Bill Bartee Q&A: Know your customer's outdoor activity and identity

The owner of Jesse Brown’s Outdoors in Charlotte, N.C. talks to us about the state of specialty outdoor retail.
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How can specialty retailers keep up with today’s fast-changing outdoor trends, products and consumer attention spans? For Bill Bartee, owner of Jesse Brown’s Outdoors in Charlotte, N.C., the answer comes as a natural habit — keeping in close communication with customers. The easygoing 45-year-old retailer (who, oddly enough, is as old as his store) builds relationships and stays tuned to the trends beyond just retail transactions. At in-store afterhours events, he lets the customers tell the stories and every week, he co-hosts a local radio show Carolina Outdoors. We find out what he’s hearing and seeing from customers and brands — the good and the bad.

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What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities for outdoor retailers?
Challenges: The pace of evolution within our industry is faster. Trends, brands and consumer attention are moving quickly and you’ve got to keep up. The second hurdle is brand alignment with dealers. There are heritage brands that still have a popular and performing name that are beginning to go in another direction from many of their dealers. It’s OK to have company stores, websites and direct-to-consumer promotions, but do it with dealers, not in competition.

Opportunities: digital marketing and engagement. Our customers want to be engaged and interact with all aspects of our company. This includes their in-store visits (retail theater), direct mail pieces, email and social media. The biggest opportunity is the ability to tell our story to our core customers and have them answer with an in-store visit or digital shout out. Each, when fully engaged, is an awesome multiplier of people into our body of work.

You’ve said before that there are two sides of the industry — activity and identity. How do each play a role when a customer walks into your store? 
Getting philosophical here: Is there a danger for the outdoor “identity” to lose its authenticity without the “activity?” Yes! This is a challenge. In fact, it’s occurred before with Abercrombie & Fitch and Eddie Bauer. My only answer is to keep promoting the outdoors, but promote what your client and potential client can process. Your inventory doesn’t have to be for a two-month backpacking trip, but it can be tilted toward sun protection and hydration. Those are all activity-based and easy for most people to figure out. Retailers will have to be willing to keep categories of their own identity within the store or be willing to change. I know some hardware stores and pawn shops that are now identified as outdoor and fly fishing stores, respectively — mainly because they were willing to change their “activity” identity.

What products are selling well in your store these days? What’s selling less?
Selling well are outdoor gifts — see Yeti coolers and the product carried in that wake … tumblers, colsters, etc. — and apparel continues to excel, especially the apparel with a storyline (travels well, wrinkle resistant, quick drying). It’s also apparel that identifies — that of course includes Patagonia, but now we’ve got youthful upstarts like Howler Brothers and stalwart fishing brands like Simms that are moving to mainstream outdoor. We are also selling quick packs between 10 and 30 liters. They’re great for a trip, bike ride and travel.

Fly fishing is a code word at Jesse Brown’s for travel. This category and everything that meanders in its wake (raincoats, clothing, sunscreen, sunglasses, water bottles) are all up. We’re outfitting for destination places all over the world and it’s fun to outfit for this.

Selling less are big packs. Our people aren’t backpacking the same as they used to.

We’ve heard plenty of preaching in the past few years about specialty outdoor retailers having to sell an “experience” in the store, not just product. Is that strategy working for your store?
Yes. We’re inviting in specialists, having parties, fundraisers, etc. Our intent is to associate having a good time with being in our store — it’s kind of Pavlovian.

Our biggest hit for staff and clients has been our Storytellers Night. We nominate and choose three storytellers from our customers, give them 20 minutes to tell their story and provide food and drink for the night. Last year we did it three times and this year we’ve done it twice. We’ll get between 40-60 people each time. The storytellers and their stories have been genuine (there’s no agenda) and the quality has been incredible. The highest compliment is when people come up afterward and say, “I can’t believe that you don’t charge for this.”

What’s been more valuable for your store? Outdoor Retailer or the smaller regional shows? What do you think This Show can do to attract more retailers?
I love Outdoor Retailer, but for our size retail, the smaller regional shows are where the work really gets done. It is rare that we need to involve the vice president of marketing of some huge company with our needs. Trends can be spotted at the Outdoor Retailer. It’s nice to meet officers and higher-ups, but it’s rare that the relationship is meaningful at a trade show. It’s more meaningful when you can work with getting the right product, right amount of product at the right time at a local show.

--David Clucas

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