Not too many store owners we know of can remember their first customer's name, let alone what he purchased, but Joe Hyer, co-owner of the Alpine Experience in Olympia, Wash., can -- Andy Cook and he purchased a Kavu shoulder bag. While this may seem like a trivial fact, to us, it underscores the reason why Hyer, in his eighth year of operation, is not only successful, but admired by many for his business savvy and his conviction that a business does well simply by doing good in the community.
Hyer, who opened his store's doors for business on Feb. 10, 1996, contacted SNEWSÂ® in early February of this year to let us know he was exercising the option to purchase his store's 1950s-era building from the Olympia Shingle Company. His purchase is being financed with a $722,500 loan guaranteed by the Small Business Administration.
Purchasing the building is something Hyer, who is currently serving as the president of the Olympia Downtown Association, told us he and his brother Steve, also a co-owner, felt was a necessary step to underscore their commitment to the community and to their customers.
Buying the building also allows Hyer more freedom to execute plans for business direction, diversity and growth. Using $250,000 of private funding he's raised, Hyer intends to build an indoor climbing gym with 30 separate routes in a storage room with a 30-foot ceiling at the back of the building. There will also be a room with a Plexiglas wall overlooking the climbing area so shoppers, or families with children who are climbing inside, can watch the action.
"The gym, with our code name Port of Crags, will start construction this month and serve as a springboard for new programs being offered by the community," said Hyer, adding that he hasn't yet set the price on day, month and annual memberships.
As if purchasing a building and chasing funding for new construction was not enough, what Hyer is most excited about is the fundamental change his company is making in the way it goes about doing business.
"It starts with a new mission statement, which reads, 'Adventurers by Nature, Innovators by Habit, Leaders by Conviction,'" Hyer told us. "From marketing to merchandising to operations and events, we are shifting our focus to better fulfill that new mission statement."
While the most visible changes will come from the store being "retooled" to make the retail experience more enjoyable and visually exciting for Alpine Experience customers, it is the shift in marketing dollars Hyer says will really have the most lasting impact.
"The inspiration for our new marketing plan came at the OIA Rendezvous last fall when we were bouncing ideas around and I threw out one that maybe our marketing dollars would be better spent by giving them to the community rather than to advertising," said Hyer. "I joked that we could do it with the hope that Karma would pay us back.
"The more we thought about it, the more we knew it was the right thing to do because ultimately, as a high school marketing class teacher told me, 'It feels good to do good.' It became so clear to me then that profitability was the beginning of the journey, not the end," he said.
Alpine Experience expects to earn a 4-percent profit on approximately $2.75 million in business this year and from gross sales, the retailer will commit 5 percent to the marketing budget as it has in the past. However, what Hyer will do differently this year is that he will shift 25 percent of those dollars away from advertising and spend them instead on supporting local non-profits and community organizations.
"That commitment will allow us to funnel between $30,000 to $40,000 into the community this year," said Hyer. "When members of our community think of Alpine Experience, we want them to first remember something we have done for the community, and second to remember we're their first source for outdoor needs."
Hyer acknowledges that the move is a calculated gamble, but insists that he believes the community will respond to the change with sufficient enthusiasm needed to sustain his business.
"It can no longer be about simply selling more. It has to be about being better citizens, better community members, and stronger supporters of the values we share," insisted Hyer. "If more sales come from that, we're grateful. If not, we will learn to live on less."
SNEWS View: A two thumbs-up, two big toes raised salute to the Alpine Experience team. Our respect for Hyer has grown immensely over the last several years as we have observed his team in action at several Rendezvous events and at various trade shows. Hyer has always accepted that responsibility for his store's success or failure rests with him and his team -- not because some manufacturer was dumping product, or a European website was selling gear for less, or any number of other things retailers tend to get their dander up about these days. Hyer once told us, "If a website in Europe or the U.S. can steal my customer simply because their price is better, then clearly I am not focused well enough on my customers to deserve their business."