As traditional retailers struggle to compete with deep discounts offered by online stores, one independent sporting goods store in Sherwood has thrived.
For decades, Fort Thompson Sporting Goods Inc. has been a go-to place for sports enthusiasts and duck hunters.
Owner Tom Denniston credits the store’s competitive prices and customer service as the reason Fort Thompson has third generation customers.
“The key to everything is customer service as far as taking care of your business,” said Denniston, 57, who bought the business in 1985. At that time it was known as Thompson’s Super Market, which has its roots dating back to the depression.
“We actually know what we’re talking about. We’re all hunters,” he said.
Denniston eventually split the sporting goods store from the grocery business, and the awards and accolades have been piling up. Earlier this year, Fort Thompson Sporting Goods was named Arkansas Business’ Business of the Year in the category for companies with fewer than 25 employees.
“Tom and his staff continued evolving, building and rebuilding over the years to create a business that has a real impact in their local economy,” said Andy Eames, director of outdoor sports for Sports Inc. of Lewistown, Montana, in an email.
Since the early 1990s, Fort Thompson has been a member of Sports Inc., a member-owned buying group of independent sporting goods stores in the United States and Canada to order inventory at prices lower than they could get individually. “Tom is proof that the personal relationships, service and goodwill independents bring to communities are still viable and have a bright future.”
In a few months, Fort Thompson will launch a website that for the first time will allow online customers to buy items from its store.
“We can start selling a small amount of stuff and see how it goes,” Denniston said.
These days, Fort Thompson’s revenue is about $10 million a year, which comes from firearm sales, gun safes and deer and duck hunting merchandise. It also sells clothes and other items.
“We sell tons of ammunition, duck guns, duck calls [and] waders,” Denniston said. “We sell everything a duck hunter could want.”
Eames said stores like Fort Thompson are important to duck hunters.
“Duck hunters are passionate about what they do and want to talk to others that share the same passion,” he said in his email comments. “You cannot find that online or in a box store atmosphere.”
Working at the Store
A Forrest City native, Denniston worked for Thompson’s Super Market in Pulaski County as a teenager. His duties ranged from slicing bologna to bagging groceries. That community grocery and hardware store was founded in 1931 by Clyde Thompson, grandfather to Dennison’s best friend.
Thompson realized that he could sell guns and ammunition and earn extra money, according to Fort Thompson’s website. Soon, though, more customers wanted hunting items, “which meant more business for sporting goods and the potential for expansion,” the website said.
Thompson’s son, C.B. Thompson, began working at the business and eventually became the owner of the store in Rose City, which is now part of North Little Rock.
When C.B. Thompson wanted to retire in the 1980s, he asked Dennison if he wanted to buy the 8,000-SF company.
The timing was right for Dennison, who in the early 1980s was looking for a new career. He had sold bonds and had a few odd jobs.
“I was at the point where I was going to have to do something else,” said Denniston, who graduated from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1983 with a degree in marketing.
He agreed to buy the store.
“I didn’t have any money,” he said. C.B. Thompson “financed the whole thing.”
While Thompson stayed on and operated the grocery side of the business, Denniston focused on the sporting goods section and decided to split the business. In 1985 Dennison began building a sporting goods store across the street from the grocery story. He used 40,000 pounds of lodgepole pine from Yellowstone National Park for his building.
During construction, someone mentioned that the 4,000-SF store “looked like a fort,” so Denniston decided to call it Fort Thompson, to keep Thompson’s “legacy” going, the website said.
Meanwhile, the grocery side of the business was struggling as larger grocery chains expanded their footprint in North Little Rock.
In 1989, an electrical fire burned the grocery store to the ground, closing it permanently.
But the sporting goods industry was about to change.
In the 1980s, “there was just two or three guns you could buy,” Denniston said. “And then everything just blew up from there.”
Soon a variety of guns, guns safes, deer stands and other items were being marketed to sportsmen, along with various lines of hunting clothes.
Denniston credits joining the buying group Sports Inc. as a way to keep his costs down for the inventory he buys.
“We’ve always been noted for having the best price,” he said.
Fort Thompson kept attracting customers. It added 4,000 SF and then another 4,000 SF over the years. But that wasn’t enough.
In the early 2000s, Denniston began looking for a new location.
“It wasn’t a hard decision for me, but a lot of people were saying don’t move a good business,” Denniston said. “I made the decision we were going to have to move because … I didn’t have enough space.”
He found a 19,000-SF building at 5802 Warden Road in Sherwood, where he incorporated the fort exterior look.
Another reason for the company’s success is the approximately 20 employees who work for Denniston. Some have been at Fort Thompson for 20 years. Denniston offers a 401(k) benefit and pays health insurance and half of families’ premiums.
“I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing that, but we’re trying,” he said.
One of the threats Denniston has faced is from online retailers. And that’s one of his biggest beefs because some online retailers don’t collect Arkansas sales taxes on purchases, while his customers have to pay a sales tax of 8.5 percent.
“It puts us at a real disadvantage,” Denniston said.
Fort Thompson, though, is about to join the online marketplace.
Denniston’s son, Taylor, 29, has been working at the store for more than three years and is focused on its e-commerce website. He said the goal is to give the customers the same shopping experience in Fort Thompson’s virtual store as they get in the real one.
“That is the direction of the future,” Taylor Denniston said. “The brick-and-mortar business will always be there, [but] the growth is going to be online.”