Approaching its 20th year in business, Buffalo Peak Outfitters is headquartered in Jackson, Miss., just off I-55 in an upscale part of town. As with any outdoor retail store, Buffalo Peak's location, customer base, square footage and product mix help to start a picture of the business. While those first few brush strokes help to define what the business is, they don't necessarily show who it is. To glimpse the real heart of Buffalo Peak, we sent one of our reporters, Marcus Woolf, who speaks and understands Southern, to go kayak fishing with Buffalo Peak owner, Bobby McCain, and his staff.
His journey to understand the heart of Buffalo Peak begins in the south of Mississippi along the Louisiana coast, near Grand Isle, on an old pier with wooden legs that dip into the black waters of Thunder Bayou.
On a warm October evening, a large fella in his mid-40s sits on a wooden bench next to a slight 88-year-old woman. A white bonnet covers her silver hair, and her arms are draped with a blue flannel shirt. A celebrated fixture in these parts, Miss Ruby flicks her fishing line into the water, just as she's done each evening for decades. Over the past few years, Buffalo Peak owner Bobby McCain has traveled to the bayou to fish, and he usually stays in the camp house next to Miss Ruby's. The two have become good friends, and McCain never misses an opportunity to visit with Miss Ruby to swap stories about acquaintances and old friends.
"Miss Ruby, you're really pullin' in those specks (speckled trout) tonight," said McCain.
"Well, tonight I'm fishin' fu my friend," Miss Ruby replied in a voice that sounded like reeds rustling. "She's old, and she cain't fish fu huself."
McCain and two of his employees have pioneered kayak fishing in this area, and I've joined them for a few days to check out the scene. Two things strike me about the trip. First, they treat me like a friend, though I had never met them before. And, second, the respect and care they cast toward Miss Ruby reminds me of seeing my father when we'd visit my great grandmother in the nursing home. In this country we're so used to ignoring old people that it always impressed me to see a healthy man's hand wrapped around one pale and wrinkled. The first person who ever saw such a thing must have invented the word "comfort."
Miss Ruby's husband died long ago, and I imagined that, on this isolated bayou, nights on the pier might get lonely sometimes. In pale orange lamp light, I could see Miss Ruby smile as she talked with Bobby. Now, I'm not sure whether McCain visited her just to keep her company, or if he enjoyed the conversation or felt compelled to chat with her out of politeness. The point is, he did it, and he didn't have to. And it appeared as if Miss Ruby really mattered to him.
I begin the story of Buffalo Peak this way because it's hard to explain what one Southerner means when he calls another group of Southerners "good folks." But you know them when you see them. And the people at Buffalo Peak Outfitters are good folks.
A simple philosophy
After a pleasant day of kayak fishing, and an even more pleasant dinner of blackened redfish, I sat down with the Buffalo Peak guys in our camp house to talk about their business. McCain explained that his business philosophy is pretty simple.
"All retail is, is working one on one with people. Asking them questions, finding out their needs, and determining how we can meet those needs," he said. "But so many shops don't do that anymore. They have preconceived notions about what the customer needs, and they don't ask enough questions or listen."
McCain has apparently done a good job listening because his store has seen steady growth since it was established in 1986. He attributes the success to the store's high level of customer service. The level of service remains high partly because there is a core group of veteran staff members. My other fellow fishermen, Cy Tandy and Dave Edmonson, have been there five years and seven years, respectively. Merchandiser and softgoods buyer Elizabeth Montambault joined the staff nine years ago.
Each of these people shares McCain's serious attitude toward customer service and his idea that selling is an educational process.
"We take time to educate customers," Tandy said. "We take them up and down the chain of products, and we don't shoot from the hip. If someone asks a question and we don't know the answer, we don't make up stuff. We get on the phone with the company to get the answer. Our competitor is only a few clicks away on the Internet. And if we don't provide that customer service, we've lost them."
When asked how he developed his philosophy of running a business, McCain points to the six years he worked for The Athlete's Foot. He began working for the company while in college, and eventually held positions as an operations manager and a buyer for five stores and a warehouse. He also conducted employee training clinics.
"I learned a lot about retail during that time," he said.
And the most important lesson?
"To be a good boss, and run a good business, you have to treat people right."
After working for The Athlete's Foot, McCain fell in love with an outdoor store in North Carolina and decided to open his own. However, he didn't have an outdoor background.
"I was never a big backpacker, climber or paddler," he said. "I played basketball in college and was always involved in athletics."
He's a bit different from many retail owners who launched stores to make a living off their outdoor lifestyle. "That was not the way I approached it," McCain said. "I approached it as a business."
With this mindset, he opened a 1,500-square-foot store in a Jackson mall that McCain describes as not your typical strip center. "I like to think of it as an upscale specialty center. Most shops are locally owned and most of the owners work in the businesses," he said noting that the only franchise store is Talbots.
Originally, he named his store Buffalo Rock, because that just sounded like a good name for an outdoor store. Unfortunately, that was also the name of a soft drink company located in Birmingham, Ala. A slight alteration of the store name seemed the easiest way to avoid a lawsuit. With that little problem solved, the store enjoyed steady growth from the get-go. McCain expanded the shop three times in the '90s, and it now occupies 5,700 square feet. This year, he opened a second store in Oxford, Miss., home of the University of Mississippi.
