Gear and beer: Outdoor retailers offer in-store brews to tap more traffic

Outdoor retailers and craft brewers are teaming up on shopping experience that e-commerce can't offer.
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This might bring new meaning to the phrase: “shop ‘til you drop.”

Several outdoor and fitness retailers are beginning to serve beer and wine in their stores. It’s all part of the evolving brick-and-mortar “shopping experience,” with live events and perks that virtual shops can’t compete with.

The partnership between the local craft brewers and the outdoors is already a close one. New Belgium and Sierra Nevada advertise and sponsor many events for the active lifestyle set, including at Outdoor Retailer.

The trend of gear and beer is blossoming in Colorado and North Carolina: states known for craft brewers. Retailers willing to jump the hurdles of construction and alcohol permits report growth in both customer base and in sales.

The Hub, a bike shop and outdoor supplier in Pisgah Forest, N.C., added a bar with four taps five years ago. Now they have six taps, and a covered deck to accommodate more drinkers outside. "Weekend Days it's standing room only. It's packed in here for sure," said co-owner Jordan Salman.

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It’s something online retailers can't provide: community. If that sounds like a stretch, consider the "buy local' loyalty associated with craft beer drinkers.

"What was most interesting as a retailer wasn't that you get people a little bit boozed up and they open their wallets…," Salman said. "It's that people that come in here develop a relationship with us and then they're not buying on the Internet anymore."

Initially concerned the bar could ruffle feathers in the community; Salman said she's found outdoor enthusiasts aren't offended by a beer or two. Serving sodas and juices makes it family friendly, too. To comply with alcohol laws, the bar is technically a private club called the Pisgah Tavern which requires a free membership. Members can take their beers outside, or sit at the bar overlooking the bike mechanics. "It's a little bit of a distraction at times, but it's good entertainment."

The Hub sits next to a popular trail leading into Pisgah National Forest, making the store a prime destination to meet up and for a post-ride reward beer. Salman sees customers regularly instead of once a month, she said. And the customers aren't the only benefactors. "Our employees have a shift beer at the end of the day… and split the tip jar."

Not far away, in Asheville, N.C., Trent Thomas opened up the Conspiracy bar inside the well-established outfitter Black Dome Mountain Sports. He set up the bar at the windowed end of his long storefront so it was visible from the road. That was last December, and he’s already considering ways to expand concept by spring.

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Black Dome's location is more dependent on car traffic than foot traffic, and the bar acts as both a pit stop for commuters and meeting spot for groups. The bar hosts everything from birthday parties to fundraisers."We're definitely seeing customers that are new to us," Thomas said. "I really cut back on our traditional advertising and the bar has more than made up for that."

Conspiracy is its own business within the store, but both close at 7 p.m. Customers of the bar can browse with a beer in hand, though few do, Thomas said. The menu includes sandwiches and sides prepared by other companies, which meet the state alcohol requirements that allow him to also serve wine.

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Thomas and his staff are big on selling half-beers, served in nine-ounce glasses, especially when pouring some of the heavier fare, like an 8-percent Imperial. It's also an easier way to sample more beers from the area's 20-plus microbreweries. Thomas said the portion size seems to be just right for a new type of customer he's noticed: the kind who sit and enjoy a beer while their friend or spouse shops in the store.

For the owners of Shoes and Brews in Longmont, Colo., mixing running and beer has always been part of the plan. Some of the owners ran track and cross-country in college and would go out for beers afterward. They saw a niche, and opened the combo store last December.

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Ashlee Velez, co-owner and accounts manager, said the two rooms are very much two different, specialized businesses that benefit one another. The running store is in the front of the store. The taproom is in back and has its own side entrance and outdoor patio area.

The mostly-glass dividing wall allows views of the other half, and access through one door. The separation keeps beer out of the running store, which isn't permitted for alcohol, and allows the sides to keep different hours. The bar is open until 9 or 10 p.m. and they've discussed later hours. The 20 taps pour a revolving inventory of regional beers, often exclusive to the area, and they serve prepared foods.

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The layout means people can approach the bar without passing through the running portion up front, and gives it its own identity, which Velez said attracts plenty of non-runners. The joint venture has already resulted in customer crossover. "It's nice to see people from the brew side come in and getting shoes and fit from the running side," Velez said. And for runners already set of the season, the bar is still a draw. "It's an active community, so a runner is just as likely to come back after riding bikes on the nearby trail system."

--M.T. Elliott

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