Sales agents critical of multiyear licenses

Harrisburg — It may be too soon to gauge the popularity of the new multiyear fishing licenses, but issuing agents are weighing in on the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission’s latest marketing effort.

While three and five-year licenses are saving anglers money, some bait and tackle shops say it is coming at their expense.

Not only are they losing fees, they are being asked to give away T-shirts, bait and other items to incentivize anglers to buy multiyear licenses. The pitch was made in a Feb. 4 letter from the commission’s Executive Director John Arway to hundreds of issuing agents statewide.

“Nobody but nobody is going to do that,” said Willie Marx of Willie’s Bait and Tackle in Whitehall, Adams County. “If you’re losing two to four years’ worth of transaction fees with the new licenses, I think it’s kind of funny they would ask you to give even more.”

Gary Wert of Grizzly Gary Outdoors in Warren said the Arway letter left him scratching his head.

“I’m losing up to six bucks on every multiyear license I sell, and now they want me to give away a free hat to boot?,” he said. “What? So I can lose $10 to $15 on a license?”

Dan Seaman of Elk Creek Sports Store in Erie was just as perplexed.

“Can you imagine?” he said. “They want me to spend money out of pocket to promote something that is causing me to lose money.”

Issuing agents earn $1 for every license and $1 for every stamp they sell.

A five-year license with five combo stamps totaling $178.40, for example, yields the issuing agent the same $2 as a one-year license with combo stamp costing $38.40.

But costs associated with bonding and 2 percent credit card fees can eat into those profits and make selling licenses a financial liability, Wert said.

“On a multiyear sale, credit card fees put me in the hole. Half of my customers pay with credit cards. If I sell a five-year non-resident license with combo stamps, that $256.70 transaction takes $4.56 out of my own pocket.”

Wert said he and other agents are looking for ways to circumvent the loss while continuing to provide a service to their customers.

Demanding cash-only sales or installing ATMs programmed to collect a transaction fee might compensate for the credit card problem, although they still wouldn’t make up for the loss of repeat business that multiyear licenses also are likely to cause, Wert said.

“For me and other bait and tackle shops, the whole idea is to get people to come into the store every year, because when they buy a license, they usually buy other things, whether it’s a rod and reel combo or a dozen minnows.

“With the multiyear licenses you could lose that.”

The commission will know how well the new licenses are selling during trout season, the agency’s make-or-break time of year.

But Ted Walke, the commission’s director of outreach, said multiyear licenses already are having a positive effect. While just 10,000 of the 58,000 licenses sold from Dec. 1, 2012, to Feb. 4, 2013, are multiyear, total sales during the three-month period were up 7.2 percent over the same period in 2011-12, and the commission enjoyed a 32 percent increase in gift voucher sales, said Walke.

“Any time you introduce a new product, you provide impetus for buying, in general. New products are good hooks.”

But they aren’t the only hook the commission is using to try to reverse a 20-year decline in fishing participation. The agency is partnering with the Pittsburgh Pirates on reduced ticket prices and with Cabela’s on fishing contests.

Multiyear license buyers also get free access to Pennsylvania Angler and Boater, the commission’s quarterly magazine.

And while the commission realizes that small tackle shops lack the resources of major retailers, they have as much or more at stake if license sales continue to fall, Walke said.

Although the giveaways Arway suggested in his Feb. 4 letter were just that – a suggestion – shops that opt in by selling at least 10 multiyear licenses a year will be rewarded by having their contact information prominently displayed on the commission’s website, Walke said.

“Issuing agents are our partners. We have to listen to them and we want to listen to them. But we have to balance that with what we’re providing anglers in terms of convenience and rewards.

“And we have a common goal – to keep people fishing.”

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