every fulltime Eagle Eye employee receives 40 hours paid leave for volunteer work. Part-timers receive 20 hours. The needs are great in the Wiregrass, especially at Christmas. Employees assist with Meals on Wheels, homeless shelters, crisis pregnancy programs, food banks, Boys and Girls Clubs and more. Mark notes, “If churches can do it, why can’t we, through our business?”
They credit charitable employees as part of customer relations training. Susan explains, “After they serve the community and return to work, we see a difference in how our people deal with customers.”
Eagle Eye’s General Manager Dustin Lee agrees, “Even though we’re a large store, we do business on a first name basis. We know our customers, that’s what sets us apart.”
The Andersons have done it all, and on many days they still do. But officially, Susan is CFO over advertising, payroll, bookkeeping and website development. Mark oversees selling, buying and inventory. “He is also the head firefighter,” says Susan, acknowledging her chief executive husband.
The customer base is Dothan and beyond. The store draws from Houston, Henry, Dale and Geneva counties, and a significant number from the Florida Panhandle and South Georgia.
Like many retailers, Thanksgiving to Christmas accounts for about 40 percent of Eagle Eye Outfitter sales. It is gearing up for the holidays. “Lifestyle, outdoor brands and clothes for the weekend warrior are big and will be for Christmas,” Susan says. “And anything ‘Yeti,’ is huge, so are sunglasses,” adds her spouse.
In October, the Alabama Retailers Association recognized Eagle Eye with a bronze Retailer of the Year Award in the category of annual sales of $5 million to $20 million.
As for the future, the Andersons are concentrating on their new location. “This move has been so significant, it’s really hard to dream too far ahead,” notes Mark. “We are getting our organizational structure and operational procedures in place and our website going.” They are not ruling out another expansion.
But that is the 10-year plan. For now, Eagle Eye Outfitters is an outdoor lifestyle supplier of choice, with a following in three states, recognized for excellence in retail and for charity at home and beyond.
The eagle is flying.
Emmett Burnett and Todd Douglas are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Burnett is based in Satsuma and Douglas in Fort Walton Beach.