It has been two years since Altrec.com and Outward Bound quietly inked a deal that named Altrec as Outward Bound's online retail partner and from all appearances, the relationship continues to gain strength.
Craig Trames, director of Pacific Crest Outward Bound School (PCOBs is in the process of merging with Colorado Outward Bound with the combined entities becoming known as Outward Bound West) told SNEWS that Outward Bound came to the realization that retailing was not its core competency and as a result, turned to Altrec.
"We used to sell a wide variety of product from a small back room, and that was not in the best interests of our students since the product mix we could offer was no where near as broad or as current as students might want," says Trames. "With Altrec, we could offer our students a more comprehensive and up-to-date mix of product along with a vastly improved level of customer service."
In simple terms, the deal calls for Altrec to be Outward Bound's exclusive on-line partner and individual schools are free to support the program as they wish. Currently, Outward Bound West, Outward Bound North Carolina, and Voyageur Outward Bound participate, with Hurricane Island the only one not yet involved. As a result, over the last two years, Altrec and Outward Bound have worked closely to build tailored course equipment lists and to ensure that Altrec is carrying all of the gear that is suggested by the schools.
"When we first got involved with Outward Bound, we simplistically viewed the partnership as another great way to sell product and for them to gain exposure," Shannon Stowell, Altrec's VP of Business Development told SNEWS. "What the relationship has become is an integrated part of our strategy because we are specifically purchasing products for their program lists and working to help train their customer service staff. In addition, we created a separate store area to sell Outward Bound logoed gear."
Although a number of specialty retailers have contacted SNEWS in recent months about the relationship, questioning its exclusivity and wondering why Outward Bound would enter into such an agreement, Stowell stresses that it is important for retailers to realize that the partnership does not guarantee Altrec business.
"We compete on the same level as any retailer," says Stowell. "Outward Bound needed to get out of the retail business and they wanted a national partner and we are honored they chose us. However, when a student goes into a school site and selects an equipment list, they are free to shop wherever they choose, and we are finding quite often that they are printing the equipment lists out and taking them to their local retailer."
When SNEWS wondered if students might, in fact, simply go into a local retailer to try on the equipment and then go online to buy it, Stowell again reminded us that Altrec does not sell on price.
"We ascribe to the pricing that manufacturers recommend and while we do know that, yes, some consumers are going to their local store and then shopping with us or another internet retailer, the reverse happens far more frequently -- far more shoppers are doing their research online and then going into their store to buy it."
Trames also points out that Outward Bound is certainly not getting rich by this relationship and that they view it more as another way to offer superior customer service to their students / customers as well as increased exposure for their programs.
"From an online standpoint, we have picked our partner and we stand behind out partner," added Trames. "We also have and continue to work very closely with many local retailers and would encourage retailers who want to work more closely with Outward Bound schools to contact the school's marketing or missions' person and establish a relationship with them."
SNEWS View: While a few specialty retailers might grumble a bit about the relationship Outward Bound has with an Internet retailer, it really makes absolute business sense. SNEWS is very familiar with how awful (sorry OB) Outward Bound was when they tried to be a retailer too. We are also very familiar with how challenging it is for OB to ensure its students are properly outfitted. Just this Summer, the daughter of a SNEWS team member went on a 50 day course in Alaska and her visits to local stores were, err, less than stellar. Outward Bound was specific in its requests, yet time and again, retailers tried to sell items they had in stock we knew were not appropriate substitutions. Years ago, one of the SNEWS team also used to work as a contract guide, assisting on Outward Bound trips when needed, and we saw first hand how often students showed up poorly equipped -- with items that were sold to them by local specialty retailers as "ideal." Outward Bound has long battled with this challenge. With the Altrec relationship, Outward Bound gets out of the retail business (other than earning a percentage of sales) and is able to establish a consistent equipment message to all of its students, ensuring that they will be properly outfitted to OB's specifications. Savvy specialty retailers will see this as an opportunity and have OB equipment lists (all are available for printing out online at the various school URLs) in their stores to ensure that they will be able to meet student needs when they come in. Contacting schools to make sure the store name is on the mind of customer service staff is also a no-brainer -- and yes, OB customer service staff will recommend stores in locales when a student wonders where they should go to shop, but only if they know about that store.