Cathie Anderson

Bass Pro Shops uses murals, aquarium, other attractions to reel in shoppers

The center corridor at the new Bass Pro Shops store in Rocklin is lined with nature scenes, painted murals and wild animals including bison, right. Bass Pro Shops strives to produce a fun outdoor experience indoors, and a typical store features more than 3,500 nature artifacts.
The center corridor at the new Bass Pro Shops store in Rocklin is lined with nature scenes, painted murals and wild animals including bison, right. Bass Pro Shops strives to produce a fun outdoor experience indoors, and a typical store features more than 3,500 nature artifacts. rpench@sacbee.com

Essays, research papers and books have been written on the subject of “shopping as entertainment,” but if you want to get a top-notch lesson in this concept, visit the new Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World that opened Wednesday just off the Sierra College Boulevard exit in Rocklin.

The experience starts before you even get off the freeway. The store’s rooftop looms larger than life as motorists approach the exit, making it difficult not to wonder what excesses of consumerism lie beneath it.

The building is no less imposing from the parking lot, but its lodge-style facade beckons with rustic warmth. Outside the store, shoppers can get up close and personal with Tracker brand boats of every variety.

Both Tracker and Bass Pro Shops are owned by Johnny Morris, a longtime fisherman who got his start in the business because he was frustrated by the lack of good tackle in shops near his home in Springfield, Mo. Visit Springfield today and you’ll find a 350,000-square-feet Bass Pro store that puts Morris’ little 100,000-square-foot place in Rocklin to shame.

Also in Springfield, Morris is remodeling and expanding a Wonders of Wildlife Museum with live exhibits and lifelike dioramas featuring wildlife from around the world. He also owns the Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains, the 10,000-acre Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, the Ozarks’ Top of the Rock recreational resort and more.

Morris has built more than 90 Bass Pro stores around the nation, the latest one in Rocklin and another opening soon in San Jose. At these outlets, hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts can find most specialty products they want under one roof, but in today’s crowded marketplace, that alone may not be enough to lure consumers. Consequently, Bass Pro and other retailers – Build-A-Bear Workshop, American Girl Place, Cabela’s and Scheels among them – are integrating attractions that educate, entertain and inspire social engagement as they scramble for dominance.

“The trend started a number of years ago but has accelerated during the economic downturn as retailers, shopping centers and malls desperately look for new ways to remake themselves to attract the New Consumer,” wrote brand development expert Randy White in a 2009 essay on the topic.

At Bass Pro’s Rocklin store, general manager Dan Dugger gets the idea that this is what White calls “retail-tainment.” During a tour, he doesn’t focus so much on products. Rather, he spends time sharing anecdotes and factoids about the murals, dioramas and taxidermy that create the spectacle. Dugger was the general manager at Bass Pro’s Manteca store from 2008 until he took over in Rocklin in May.

“I went to Lincoln High School, so I’ve lived here all my life,” Dugger told me. “I live in Roseville, so I commuted over (to the Manteca store) every day. It was about 90 miles, so it was an hour and a half.”

Now that his commute is shorter, Dugger said, he’ll be able to join his wife, Corrina, as a spectator at their children’s sporting events. As with the Manteca store, Dugger can describe the backdrop of every mural and what vantage point it shows. In the painting of the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, for instance, it looks south toward the Sutter Buttes. The photo used for the Folsom Lake mural was taken at Beal’s Point. There are also images of Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, Castle Peak looking toward Donner Pass, wilderness areas between Placerville and Auburn, and much more.

The store’s dioramas feature taxidermy of many native species: bears, raccoons, squirrels, river otters, wild turkeys and, of course, ducks. Bass Pro’s Pete Schiefelbein worked on exhibits at Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife Museum for 18 months before he was entrusted with leading teams to create the dioramas in the stores.

“We generally get a rough drawing or a sketch,” said Schiefelbein, who has an arts degree from Missouri State University in Springfield. “They’ll send us out taxidermy, and then we design dioramas and place the taxidermy so it seems like it’s alive and moving around.”

For manzanita, tule and other plants, he said, the team uses a combination of real and artificial materials to create the wildlife exhibits. They fireproof all the materials before decorating.

These creatures and the murals, mounted up high, can distract visitors from looking down at the floor, so Dugger points out animal tracks that have been pressed into the stone there. Those tracks pop up even outside the store, and children can follow the prints to an image of the animal that created them, Dugger said.

At the rear of the store, as customers transition from the hunting and camping section to the fishing and water sports department, they hear the roar of water and will find a 16,000-gallon aquarium stocked with native fish.

“The fishing team went out and got about half the fish,” Dugger said. “The other half, we got from farms – the bluegill and the catfish. All the bass, they got out of Folsom Lake. (The Department of Fish and Wildlife) gives us a permit to have the fish, and … they’re on loan to us. We have to take care of them.”

People just love to come and watch the fish, Dugger said, so the store has a couple of benches nearby for seating. The fish live a long time, he said, noting that a sturgeon in Manteca has grown from about 2 feet to roughly 5 feet since that aquarium was stocked in 2008. Bass Pro contracts with Chicago-based Aquamoon to care for the aquariums at a number of its stores.

Brian Gauger, the director of animal care for Aquamoon, got his master’s degree in marine science from the University of San Diego. The Chicago native told me that Aquamoon will have an employee who feeds the fish, cleans the tank and performs other duties.

“We feed them about three times a week,” Gauger said. “We’ll probably try to do at least one a week where we do a public showing. We’ll bring out the food options and explain what we’re feeding them and why and which fish eat what.”

New fish have to be put in quarantine for a while, Dugger said, to ensure that no illnesses are introduced into the tank.

Not far from the aquarium is what Bass Pro calls its reel bar, an area where anglers can check out rods and tackle. The section sits beneath reclaimed barn timbers that soar overhead, making it easier to locate from afar.

Archers will find an indoor range that is available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Owners of boats and all-terrain vehicles can have their equipment serviced at the store. The store also houses a number of boats indoors, but Dugger said they all get cleared out during the holidays to make way for Santa’s wonderland.

Although the line between retailing and entertainment blur inside this store, the endgame should be perfectly clear to shoppers as they exit past a row of cash registers.

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