Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » Outdoor Specialty Retailers

The purpose of this thread is to complement the editorial:
Please feel free to address the critical issues and challenges facing the outdoor specialty retailer in their ability to merchandise and sell lightweight gear, and of course, in their ability to serve lightweight backpacking customers with good product selection and meaninful customer support. This is an inappropriate forum for conveying libelous or slanderous posts and will be moderated.

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Bernard Shaw
(be_here_now@earthlink.net) - F

Locale: Upstate New York
Integrity Plus Knowledge May not Be Best for Business Always on 01/28/2004 08:21:22 MST Print View

It is worth saying that althogh we all treasure retailers who have integrity, knowledge born of experience and intelligent analysis of that experience, we know that as buyers many of us can and are fickle, buying an item for 5% less from a warehouse and not supporting the local retailer with the integrity.

As long as this is the case, retailers with integrity must be willing to have less financial success and worry about staying alive in a small profit margin and highly faddish industry, where opinions about gear carry a great deal of heat and little light.

One very very fine example of a retailer with integrity is The Mounaineer in Keene, NY. Many is the time I have been talked out of a purchase, with the store not getting the profit, and my gaining the wisdom of avoiding a less than good piece of equipment as a result. A generous return policy as long as I am in good faith has also allowed me to afford to find the things that truly fit and work.

Yes, for people like me who have learned to pay some more for the item because I value them so much, it is good for return business and they are doing well hopefully. However, they must live with the knowledge that more profits await if they stopped being so caring.

I think we reap what we plant, and a great deal of the responsibility is on us consumers not all on the retailers for this situation.


(Anonymous)
One Consumer's Buying Habits on 02/03/2004 10:08:22 MST Print View

I spend in excess of $10k per year on gear for lightweight backpacking, alpine climbing, kayak river camping, and travel to do those things. I take the time to spend discriminately. Fifteen years ago that meant that I would visit my local outdoor specialty shop and seek the advice of the owner, head buyer, or sales staff, who were passionate and knowledgable. Now, even though I live in a small city that has been recognized as one of the strongest hubs of outdoor sports in the country, with two nationally-recognized outdoor retailers in town, I cannot walk in and find floor staff with knowledge that exceeds that which I can find in a product catalog. If I didn't know better, I could have been suckered into purchasing thousands of dollars worth of gear that was poorly suited to my needs. However, my frustration lies in the fact that there are retailers in my town who so aggressively wage what the author of the above article calls "brand turf wars" to keep "hot" brands like Patagonia, Marmot, Arc'Teryx, etc. out of the stores of their competition that they have lost focus of customer relationships while seeking profitability by trying to squash the competition. This is a sad testament to a business model that historically has depended on grass roots customer loyalty. Because I work and play with sales reps of outdoor manufacturers, I have some insider insight into what retailers play these turf wars, the ethical lines they are willing to cross to wage them, and frustration that they are causing for the sales reps. As such, these retailers will remain on my blacklist.

A closing message to retailers who wage such turf wars in an effort to control your 'hot' brands:

Goodbye. Forever. Because you took away MY freedom of choice of where to shop for a brand in my town.

I now buy 100% of my gear off the Internet from two online dealers that have an amazing staff willing to educate me and help me enjoy my outdoor activities more.


(Anonymous)
Darwinism among Outdoor Retail stores on 02/03/2004 11:12:31 MST Print View

This article accurately represents the outdoor retail market in my town.

Outdoor Specialty Retailing is a business. As such with each market cycle things are going to change. Stronger players will enter the market and experienced management teams will capitalize on the opportunity to better serve the customers. This leaves little room for weak players to generate profits.

This has happened in numerous other industries as well. It isn't pleasant to hear the tortured screaming of the weaker players dying off, but it is Darwinism at work.


(Anonymous)
Outdoor Retailer Creativity on 02/03/2004 12:12:27 MST Print View

Having worked for both the good and the bad in outdoor retail at all levels - from a shipping clerk to a head buyer to a manufacturer's sales rep - I'd like to offer my perspective on what makes an employee willing to come to work every day, maintain job expertise, and serve a customer, and to illustrate the point that you can be incredibly successful by being willing to step outside the 'protect-thy-brand-turf' mentality that has plagued this industry.

