The Best Idea in Optics: Rental Binoculars
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Todd Doebler hails from the big woods of northern Wisconsin, so when he went on his first Western big-game hunt—to western North Dakota’s badlands in 2008—he bought the best optics for the opportunity.
“I bought a Swarovski spotting scope, which proved almost too much glass for the hunt,” he said. Then a sort of buyer’s remorse kicked in. “Here, I spent $3,000 for an optic that I used for a week. I thought, there has to be a better way.”
What, he wondered, if he could rent premium optics for short-term events, like birding festivals and destination hunts. That is the origin story of his business, Optics4Rent, which loans premium binoculars and spotting scopes to sportsmen and women for a fraction of the cost of buying the optics.
Doebler, who runs the business out of his home, deals only in Swarovski optics. He approached Zeiss and Leica, but the Austrian company provided the best combination of customer support, repair policy, and variety of sporting optics. He’s not exactly alone in the business. Ross Outdoors, based in Phoenix, Ariz., rents a wider variety of premium optics. But theirs is an over-the-counter transaction, as opposed to Doebler’s mail-order model.
We sat down with Doebler for insights into how Optics4Rent works.
OL: Who are your main customers?
TD: I market to birders and hunters. Because there are 18 million active birders who take a week or more per year to travel to look at birds, they make up a lot of my business. But the 2 million hunters who travel to hunt are the biggest portion of the business. They know that if they’re spending money to get to a hunt, premium optics will allow them to hunt effectively.
OL: What is the single most popular optic you rent, and what is the cost?
TD: Swarovski’s 10×42 EL is far and away the most popular configuration we rent. The cost is $15 per day with a 7-day minimum. We also do a lot of business with Coues’ deer hunters, and they really favor the big 15×56 SLC’s, which rent for $20 per day. Increasingly we’re seeing some hunters rent both a binocular and a spotting scope. They are able to take $5,500 to $6,000 worth of glass on a hunt but pay $35 per day for the opportunity. That’s pretty appealing for hunters on a fixed or modest income.
OL: What is the rental procedure?
TD: The way it works with all our optics is that we FedEx them to you packed in a Pelican hard-sided case, and inside is a return FedEx label. When you’re done, you repack them in the case, slap the label on it, and send it back to us. I grew up in the software business, and I know customers want a process that’s easy and simple.
OL: I’ve rented a lot of cars, and I can’t say I’m not particularly gentle with them. What sort of abuse do your rental optics take?
TD: I’ve been pleasantly surprised that most come back in great shape. A little dusty, maybe. We’ve definitely had some come back with cracked lenses or other breakage. And the barrels on the big 56mm binoculars come out of alignment easily if they are dropped. But most customers are upfront about breakage. Swarovski is great about repairing them, and we just pass on the repair cost to the customer.
OL: How many of your customers end up buying the optic?
TD: Between 10 and 15 percent. A lot of those customers have never hunted with a premium optic before, and they come back and say, “Wow. I have to own that.” So we make it easy for them to buy their rental.