Fleet Farm charts a different path among big-boxes

Saying that snipping a ribbon to mark the opening of the company’s Cedar Rapids store “just isn’t Fleet Farm,” company CEO Derick Prelle donned a safety shield and protective gloves and used a battery-powered chain saw to cut a log. PHOTO DAVE DEWITTE 


By Dave DeWitte

The sheer size of the Corridor’s first Fleet Farm store, which opened Sept. 17 in Edgewood Town Center in Cedar Rapids, seems to beg the question: Is the brick-and-mortar retail party going to crank back up again?

The Wisconsin-based chain, acquired in 2017 by private equity giant KKR, is building giant, 192,000-square-foot stores at a frantic pace. Within a year, it will have opened three stores in Iowa alone, representing an investment that likely exceeds $100 million.

CEO Derick Prelle says the company understands the risks and the opportunity.

“Brick-and-mortar retail has struggled under Amazon and e-commerce,” Mr. Prelle said in an interview with the CBJ. “We view it as there is room in retail for a small group of really different, really unique and really memorable retailers, and we think we are one of those.”

Fleet Farm’s uniqueness starts with its incredible range of offerings: More than 120,000 SKUs, or individual products, fill its aisles and outdoor materials yard. The store’s number of product categories is staggering, and the depth of products in most categories is unusual.

“Nobody is crazy enough to put this much stuff under one roof,” said Nick Widi, chief retail operations officer for Fleet Farm. “I also think we’re unique in all the services we provide, from the cutting of arrows to replacement of door screens.”

Then there are the somewhat quirky things Fleet Farm does.

“We have live bait,” Mr. Prelle said. “Amazon won’t send you minnows when you want to go fishing.”

Fleet Farm prints a toyland catalog for the holidays, and will sell you a live cut Christmas tree to put the toys under after they’re wrapped.

The store is designed to be “highly interactive,” said Mr. Prelle, who headed KKR’s operations groups before being tapped to lead Fleet Farm in 2017. “If you want to go play with the bike or fishing reel you’re looking at, you can. We’ve got some home furniture – you can sit in it and try it out. When you get to the hardware station, all the tools are out on a bench where you can play with them. That is different than an Amazon and it’s important for a retail experience.”

And rather than being purely brick and mortar, Fleet Farm actually exemplifies the omnichannel trend in retail, Mr. Prelle says.

“We have a website, FleetFarm.com, and it’s an important part of our growth,” he said. “We in particular focus a lot on buy online, pick up in store. We have a lot of large bulky items and we really make it easy. If you do that, we’ll load it for you. We can shrink wrap. We’ll put it in the back of your pickup.”

About 2,000 customers were expected for a friends-and-family pre-opening event on Sept. 17, the day before the store’s official opening. Its 200 or so employees cheered the arrival of the first 100 or so customers, and Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart addressed a ribbon-cutting event.

Mr. Hart sees Fleet Farm’s arrival as an indication that there are big-box retail strategies that still work. The combination of home and work products is one of the things that sets Fleet Farm apart from other retailers that are struggling, Mr. Hart believes. Many work products are large items or time-sensitive, and can’t wait for an online order to be shipped.

While Cedar Rapids is a growing market, Mr. Hart believes the opening last December of the Highway 100 extension was a key factor in attracting Fleet Farm to its location off Edgewood Road, near Highway 100 and The Fountains.

“The Highway 100 extension really opens Cedar Rapids up to development to the west, and opens us up to the rural areas,” Mr. Hart said. “I’m sure that is a factor for Fleet Farm.”

The Corridor was to have a second Fleet Farm opening next year in Tiffin to serve the Iowa City area, however the company recently dropped plans for that store in the new Park Place development. Mr. Prelle said Fleet Farm hasn’t given up on that market.

“Any one particular site, sometimes the deals work, sometimes they don’t,” he said. “But we still look at the Iowa City market as one Fleet Farm will want to be in over the medium term.” CBJ