I worked for a $4M/yr (fairly small) retailer when it was taken over by new owners. The owner and his partner drew the majority of the profits at the end of every quarter as personal dividends and salary. They spent little time in the store, and had little contact with the staff or customers. We were hourly, minimum wage employees who received gear at cost (appealing at first, but that gets old real quick as the only benefit). Even those of us working full time (and often, more) were paid meagerly with no benefits or other incentives. Those owners played "turf wars" in a big way - we heard them scream at sales reps and threaten their accounts because the reps were opening other dealers in the same area. Staff morale went in the toilet, most of us reduced our hours or quit, we began to see our customer base erode, and eventually the store lost its outdoor specialty focus and became a lifestyle apparel retailer (more money in that area). Sales reps hated working with us and when I was a sales rep I hated working with these kinds of retailers - they made my job less enjoyable. Being a sales rep really kind of sucks - we are constantly on the road, doing our best to train underpaid, unmotivated staff that turn over every six months, and having to deal with retailers like this gives us a foul taste for this industry. You have to ask yourself why sales rep turnovers are also increasing!

There is a flip side. I am now back to my roots. I'm the head buyer - that spends 50% of my time actually working the sales floor interacting with customers - for an outdoor specialty retailer that does less than $2M in business. I package mail orders, I ring the cash register, I make myself available to customers, and I spend time after hours trying to learn about new gear and techniques to communicate to people. All of our store's employees are paid a base salary - which is not real high - with an awesome profit sharing and benefits program. The owner participates in this as well. He draws no salary and is on par with the rest of us. All of our payroll is open, including the owner's. This has created a team atmosphere that makes us love our jobs, be creative and innovative, and focus on customer relationships - which we see as key to our profitability. We are not only debt free and profitable, we all enjoy the profits. I don't know too many retailers that have part time sales clerks that make the equivalent of $25 an hour in salary, profit share, and benefits. We involve our customers in gear testing programs, where they get to keep the gear, and we return customer cash gift certificates at years end from the profits. Last year they averaged $30 per customer. You don't run a business like this with conventional thinking - you put your heads together and figure out some creative things that really work. We focus on building customer relationships, and it has paid off.

Some retailers feel that they have to control the brands. In reality, our customers could really care less whether or not we are an Arc'Teryx dealer. We focus on customers. We'll never be a $20M retailer - our business model won't support it! But we all love what we do and feel tremendous satisfaction from being recognized as one of our community's "top employers" and "best customer experiences".

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Re: Outdoor Retailer Creativity on 02/03/2004 12:22:30 MST Print View

REI is well-known for treating their employees well. This is obviously part of the reason why REI employees like their jobs. REI offers substantial training programs that go far beyond the 'rep clinics' (that some outdoor retailers percieve to be a joke), and they offer their employees medical benefits, profit sharing, vacation time, and even INCENTIVE PAY! This is unheard of in the outdoor retail industry! Work at REI for fifteen years and you get a four week sabbatical.

Some small business owners think that you can only do this as a large company. That's crazy. I've worked for small companies that have offered these types of benefits. What made them unique was that they were incredibly savvy businessmen who valued their employees and figured out a way to reward them. The employer willing to sacrifice the high life to see that their employees are motivated will ultimately win the customer base and serve our industry the best.

Carol Crooker
(cmcrooker) - MLife

Locale: Desert Southwest, USA
I fit the lightweight backpacker consumer profile on 02/03/2004 15:06:30 MST Print View

I read the State of the Market article a few days ago. What struck me most at the time, was how much money lightweight backpackers spend on gear. I certainly fit that demographic, but didn't realize that lightweighters tend to spend more than heavyweighters. I guess we lightweighters want light wallets too.

