John Riggins and his son opened True Heights Equipment Outfitter in Beavercreek, Ohio about two and a half years ago. We talked with him about his biggest challenges as a new retailer and what makes it all worth it.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your first year, and how did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge we’ve faced is gaining market share. Building a business from the ground up is a tough task, and we opened in an area with a locally-owned outfitter that was already well-established.
We’re still working on gaining a bigger share of the business, but what we’ve done has made an impact. We treat our customers more like friends than consumers, and we offer free classes, community events and discounts for local outdoors groups. Our store has an area with a hostel-like feel for people to hang out in the shop and share their trail stories. The refrigerator in the main sales area of our shop is plastered with postcards our customers send from all over the country.
We know our plans are working, because we’ve seen our competitor change in response to what we’ve done. That store used to charge for classes, demos and events that it now offers for free. Customer engagement is key to keeping them loyal and spreading the word about the shop.
What advice would you give to others considering opening a store, or to store owners struggling to increase traffic to their shops?
Be conservative in both inventory buys and sale projections. Overbuying can put you in a financial strain with inventory that your customers don’t want.
Early on, forgo the preseason buying incentives. Although these are great for added margins, when you’re new and don’t really know your true customer needs, you can end up stuck with large quantities of items your customers don’t want. That’s what happened to us – we overspent on too much inventory that didn’t sell as fast as we would have liked. Some of it is still sitting here, a year and a half later, and I’ll have to mark it down significantly.
If we would have skipped some of the preseason ordering to get to those incentives, we would have had a bit more cash to spend on marketing.
Up front, spend more time and money building a better marketing plan. We have relied on more of the free kind of marketing – Facebook, Twitter, social media – but it’s worth it to invest in an expert who can help you figure out what kind of advertising will give you the best bang for your buck.
What makes all the challenges worth it?
It’s worth it when you hear the stories of people who have gotten out on a trail or camped for the first time. We’re building a “wall of fame” on our website with photos of customers who have taken trips with our gear. As people see photos from other customers, they’ve been sending in their own, as well.
We recently had a customer who was overweight and wanted to join his wife, an avid backpacker, but he was afraid that he wouldn’t find a pack to fit him. We found him one from The North Face but an extender wouldn't have arrived in time for his trip, so I bought webbing and clips and fashioned one myself. It saved him money and got his pack ready in time for his trip. When he got back, he sent us pictures of him and his wife. Seeing him smiling instead of embarrassed like he was when he first came in the shop was a reminder of why we’re here and why we opened.
This story is part of our new series, “From the Trenches,” where we feature retail owners and employees with great advice for others in the industry. Do you have a great tip, or know someone who’s a genius at selling tents or keeping customers loyal to the store? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and you could see yourself, your shop or your employees featured here.