Nothing miserly about this retailer's approach

Surrounded by three REI’s, two EMS', two Galyans’, one The North Face store, and one Patagonia store, might seem like the kiss of death to many outdoor specialty retailers, but not Mountain Miser.
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Surrounded by three REI's, two EMS', two Galyans', one The North Face store, and one Patagonia store, might seem like the kiss of death to many outdoor specialty retailers, but not Mountain Miser. This Denver, Colo.-based, retailer thrives on the competition and has carved a growing success story out of a foundation built on carrying only specialty hardgoods, high-end technical apparel, and employing only skilled full-time staff.

It wasn't always so rosy. When David Goodman purchased Mountain Miser just over eight years ago, he tried to be all things to all people, and sales suffered. Following a motorcycle crash in 2000 that left him with two broken legs and plenty of time to contemplate life, Goodman realized he had to focus his business efforts.

As a former sales professional, Goodman knew if he wanted to be special, he had to create a store that would become known for selling only high-end, technical gear that was backed by unrivaled staff knowledge and customer service.

"When someone comes in and says, 'I want a ski shell,' you have to be able to explain the technology behind the choices and to do that you have really good salespeople who are working in an attitude-free environment that encourages customers to feel comfortable asking questions, asking for assistance," Goodman told SNEWS.

Consider the category of soft shells. Three years ago, 45 percent of his store's shell sales were made up of garments in the soft shell category -- before the buzz word. Two years ago that climbed to 60 percent. Currently, 75 percent of all shell sales are from the soft shell category -- a category many other retailers find too baffling to explain.

How does he manage this? Motivated and very well-trained staff. While the industry average wage paid to sales associates is in the $8 range, Goodman garners high quality sales help by paying $10 to $11 per hour, and he only hires full-time staff. Since he pays them so well, he also expects more from each employee and receives it. All are empowered to act as store managers. While there is one person who gets paid a bit more to accept the "buck stops here" responsibility, nearly all customer and other situations that might otherwise involve a manager are typically solved by the staff on the floor at the time.

Goodman also encourages everyone to take a full month off every year for some grand adventure using the gear they sell. Granted, only two weeks are paid for most, but the concept is most appreciated by the staff with each working to pick up the slack when one is in the field. Consider that since Goodman only hires full-time staff, his scheduling requirements are more flexible too, allowing him to assign four 10-hour workdays for each staff member, giving three days off each week, oftentimes concurrently.

Get the feeling the staff like it there? Goodman told SNEWS that in the last three years, he's only had employees leave because of life changes such as getting married and moving. Otherwise, his turnover is nonexistent.

Goodman also insists on weekly trainings and staff meetings. Every Wednesday morning, the store holds a mandatory meeting that could include rep clinics or sales training to cover how to close a sale or how to probe to find out what a customer really needs. In addition, at those meetings, the staff sets weekly sales goals each salesperson is held accountable for.

"I come from a sales background and we have adapted what I knew worked into the retail environment so each salesperson has goals, and not long-term goals but achievable weekly goals with rewards for performance," Goodman said.

While the staff is not on commission, Goodman's system works this way. The store expects to beat last year's sales during each week by 10 percent. They also have a reach goal which is a 20 percent increase. If the store meets those goals, each person is paid a bonus based upon the amount of hours they have worked that week. In addition, each salesperson gets $20 extra if they achieve their individual sales goal or $40 extra if they achieve their individual reach goal. If they hit sales goals for four weeks consecutively, they get an additional $50. Eight consecutive times and they receive a $200 store credit toward a retail purchase.

So how are sales? According to Goodman, even in a post 9-11 year and in the worst drought in Colorado history, his store posted its highest profit ever. This year's first quarter sales were up 17 percent over last year's, which was the strongest quarter and the one that carried them through the rest of the year. As a result, Goodman is smiling broadly.

His creativity doesn't stop there either. Realizing that his store's strength is in technical hardgoods, it isn't surprising to hear that 80 percent of Mountain Miser's business is in hardgoods. But he's looking to change that.

Rather than hire a full-time softgoods buyer, which would throw profits and the payroll into a spin, he's worked out a deal with Erin Hagerty, the former softgoods buyer for Mountain Sports in Boulder, Colo. Hagerty started her own company, Outdoor Apparel Insights, and offers her softgoods buying expertise to stores as a contractor.

Hagerty loves the deal because, with the addition of two other clients, Ute Mountaineer and Mountain Sports, she is making more than she could ever make at one store alone. Goodman loves the deal because he enjoys the expertise of a skilled softgoods buyer who is invested in seeing his business grow.

"Erin has incentives built into her contract with me that increase her pay based on her ability to grow the gross profit dollars of her category -- softgoods," Goodman told us. "Dave McAllister, our hardgoods buyer (who is full-time), receives the incentives benefits the same way so even if sleeping bags happen to tank this year, as long as the overall hardgoods category becomes more profitable, he earns more."

As for marketing, word of mouth has been working well thanks to the expert staff and Mountain Miser's lineup of monthly educational clinics and demos and guest speakers which are always free to the public. However, Goodman once again decided to be creative and hired Backbone Media, a PR firm, to get the word out to the Denver area about his store.

"We're surrounded by 2 million potential customers and I can't afford radio, TV or print advertising to reach them, so I figured since I don't know how to do it myself, I need to hire an expert," he said.

The returns? His store has been featured on TV twice now and appeared in the Denver Post several times as well.

SNEWS View: Ahhh, a specialty retailer who actually understands and puts into practice what the word "special" means. Little wonder Mountain Miser, a member of Retailers of the Outdoor Industry (ROI) buying group, is successful. SNEWS would like to hear from other retailers who are thinking out of the box and succeeding to make their businesses work in the face of a challenging economic climate. Email us at creativeretailer@snewsbox.com

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