I just went back and reread the article. It is mostly in agreement with my experiences shopping locally at REI and a local outdoor retailer, Popular Outdoors. I would add that all the sales people I've talked with like their work, are professional, and like the outdoors. They are usually either college students or young retired
people. Almost all only have heavyweight backpacking experience however. But, what has impressed my about the REI sales people is that they don't pretend to know more than they do. They respect a customer's own experiences and knowledge and research. I don't know how they are being trained, but part of the training may include the fact that many customers will come in knowing more about a particular niche than the sales person. Or it may be that REI hires
mature people who aren't blowhards.

I do most of my shopping and buying on the internet. When I go into a retail store, I have already done my research online by reading
reviews and comments from other lightweight backpackers. I have found that it is the rare sales person who has any expertise in lightweight backpacking. I am delighted when I find one who does!

I also want to add that the comment about getting a website and having the package at the door for pickup is right on. REI recently
implemented a policy of free shipment for web orders delivered to a store rather than the customer's home. That policy has really
increased my business at REI. Not only am I quick to order a single small item for store pickup, but I spend more time shopping the
store because I'm drawn in when I pick up an order. I'm hard to fit, and now I can order a shirt in two different sizes to find out
what will work best for me without a shipping cost penalty. The new shipping policy has essentially brought the whole REI.com and REI-
outlet.com warehouses into my local store. If only REI would carry more lightweight gear and clothing!
Carol

Robert Goode
(rgoode) - MLife
Some Random Thoughts on 02/03/2004 18:12:21 MST Print View

I'm alot like Carol. Before I go shopping, I've done my research via the internet, magazines, groups like this, even a store visit or two - and know what I want before I head out. I check the internet stores for availability and prices and then make my rounds of the local REI and speciality stores (3 left in Houston). If the local stores have it, or an acceptable alternative, I buy from them. Price is usually
not an concern as long as I can take it home with me. No local source - buy from the internet. Can't find it on the internet - have the local speciality store order one up.

I can say I've never had a bad experience in a outdoor store with the sales people. While there is always a new face at the check-out register, there has always been an "old-timer" around who may not know lightweight, but is still very knowledgeable. Even REI has the same 4-5 dept. heads who have been there for years. Do I "ding" them for not knowing lightweight - No. Do I keep coming back even though I know they won't have exactly what I'm looking for? Yes. Do I leave the store with something? About 1/2 the time.

Turf wars. Can't claim to have experienced this at all. I kinda think of outdoor shops like they were grocery stores. Go to the closest, if they don't have it, go to the next store. After a while, you know where to go for what. I don't even price comparison shop in person - first one to have it gets my money.

Lightweight stock in stores. I don't see how a bricks and morter store can stock enough lightweight gear to make you happy. The most
you'll ever sell of one companies light weight gear is one or two items to a given customer - given that a given company only makes a couple items at best, and since this is the "lightest, latest, and greatest", why would you need to buy more? So the store would need to stock 30 lightweight companies to provide a complete kit, versus 5-10 for the mainstream line. Dealing with suppliers suck when they disappear for weeks at a time, take 3 months to deliver, won't lifetime warranty, etc. And there aren't that may lightweighters anyway. Beside, most of the really innovative lightweight stuff is only available via the internet or direct from the manufacturer.

Warranties and returns - yes, I'll bring it back BEFORE I use it if it doesn't fit, wasn't what I expected, etc. After I've used it once, its MINE. I take RESPONSIBILITY for it. I rip it, I fix it or expect to pay the manufacturer to fix it. If I don't like it or it doesn't perform as I expected, it sits in MY closet. I have no respect for someone who uses a product alot, then returns it for cash back or warranty replacement - lifetime or not. Things wear out - accept it. Especially those Platypus users who want a new one every 3 years - the things wear out. BUY yourself a new one.

I liked your lightweight backpacker profile - seemed to be a lot of my answers in there. Thought to myself that the numbers seemed awfully biased towards lightweight. One might ask who the questionaire was available and advertised to? Only BPL.com and associated lightweight sites/lists? IIRC, some of the questions were missing the "other/Notapplicable/doesn't matter" catagory that might have given a different slant on the question.