If McCain's main philosophy is to care for people, running a close second is the notion that a business should never sit still. Tandy jokes that when he retired from the Navy and searched for a relaxing second career, he didn't exactly find that at Buffalo Peak.
"Between Dave, Bobby and Elizabeth, the status quo is looking backward," he said. Â
Of course, Tandy is no slouch himself. After all, he was the one who urged McCain to open a paddling department in 1999. As usual, McCain didn't hem and haw about it. He decided it was a good idea and jumped right in.
"We started out with pretty much everything -- canoes, recreational boats, touring boats. We didn't know exactly what we were going to be able to sell, and the first couple of years it was an exploratory process," McCain said. "Now, some five years into it, we have a pretty good idea of what our market is -- primarily recreation and day touring boats. We're not to the point where you stock five or six models of 17-foot touring boats -- that part of the business is growing -- but a lot is in rec business, and kayak fishing."
Nothing too 'out there'
When asked to describe his customer base, McCain notes that folks in Jackson are fairly conservative. "We have to keep an eye on that as a buyer. Some lines that are way out there, or parts of lines that are way out there won't work in Mississippi," he said.
The store does very well with proven players, such as The North Face, Mountain Hardwear, Columbia and Patagonia.
Right now, his casual footwear business is going through the roof. "We've been in on the same sandal boom everyone has been experiencing with Chaco and Reef," McCain said. "Let's face it, the technical hiking market, it terms of hiking boots and trail running shoes, there's only a limited amount of that that you're going to sell. The causal market is where you can do your huge numbers."
Trend-spotting for Jackson's conservative crowd can be a bit tricky. Buffalo Peak has at times been ahead of the game and at other times behind. "We brought Cloudveil in years ago when nobody knew who they were, or anybody knew what a soft shell was."
On the other hand, he said, "We have Keen coming in for spring, and we're probably a season late on that."
Where the store has been successful is in broadening its consumer base.
"The biggest change in the last few years is that our demographics are getting younger," McCain said. "We still have a large group of the 30- to 60-year-old crowd that has been shopping with us from day one. But we're seeing more and more high school and college age kids. And hopefully we'll keep them as customers down the road. If they're just coming in now to buy a Denali jacket and pair of sandals because that's cool and it's their friend's uniform, that's fine. Someday, when they have a job and their own money to spend, and want to get into backpacking, they know who we are and what we've got."
The new 3,200-square-foot store in Oxford should only strengthen his company's relationship with younger consumers (who actually tend to be conservative like their parents). "We took a look at what the college kids were buying at the Jackson store, and that's what we went with in Oxford -- the homeruns. Pretty much anything from The North Face, Mountain Hardwear, Patagonia, Columbia," said McCain. One surprise is that Kavu is the No. 2 selling brand at the Oxford store. (The Kavu brand is simply not well known in the South.) "We really like doing business with Kavu," McCain said. "Barry (Barr, Kavu president) is a good guy. They have gone a long way in making us feel part of the Kavu family. This whole business is about relationships, and you choose who you do business with."
In addition to drawing younger customers, Buffalo Peak has also reached out to women. It has revamped its merchandising and formed a dedicated women's department in the Jackson store. "We're doing well with the junior high, high school and college age people," McCain said. "But we also have healthy business with 30- to 60-year-old ladies who can't find clothing for travel, birding or paddling anywhere else. Montambault has hosted events such as an outdoor diva night where women gathered in the store to enjoy some food and shop for women's products.
A good neighbor
Special events for the community have become an important part of Buffalo Peak's marketing strategy. In April, the store partnered with the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science for a Nature Fest event in Jackson that drew about 800 people. Buffalo Peak hosted a slide show by paddler Jon Bowermaster, as well as paddle demos and a trail run. On the Saturday of Nature Fest, reps from several outdoor brands set up booths to talk about products sold at Buffalo Peak.
In addition to Nature Fest, Buffalo Peak has also become involved in efforts to preserve the Pascagoula River Basin which includes the last uncontrolled river system in the lower 48 states.
Such community involvement has made Buffalo Peak's name synonymous with outdoor recreation in Mississippi. While the store has worked hard to establish its position, it helps that the store doesn't have much local competition. The only thing close in town is Indian Cycle Fitness & Outdoor, which no longer sells outdoor hardgoods.
"We're very fortunate that we do not have an REI or a Galyan's. We're still kind of off their radar screens right now," McCain said. "The Internet is our competition more than anything else. We have a website, but don't sell off it. In the early days, I thought that by not doing e-commerce we were really missing the boat. I don't feel that way anymore. There aren't that many really successful outdoor sites out there."
McCain says he could still go the direction of e-commerce, but he emphasizes that "our strength is our people, and relationships we have with customers. And you lose that via the Internet. I'm very conscious about our identity as a business. And so many shops have lost their identity."
A personal phone call
Three months after returning from the fishing trip to the bayou, I was walking under the bright lights of the Salt Palace Convention Center, striding fast, late to an appointment, juggling an armful of show schwag and a ringing cell phone. I flipped open the phone and immediately recognized Dave Edmonson's slight Mississippi drawl. "Hey, I just wanted to tell you that Miss Ruby passed away yesterday."
I stopped dead still in the middle of the aisle. "You're kiddin' me." My voice fell flat.
"Naw. It happened the other day. I just thought you'd like to know."
He took the time to call. 'Cause that's what good folks do.