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I had the opportunity to visit Knoxville, TN for Thanksgiving this year. And I just so happened to be staying in a cabin at an RV park a stones throw away from Smoky Mountain Knife Works, the world’s largest knife retail store. I usually spend part of Black Friday writing about the various knife deals found around the internet. This year I got to live it.
I arrived to the store on Thanksgiving day. It was closed, but I decided to ride my bicycle over there anyways to get a lay of the land. It’s a massive 3 story building. Actually, it appears to be a couple buildings stuck together. As usual, I didn’t do any research before my trip, so I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect, but this certainly exceeded any expectations. I snapped a cell phone picture for posterity and proceeded back to my cabin for the evening.
Also, let me apologize in advance for all the crappy pictures I took. Looking back they are poorly composed. Sorry.
Usually Black Friday is not something I want to participate in. I generally believe that if there is a crowd forming to see something, it’s a good sign to go somewhere else. But in order to get the full Black Friday SMKW experience to share with you I selflessly decided get there before the store opened at 7AM. We arrived around 6:45. There was a good crowd forming at both entrances and a line of a couple hundred people or so. We waited in the car for a while and stepped out onto the tarmac once the doors opened and the line started to move.
As we entered the building we were greeted by a gal who handed us a goody bag of stuff, including an inexpensive kitchen knife and some other schwag. Free stuff is always cool, but I was here to experience the largest cutlery retail store in the world, so I didn’t spend much time on this and proceeded into the store.
The store was impressive. This is a multi-level building with a number of different rooms. The main floor is almost 100% dedicated to knives. The store was set up with display cases. Each case had one or a couple brands, and then there was plenty of shelf space and stuff for accessories and blister packs. Pretty much every brand you can imagine is there. Certainly all the big brands are there: Benchmade, Spyderco, Kershaw, SOG, Cold Steel, Case, Boker, etc. There were also a lot of cheap knives there including Rough Ryder, Frost, and Colt.
All the employees I interacted with at the store were friendly, knowledgeable, and willing to show you stuff. I asked the guy at the Cold Steel section if he had the 4-Max, and he proceeded to pull one out from behind the counter without missing a beat. We ogled this $400 folding knife for a few minutes along with the Colossus. I chatted with the lady at the Boker counter and she was nice and helpful as well.
The store itself is also cool, with lots of things on the walls to look at. The store is also a museum of sorts with a couple areas dedicated to discussing knife collecting history. It was crowded and chaotic, but it was fun and I took my time slowly trawling the aisles.
The only thing the store was missing was much in the way of modern custom knives. I know this is probably a tough thing for a big retailer to put their finger on, but it would have been interesting to see.
Downstairs was more of a gift shop type area. They had a knifemaking section, a sharpening section, and a big area dedicated to kitchen knives, but they also had stuffed animals, camping gear, kitchen gadgets and areas with odds and ends like sharks teeth, primitive tools, semi-precious stones, confederate war memorabilia, fossils, foreign currency, and basically any kind of odd ball thing you could imagine.
Here is a shot of their kitchen knife counter:
And some sweet Cold Steel kitchen knives:
I visited SMKW one other time during my trip. It’s a lot of store to absorb and I couldn’t fully appreciate it within one trip. I came back and checked out some of the novelty knives, swords, and the gun section. That was later on Friday and the store was even more crowded. I rode my bicycle this time, and the security guard commented that I was the only “smart person” who rode their bike to SMKW that day.
It’s worth noting that a Bass Pro-Shops, Gun Store (and indoor shooting range), Lodge Cast Iron factory store, Harley Davidson dealership, and budget tool store are all within a mile radius of Smoky Mountain Knife Works. This is redneck heaven, and an impressive display of retail might.
I was also impressed with the amount of billboards and things SMKW has used to advertise. It seems like the bulk of their business comes from the retail store and their mail order catalog. That is interesting as most of my experience in this industry is on the online retail side. It shows a different side to the industry.
I can’t imagine that everyone that comes into the store is a die hard knife fan who can rattle off specs and discuss the merits of steel in a casual conversation. I think a big part of the draw is just the novelty of the store. Apparently it is always packed. And that’s not a bad thing. I hope business is great and continues to be great. The knife industry can’t be supported by the fickle connoisseur alone. For every 4-Max that they sell, I’m sure they sell hundreds of Swiss Army Knives and $14.99 Schrade specials.
I enjoyed my time and Smoky Mountain Knife Works. It has almost every production piece imaginable under one roof, and you can check out any knife you want. That’s a knife guy’s dream right there. I am glad I made the pilgrimage, and will be back if I ever find myself in Eastern Tennessee again. It is well worth the trip if you are in the area.