Home delivery. I REALLY like it when the UPS man comes. Just something addictive to it. Even when it's not for me.

Edited by ryan on 02/03/2004 18:14:54 MST.

Donald Johnston
(photonstove) - MLife
I fit that provile. on 02/03/2004 21:07:13 MST Print View

The way things used to be:
My experience with a small shop chain and REI is that the sales folks used to be outdoor enthusiasts but I am not sure how expert they were back then as a group generalization. These days the sales folks are mostly part timers who are mostly in college. They will tell stories of their own hikes if you get them in conversation but you are right that there will not be all that many miles on their boots. Few if any are hard core enthusiasts. They usually say something like I know someone who has done this or that major trail. I wouldn't take their advice these days because I am now an educated consumer who probably knows more than they do in the major product categories. They seem to know mostly about traditional heavy gear that is in their store and nothing else. When they give a talk on introductory backpacking they have lots of heavy stuff on the table but they do seem to be aware of the light weight movement they just don't have anything but stuff that isn't light. The small chain shops went to the malls many years ago and now that isn't working. They are closing shops or reopening outside of malls and there is nolonger one any where near me.

The small Chain shop had some very good personnel 20 years ago. I was just starting out back then. When I bought my first new pack I was very fortunate to encounter a staff person who actually was trained in pack fitting and knew more than just the mechanics of bending stays and torso length. I learned a boatload from him that has served me very well over the years. But not all personnel were as knowledgeable back then. Then REI came to town expanding what was available but with a less experienced staff mostly from the local college. Over the years I saw the experience and knowledge base erode in the small chain shops. I think REI is basically unchanged.

When I was very young lightweight was in. By the time I was buying new gear of my own it was out. The gear from my teen years that I received as gifts was lighter than anything available in local stores as a young adult. Even tube tents weighed twice as much. It is the Internet that changed things. It made light weight gear available for the first time. My pack weight dropped by 50% without changing the comfortable style in which I camped while on the trail.

Fast forward:
While I can't speak to employee training. I think the rest of this is bang on. There is no one in the local stores who can help with putting together a truly lightweight list of gear that works. I am not talking ultralight weight. They probably couldn't put together a gear list of things to pick and choose from to make a 20 lb. base weight for a week trip in the summer. I would not expect to get an answer regarding the value of the newer fabrics in soft shells beyond marketing hype. But you will find lots of people on the Internet who can give you a number of light weight choices in every gear category.

Lightweight Backpacking As a Market Niche
I have felt for years that the only thing keeping the lightweight market from being mainstream is the lack of availability in local stores. You have to shop the Internet to get any selection of lightweight gear. That totally kills any chance of last minute purchase. I have to plan long in advance.


The Lightweight Backpacker: A Profile
While most of it is absolutely true especially for those active on the Internet today, I think the market is much larger. The experienced backpacker is most covered in article and most of that rings true. I fit that profile. I would prefer to be able to shop in the local store for lightweight gear rather than order and wait.

I think the market is much larger than those who have migrated to the Internet in pursuit of lightweight. I think there are a lot of people interested in buying lightweight. Probably most people want lightweight gear in the first place but they don’t know it unless they are taught the value or they find out the hard way. Here is the opportunity for the retailer to serve the customer and make a sale at the same time. If they already have gear it is time to upgrade and get lighter weight gear that is now available.

I think there are a lot of people who have little money to spend but will spend what ever is necessary to get the lightweight choice. I know I did. I chose a more expensive tent because it was the lightest choice available back when I budgeted my gear purchases out of what I set aside for a backpacking vacation. (I still thought it was too heavy and the same tent made with today’s fabrics would be lighter) I think the most under served are those just starting out who don't have enough knowledge to know what choices are available except by walking into the local store and talking to someone. These folks will spend what it takes but spread their purchases over a number of years. Scouts are a group at a serious disadvantage. While there is usually some troop gear they still need to make some basic purchases. Mom and Dad may well not be knowledgeable and a visit to the local store just adds heavy stuff to the pack of those least able to carry it. How many sales are lost because the early experiences of too much weight removes the interest in backpacking? I have passed troops on the trail where you could see who would probably never go on another trip. Purchases for young scouts by parents tend to be at the big sporting goods stores but the older scouts start buying their own gear and you will see them in the specialty gear shops. College students who are now on their own and trying out things tend to have little to spend on gear but they want good gear and they need to have both the gear and the educational resources easily accessible locally. If you sell light they will buy light.

