Fly Rod Warranties: Not Really Open for Discussion

A few weeks back an independent trade magazine for the fly-fishing industry, Angling Trade, published an editorial on fly rod warranties penned by the proprietor of a fly shop. The piece, which you can find via web search using the term “rod warranties anglingtrade”, does not merit linkage1. It is in my opinion muddled diatribe which attempts to foist blame for a struggling business model at the feet of fly rod manufacturers.

That editorial generated a significant amount of commentary, over several days, which as someone interested in the subject I monitored. Opinions were, at the outset, supportive. Then several more saavy consumers, as well as what appeared to be some “industry insiders”, chimed in and the comment thread turned negative. Some retailer/manufacturer economics were exposed; several customer-types even declared outright they simply would not buy a premium fly rod that didn’t have a lifetime warranty.

Uh oh. Disagreement. Discontent. Then the comments were gone. Deleted.

The manufacturer penchant for offering lifetime warranties on fly rods has long been a source of controversy. Some opine that separating warranties from the rods (or eliminating them altogether) would result in lower prices and therefore more sales. Others say that if fly rod warranties go away, so will the finer brands, as the high cost of getting that [inevitably] damaged rod repaired will drive purchasers down to the low-end “disposable” bracket of the market. I’ve yet to see a rigorous analysis, steeped in manufacturer cost structures and supply/demand curves, supporting either point of view. Certainly the above-referenced “editorial” didn’t come close.

Fact: fly-fishing requires investment, of both time and money, much like any sport that requires skill and equipment. You can shorten the learning curve by fishing with experienced friends, and vast alternatives to the highest-end gear do exist. A premium fly rod is simply at the upper tier of the investment pyramid. I can buy a pretty nice shotgun for around the same price as many a high-end fly rod. Further, assuming that firearm is properly cleaned after use, I can otherwise treat it with indignity yet be assured it will still be operating as the manufacturer intended long after I depart this Earth. Regardless of warranty, expressed or implied.

Not so with fly rods. They are delicate. Despite being built by expert craftsman in very specialized facilities, they fail even with the best of care. I take extremely good care of my gear, and yet have seen three broken rods in as many years. The manufacturer I favor takes great pains to make sure those rods are properly repaired – they are the only ones who can. I cannot take that broken rod to a generic “smith” like I can my shotgun, and I happily pay for that security blanket.

But at least one retailer – let’s hope the count is that few – thinks I (and you) don’t deserve that level of service, and took to swaying opinion in such a way that definitive action would deprive the customer of a benefit. To point the finger at the manufacturers whose products they sell for essentially enabling a secondary market in used fly rods. Sure, some consumers take unfair advantage of lifetime warranties, but I am willing to bet those that don’t far outnumber those that do. Additionally, it’s not as though fly rods are viable stores of value – on all but the most sought after models in mint condition, you’d be lucky to get half of what you paid in the shop, even after very limited use. Also completely lost on that scribe: a significant number of the rods on eBay are actually being sold by fly shops as part of their upgrade programs.

Rod manufacturers create lifetime customers to go along with those warranties. Having sold fly rods to actual human beings, I can attest that once an enthusiast gets stuck on a brand, it is very difficult to move them. I have noted anglers admitting they own decades old rods that still work just fine, but they must have the latest and greatest from that builder to add to their collection; all they needed was the wife’s go-ahead signal. Rod manufacturers should be proud of this, looking to invest further in those fans by continually improving their offerings, not strip the majority of the assurance that their “lifetime purchase” will be useless after one very likely mishap. When rod manufacturers start making decisions on behalf of a shrinking distribution channel instead of the people catching fish with their products, they will be signing their own death warrants.

My own opinion on rod warranties is not the point here though. The drive-by quashing of opinion is.

I was told about it in passing, but at first didn’t think to check. Then, in the midst of missing tackles on a seemingly insurmountable technical issue that had kept me up into the wee hours of the morning, desperately seeking a distraction, I did. I immediately contacted the publication. With vehemency, admittedly ungracefully (four letter expletives and all), the tone was not deserving. But unlike the “letters to the editors” I am sure many have been disappointed not to see in print next month, I got an immediate reply. Being a classless jerk does work sometimes – just don’t overuse the method.

I was offered, very sincerely I might add, the opportunity to respond to the subject. Unfortunately, I could not in good faith do so via a forum that deletes wholesale the commentary of its readers, especially when many of those opinions likely came from the very folks the author of the original work was tacitly hoping to strip of a commercial benefit. And for obvious selfish reasons too. Moderating overtly hostile, threatening or profane points of view I can see, but blowing away an entire thread because the law of unintended consequences takes hold? That cannot be ignored. Oddly, a comment form remains below that post – I wonder if it is set in auto-delete mode.

Business models come and go, in this day and age much according to which way the wind blows. Technology pushes product advances – yes even with fly rods, which have become lighter and stronger and easier to cast in the past ten years than they did in the previous hundred – and product creators invest in that technology to benefit their end users. Distribution channels change too, even more quickly, and if you are stuck in the middle, unable to cope with your diminishing value within the system, then you need to think hard about what you are doing there in the first place.

Regardless of whether you are a purveyor of hard goods or simply ideas, if you are casting the end users aside as though nothing but noise, then I suggest shifting that thinking cap into overdrive. Creative destruction is likely right on your tail.

MG signing off (because getting run over from behind can be a very ugly thing to watch)

(1) Referenced: http://www.anglingtrade.com/2013/08/26/opinion-editorial-rod-warranties-its-time-for-us-to-all-have-a-real-discussion-about-this-matter/

Comments

Eric English says:

WWTD? (Thoreau)

Hard to say definitively, but I’d venture that HDT would have bought his fly rods direct from the maker to begin with, developing a relationship in the process that would have negated any worry about how to get them repaired.