Noticing a need for local outdoor retail in Rockport, Maine, Stewart and Marianne Smith opened Maine Sport Outfitters in 1976 as a small neighborhood outdoor shop. Today, their massive store caters to fisherman, hikers and campers, skiers and bikers (with full tech services) and, of course, features a big boat department.
But it wasn’t long after the Smiths opened their doors that Maine Sport took a turn towards what is now their defining trail. During the sea kayak boom of the late 1980s and early 90s, the Smiths quickly recognized the potential popularity of the sport locally and decided to take advantage. “There was just this huge influx of people wanting to kayak the Maine coast, wanting to get high-level instruction, and wanting to buy kayaks,” says Tim Barker, the store’s Outdoor Programs Director. Barker was hired later on in 2014 to oversee what has grown into an extensive guiding and instructional service.
Early on, Maine Sport offered lessons for various skill levels, tours around the local bays and islands, as well as custom programs and trips. “At the height of the sea kayaking craze, we felt like we developed the best guiding program in the East,” says general manager Gregg Perry, who joined the team in 1992.
“When you sell trips, the gear will follow.”
Today, Maine Sport offers tours and trips ranging from two hours (the most popular one, around Canon Harbor, heads out every day, three times per day) to weeklong adventures featuring a private island lodge. The shop’s clinics run the gamut from first-timer to professional guide certification courses, and guides work regularly with a collection of schools, groups and camps in the local area. Most recently, Barker has added inland backpacking adventures in the Katahdin area.
But neither the guide service, nor the now 35,000-square-foot retail space stand on their own. “They complement each other in a lot of ways,” said Barker. Most obvious, he said, is that the guide service actually creates retail customers, a good number of whom come back after their first time on the water only to buy a kayak or paddleboard of their own. And retail staffers are the best advocates for the instructional programs. Many of the customers are recruited as they shop for gear in the store.
“A guide’s license is like the golden ticket.”
The service also lends a lot of credibility to the staff on the sales floor, many of whom split their time between explaining boats and gear in the store and on the water as guides. “Establishing yourself in a selling relationship as someone that is to be trusted is a tricky proposition,” said Perry. “You don’t want to be boastful about what you’ve done because you’re trying to focus on what they want to do.” But when a customer learns that their salesperson is also a licensed guide, that brings instant cred to the conversation.
To boost sales of land-based gear, Perry has hired four different Appalachian Trail finishers in the last year. How does he get so lucky with employees? “I think we attract that type of person,” he said.
“We can feel a little isolated. Joining Grassroots Outdoor Alliance will change that.”
For an isolated shop in coastal Maine, keeping a finger on the pulse of the industry can be a challenge. “It’s hard to know what trends there are out there and you can’t really call up your competitors to find out,” said Perry, which is why he was excited when Maine Sport Outfitters was given the opportunity to join the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance last month. Rich Hill, President of the Grassroots, praised Maine Sport’s impact on the local community. “They’re just such a part of that Camden area and they’re really in it for all the right reasons,” he said.
“It’s going to give us access to what regional and national trends are and how much we match up to them,” he said. And with a core staff that has largely been there for more than 20 years, Perry is looking forward to fresh input. “One drawback to our staff sticking around is we don’t see as much fresh data or as many fresh ideas from the outside.” Whereas stores with a steady employee turnover tend to see a consistent flow of outside thoughts and practices, Maine Sport can sometimes be left out, and inclusion in Grassroots is Perry’s effort to counter that. “We’re going to be able to hear from other people.”
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