Put a full set of quality light weight gear in an area of the store dedicated to light weight then
educate the buyers about those lighter weight options when they are in looking at the traditional gear. It will sell it's self to any one who has walked the trail and said my pack is too heavy. The lightweight gear doesn't need to be presented as a tarp instead of a tent. Present a tent verses a lightweight tent. A heavy stove versus a lightweight stove. A heavy pot versus a light one. Demo that lightweight high performance alcohol stove. When the water boils and they go wow you made a sale. Have a pack full of lightweight gear and pack full of the more traditional gear side by side. Let folks pick it up and examine the contents. They will learn. They will feel better about their purchase because they saw the differences for themselves and will not look back.

Do you fear durability issues? Change the way you market. Educate the customer. Lightweight gear usually isn't less durable. I have not experianced any durability problems over the past 5 years of packing light weight gear. In fact quite the oposite. Light weight choices tend toward being more fool proof. Mostly on the ultralight edge is where you encounter less durable options. Those are for advanced backpackers.

Glen Van Peski
(gvanpeski) - F - M

Locale: San Diego
Jumping on the Bandwagon on 02/04/2004 22:40:14 MST Print View

I'm not sure I agree with the conclusion, stated in the State of the Market Report, that "...manufacturers are jumping on the lightweight bandwagon..." because "...it provides a new niche for cottage companies to differentiage themselves as leaders in the field." I think most cottage companies become manufacturers of lightweight backpacking equipment because it's something they are passionate about personally, and can't find the stuff they want at prices they want to pay. I guess I can maybe think of one or two who think, "Hey, this is the next big thing, and I'm going to make a ton of money." Most of the cottage guys I know are eking out a modest living at best, many have "day jobs" that they depend on to make the house payments and put food on the table.

The time lag in the major manufacturers getting on the bandwagon created a window of opportunity. When I started making lightweight backpacks, Lynne Weldon was the only other guy I know of who was also offering lightweight packs. It was cute; my Mom, knowing not much except that I made light backpacks, saw some article mentioning lightweight gear ideas. She called me up and said "There's some guy named Ray Jardine who's copying you!". I had to explain that Ray had been talking about it since way before I got interested in lightweight backpacking. Now there is a plethora of lightweight backpack options.

It remains to be seen, in my mind, whether the cottage companies can continue to survive with the big boys jumping in. The internet is somewhat of a leveling field, but if retailers ever get serious about stocking and learning about ultralight gear, I for one wouldn't expect to be in business much longer (if I depended on any income from the business). I have noticed a decrease in my sales as more options become widely available, and know of at least one cottage manufacturer who has gotten out of the business. From my perspective, cottage manufacturers benefit during the leading edge of new ideas, because the "bleeding edge" afficionados who are involved early are savvy to internet research and buying, and some may even see value in supporting quirky cottage manufacturers over more traditional brands. But early on, typically the cottage manufacturers are the only choices. When the ideas become more mainstream, and if] the gear becomes more widely available, new people don't necessarily find their way to the cottage manufacturers, and they can get their "lightweight" gear at the places they are used to shopping.

There's a story, which I will mangle badly I'm sure, but something along the lines of J.P. Morgan, when the kid selling newspapers on the street was telling him about the stock the kid was buying, Morgan went back and liquidated his portfolio, right before the crash of '29. I'm wondering if, along those same lines, when I see lightweight backpacking featured on the cover of Backpacking Magazine, it wasn't time for me to get out of the business...

Edited by gvanpeski on 02/04/2004 22:41:50 MST.

Travis Kinchen
(iceaxe) - F
Store Staff on 02/16/2004 09:21:28 MST Print View

I think one key reason for a lack of experienced lightweight backpackers among store staff is highlighted in the survey. Lightweighters tend to be very experienced, very active, and frequently make plenty of money which they in turn spend freely on gear.

