Alabama Outdoors moves to the Rocket City

Stifled by competition and the economy, outdoor specialty retail continues to melt away in many parts of the country. But down in the Deep South, one retail company doesn't appear to be suffering from the heat. Alabama Outdoors, which has been operating for 29 years, continues to expand and will open its sixth storefront this August in Huntsville, Ala.
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Stifled by competition and the economy, outdoor specialty retail continues to melt away in many parts of the country. But down in the Deep South, one retail company doesn't appear to be suffering from the heat. Alabama Outdoors, which has been operating for 29 years, continues to expand and will open its sixth storefront this August in Huntsville, Ala.

The new 4,800-square-foot store, situated in the affluent south side of Huntsville, will serve a metro area whose growing population has reached about 200,000. On the surface, it appears to be a smart move and excellent opportunity for Alabama Outdoors, which is based in Birmingham.

Like many Southern cities, Huntsville's population of outdoor enthusiasts is holding steady, with plenty of growth potential. Also, the technology and military industries fuel the local economy, padding it somewhat from the economic blows of the last few years. But the move is a bit of a risk, because previous outdoor retail stores have come into the town, only to pack up and leave after failing to capture the market.

Alabama Outdoors owner Mark Gatewood feels good about the new store's chances. Having enjoyed steady increases in same-store sales the past six years, his company stands on a solid footing. But earning a buck in Huntsville might prove challenging. A Tents and Trails shop abruptly closed in December, and the veteran store, Outdoor Omnibus, seems to be decreasing its presence, having moved into a less visible location. Newcomers will have to face off against a relatively new Dick' Sporting Goods store, which discounts brands like The North Face that are popular in the South.

"It's kind of odd. There are not many cities with the population of Huntsville that don't have a quality (outdoor) specialty retailer," said Dawson Wheeler, owner of the chain of Rock Creek Outfitters stores in Tennessee. Wheeler said he had considered moving Rock Creek into Huntsville, but deemed it too risky and pursued safer expansion plans. Part of the problem, said Wheeler, is that Hutsville's outdoor consumer base is hard to figure.

A 40-story model of the Saturn V Rocket towering over the city symbolizes the significant influence of the Marshall Spaceflight Center and the many companies that serve the space industry. The town's nickname is the Rocket City, and as Wheeler noted, "The per capita number of Ph.D.s is high." Of course, an educated, well-paid consumer base is a good thing for any retailer, but success in Huntsville is not a sure thing. "The user groups are unknown, and it's an immature market because it has not had a strong outdoor specialty store to educate people," said Wheeler.

But Gatewood said, "There's definitely a market here." In fact, he got the idea of opening a store in Huntsville when he noticed how many people from the city were buying from Alabama Outdoors via the Internet, its toll free phone number and by visiting its Birmingham stores.

He understands Huntsville enough to know that it's home to a healthy number of outdoor enthusiasts, particularly mountain bikers, hikers and trail runners. John Nuckols, general manager of Alabama Outdoors, said that in Alabama, "trail running and ultra-marathons are a monster." (The Mount Mist Trail Run on Monte Sano Mountain in south Huntsville had 302 registered participants in February 2004.) In addition, there continues to be a solid core community of spelunkers in Alabama, and the National Speleological Society lies on Cave Avenue in Huntsville.

Gatewood said the new store will cater to all these constituencies. He also seems to understand what previous outdoor stores in Huntsville failed to realize -- that the store must involve itself heavily in the community, and market itself to the people. "We try to get really involved with local clubs," Gatewood said. "We'll get involved with the Sierra Club and Boy Scouts. We'd like to get involved with the ultra-marathons and running clubs."

The goal, said Gatewood, is for people to view his store as a mom-and-pop shop. "We want to know everybody by their first name when they walk in," he said, adding that people will appreciate his "loyalty points program," which gives customers 5 percent back on every purchase.

Gatewood, a lean 40-year-old with a wave of blond hair, has studied for a long time how to win over customers. He learned while working at The Locker Room, a men's clothing store in Tuscaloosa, Ala., that his father has owned for 40 years,

"I worked there for 12 years, including a stint as a traveling salesman," said Gatewood. "But I had a true love for the outdoors, and got tired of wearing a tie." An avid runner, cyclist and hiker, Gatewood opened an outdoor store called Black Warrior Outdoors (named for the Black Warrior River) in Tuscaloosa in 1992.

In 1996 Gatewood purchased Alabama Outdoors in Birmingham. In its long history, the store had changed hands a few times and eventually expanded to three locations. Then in the early '90s, it contracted to one 10,000-square-foot store in Birmingham's Homewood district. The original founder of Alabama Outdoors, John Cross, was long out of the picture by then, and in 1991 a businessman named Jerry Gaskins acquired the company. In 1997, Gatewood approached Gaskins, hoping to buy the store and use its clout to secure certain lines he had been unable to obtain in his Tuscaloosa store. Gaskins agreed.

Over the next few years, Gatewood expanded his operation into Pelham (a small town north of Birmingham), then Tuscaloosa, which is home of the University of Alabama. In 1998, he opened a shop in Florence (a town of 36,000 75 miles west of Huntsville), and then added another Birmingham store in 2002.

Each Alabama Outdoors store is unique in its offering. For example, the store in Pelham (a primarily blue-collar community) serves as a means to move discounted products. The Florence store (situated in an 1840s governor's house) is the only one that caters to fly-fishing and carries Orvis products. Store manager Karen Lowery has a passion for the sport, and she offers guided fly-fishing trips.

As for the Huntsville store, it will rest in a valley that has transformed from farmland to new housing developments and slick shopping centers. Alabama Outdoors will be in a new strip center that will include a coffee shop, gourmet restaurant and ice cream shop.

That's good company; now the store must meet and understand the needs of its other neighbors -- the people of Huntsville. "The demographics are kind of strange," said Gatewood. "There are so many home shoppers, so many people reading screens,"(meaning, people who shop online). For this reason, said Gatewood, a lot of brick-and-mortar stores in the area do not survive. As Wheeler of Rock Creek mentioned, Gatewood's success will depend on his company's ability to forge relationships in the community. But Gatewood claims that Alabama Outdoors has been successful because he works very hard, and that filters down to his employees. He emphasized that their hard work has established a level of credibility among a loyal customer base.

Nuckols agreed, noting, "People like that we're a true specialty outdoor shop. Customers get (an employee) who's used the product, can tell you how to break it down in the field, and can compare it to 10 other products."

It remains to be seen whether the people of the Rocket City will appreciate the service and supplies, and Gatewood is certainly taking a risk. But maybe the man from Tuscaloosa will find inspiration in the words of another person who once called Tuscaloosa home. "If you believe in yourself and have dedication and pride -- and never quit -- you'll be a winner. The price of victory is high but so are the rewards."

Even in the sweltering dead of summer, a little challenge never made Paul "Bear" Bryant sweat too much.

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