The little bait shop John L. Morris installed in his father's liquor store in Springfield, Mo., nearly 30 years ago has come a long way.
The business that has evolved into the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World chain still sells fishing lures - more than 30,000 of them. But today's Bass Pro stores, typically the size of three football fields, draw outdoors sports enthusiasts of all stripes, from golfers to boaters to campers and hunters.
The Springfield-based chain - still headed by founder Morris - will open its newest mega-store today, becoming the biggest anchor at Arundel Mills, near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Its debut comes nearly a year after the 1.3 million-square-foot mall's November opening.
"The consumer has been waiting for Bass Pro," said Gene Condon, the mall's general manager and a vice president with mall developer the Mills Corp. "It truly is an outdoor sportsman's paradise and will be a multiregional draw for Arundel Mills."
Bass Pro, which is the top tourist attraction in its home state of Missouri, has been anchoring Mills malls since 1997. That year, Bass Pro opened at Gurnee Mills, outside Chicago. The Arundel Bass Pro will be the sixth at a Mills mall and the 14th store in the chain.
Condon expects the 150,000-square-foot store to boost traffic 10 percent to 20 percent at the mall, which blends factory outlets, discount stores and specialty shops with anchors that entertain, such as movie theaters, restaurants, clubs and virtual reality arcades.
Condon said the mall, which had been expected to draw 17 million to 20 million people a year, was on target. "Traffic has been about where we thought it would be, and sales have been right about where we thought," he said.
The huge Bass Pro store, designed to resemble an Adirondack lodge with a stuffed moose, a mounted zebra, bear tracks in the concrete floor and fish heads carved in the rafters, fits in with the Mills brand of "shoppertainment." Mills coined the term and has been fine-tuning it since building its first mall, Potomac Mills in Virginia, 16 years ago.
"It's complementary to the mall, it adds one more entertainment-related shopping venue, and it will continue to increase its visibility," said David M. Fick, a managing director of Legg Mason Wood Walker in Baltimore, who follows Mills.
Shoppers who want to try out products can take swings on the putting green, shoot arrows at the archery range or climb a 40-foot rock-climbing wall. They can learn about sports through live demonstrations, such as one on casting at a 30,000-gallon freshwater aquarium stocked with Atlantic croaker, perch, shad and largemouth bass.
Bass Pro officials expect all the in-store activity to translate into sales in a big way - sales of everything from rods and reels to fiberglass boats and canoes, to tents, sleeping bags and hiking boots.
The Maryland store is expected to be one of the chain's best performers, based on the chain's regional catalog sales and the number of hunting and fishing licenses sold, said Larry Whiteley, Bass Pro manager of corporate public relations.
"I think people will go just to see it; it is one of the most interesting pieces of retail in the entire region," Fick said. "When you compare it to the L.L. Bean store in Columbia, there is no comparison. It will be interesting to see how those guys play off one another."
Fick said Bass Pro is likely to draw 4 million shoppers a year from a 100-mile radius.
Bass Pro will be the largest, but not the last, anchor to open at the mall. Mills is negotiating with ESPN to open a skate park, possibly by the first or second quarter of next year. Arundel Mills has three empty anchor spaces and hopes to announce tenants for those within three months, Condon said.
The mall has lost five stores to bankruptcies, including Toys International, Bugle Boy, Travel 2000 and Athletic USA, and has leased an additional 150,000 square feet, not including Bass Pro, since it opened.