An outdoor specialty retailer usually cannot afford to pay plenty of money to its staff, thus the staff tends to be largely made up of young folks working part time while going to school. Thus they have neither the years of experience nor the affluence to try out the endless chain of newest, lightest, most high-tech gear.

At one point in my life I worked in a supervisory role in such a retail store, and put a great deal of effort into both teaching the younger folks what I knew, and taking them on trips to get them some firsthand experience. I will grant that at the time I was not a lightweight backpacker, nor could I have afforded much of the gear that I use now even at my higher pay rate. Now I work in a more lucrative industry, and my years of experience are lost to the store customers. If I worked back at the retailer on a part time basis, I might pass on more knowledge, but I would have no time left to gain more experience...

It is a difficult conundrum. So far I have found that gathering information online and frequently making purchases online has been the best way to pursue lightweight methods. The best ideas will trickle into the mainstream, and as years pass the mainstream may change.

Personally, I hope that I will never again be counted as mainstream, but will always be ahead of the pack in one way or another. I doubt that a retail store will ever be able to satisfy my gear "needs", as my interests will be ahead of the profitable segment of the market.

Douglas Prosser
(daprosser) - MLife

Locale: Camarillo, California (SCAL)
Who trained the retail sales people? on 08/18/2004 17:18:49 MDT Print View

I would say that most of these retail sales people got their start with the Boy Scouts. This group (BSA) is very slow to change but can respond to new ideas with change, example Leave-No-Trace(LNT). LNT is making a difference but it is taking a generation or two before it will become the predominate practice. The scouting leadership for troops and councils do not have the skills and abilities to champion lightweight backpacking. A large number of scoutmasters do not even feel comfortable backpacking let alone lightweight backpacking. They were trained when they were scouts in the 50's, 60's, 70's, and 80's if at all. They need each of us to help teach the leadership AND the boys what we know and take for granted about lightweight backpacking. Why don't we go on an overnight hike with a local troop and demonstrate by doing all these techniques we have spent so much time learning. There is a tremendous need for knowledgeable people to work with the boys and leadership to change past practices. Think of the destroyed self-esteem of an 11 year old trying to carry a 30 or even 40 pound pack up a mountain when he can not make it. What if we showed him a way to cut his pack weight to 10-15 pounds?? This is the boy that will enjoy backpacking and will continue it for his full life and his children will be right there with him. This feeds a very interesting spiral in that more and more people will continue backpacking longer and we net out with an expanding market for all these retailers.

As of the end of last year there were 3.2 million youth members and 1.2 million adults in the BSA. This is an extremely large potential market that has been mostly ignored by retailers and the lightweight backpacking community.

I would challenge each of you to spend some time with a troop and share your knowledge. It will change how the troop backpacks and the future of backpacking while giving you a nice "warm fuzzy feeling" on how you changed their lives.

Doug Prosser
Assitant Scoutmaster
DougPros@adelphia.net

Charles Maguire
(hikelite) - F

Locale: Virginia
What's a retailer to do on 09/28/2004 13:14:09 MDT Print View

I am in the process of researching the viability of a outdoor retail specialty shop catering to the lightweight crowd in VA with an emphasis on personel, training, experience and lightweight gear.

Training, retaining good employees, motivating, and really focusing on this niche is doable. The difficult thing for me and probably other retailers is the availability of cottage gear at wholesale prices with a decent return policy and availibility. I am talking the stuff we use on the trail such as premade pepsi stoves and Walmart grease pot insulators etc...

Do others in this forum think this cottage gear can be purchased in enough quantity to support carrying it at wholesale prices?

At risk of breaking protocol, if I do, my apologies in advance to Ryan and this moderator, I was wondering additional words or wisdom you could bestow upon someone looking to make a sizeable invrestment and change in lifestysle to make enter this retail niche segment.

Any thoughts are appreciated. You can email me at ctm_v@yahoo.com.

Chuck