Retailer of the Year: Half-Moon defines the term specialty as winner of best overall retailer

Half-Moon Outfitters owner Beezer Molten sits down with SNEWS to share his insights on running a successful outdoor specialty retail business -- strategies that led the South Carolina-based business to win the SNEWS/Backpacker Retailer of the Year overall award earlier this year.
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Half-Moon Outfitters is shining as bright as a full moon these days.

In 2009, the eight-store specialty retailer headquartered in Charleston, S.C. earned its first SNEWS®/Backpacker Retailer of the Year (ROTY) award, securing the “Best in Sustainable Business” category.

And earlier this year, Half-Moon was back into the ROTY spotlight as the 2011 winner (pictured right) of the overall retailer of the year category. The recognition is given annually to outdoor retailers who embody the spirit of entrepreneurship, serve as visionaries for the outdoor market and are leaders in the communities they serve.

Very little that owner Beezer Molten does is ordinary, as evidenced by appearing regularly as a small business owner during a segment of the Squawk Box on CNBC each month to discuss how small businesses are faring and their importance to our country's economy. It was clear as we went through the process of judging and evaluating retail stores for this year’s award just how good Half-Moon’s retail operation, team and leadership is in the industry.

We recently interviewed Molten to see if we couldn’t mine some of that energy and insight, and give our readers a glimpse of what keeps Half-Moon running like a well-oiled specialty retail machine.

SNEWS -- How do you ensure you are engaging your customers and soliciting feedback and interaction from them?

Molten -- Facebook has been enormous for cultivating the conversation, but mostly we try and create a culture that craves feedback. We internally publish all testimonials and complaints and make a big deal out of both.

Furthermore, we respond to the feedback when it is given. An unhappy customer is never ignored and we do what we can to win them back over. We use it as a tool to better ourselves for the next time. We also respond to positive feedback – a free t-shirt or coupon goes a long way in really cementing their love of our brand.

SNEWS -- How do you take care of your employees to ensure they are motivated to be the best they can be for Half-Moon and themselves?

Molten -- Again this comes back to the culture and to some degree compensation. We try to structure our pay to be competitive or better than the national average. We tend to compete with Starbucks among others. Aside from pay, it comes down to instilling the idea that we are in a noble profession and that serving others well is the secret to success both personally and for the business. We do this by trying to build layered customer service from the top down. In the distribution center, we try to serve our stores in the best way that we can -- always being open to communication with the intention of this same level of service carrying through to the customer.

Next we work hard to cultivate a team atmosphere and nobody is out of reach or beyond criticism. We have some core beliefs that truly help on both hiring, and the sense of team work that we all share. First is a commitment to serve others, and then good stewardship in the form of green construction coupled with mindful growth. Building our DC to LEED Platinum standards gave us a cornerstone for the whole company and is a source of pride for even the most part time of employees – click here to read the SNEWS® story, Half-Moon Outfitters Achieves LEED Platinum. It is understood by all that good stewardship is one aspect of good customer service.

Finally we try to infuse a sense of humor into everything that we do not take anything too seriously. Our phone tree uses the voices of random pop icons like Tiny Elvis, and Aldous Snow.



SNEWS --
How does your store utilize technology and tools to ensure the store experience for a customer is easy and enjoyable?

Molten -- Currently, we use our social media outlets and online technology to keep customers and employees on the same page. Customers hear about promotions and events very quickly, and we are able to cultivate feedback to make better decisions moving forward.

SNEWS -- How does Half-Moon define customer service, and then ensure it is not just a wallpaper statement, but something that is put into practice every day?

Molten -- Half-Moon, our mission statement has become, “the product is the experience”. This means that whatever the customer experiences in a Half-Moon is the product that we are pushing and the product needs to be fundamentally uplifting. We want people to leave happier than when they arrived regardless of whether or not a purchase was made on that given day. If they leave happy, they will be back. This creates an atmosphere of fun and acceptance, and hopefully wards off the snobbery and elitism that can sometimes occur in outdoor stores.



SNEWS --
Retailing is as much about entertainment as it is about shopping. In what ways does Half-Moon work to ensure its customers find shopping and visiting a Half-Moon store and website fun, enjoyable, memorable, and, dare we say, actually entertaining?

Molten – Well, we are still working on bringing the store vibe to our website and that is a profound challenge, but in our stores it starts with beautiful, clean spaces that hopefully are a gift to the neighborhood from a design and sustainability standpoint, and from there that extends to the merchandising which needs to be clean, compelling and fun representing a well thought out assortment.

The assortment is intentionally boutique and we try to really reach for creative spins on offerings that do not rely exclusively on the outdoor industry. We shop fashion and surf for whatever works with the Half-Moon aesthetic and work very hard to maintain key smaller vendors, who may have never been sold in a traditional outdoor store.

We spoke some about employees above, and their role is critical in every aspect. We use events to relay our philosophy to life whether it is 5k and 10k trail races that are creatively named and logo’d, to in-store concerts, to hosting the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour stops, to paddleboard races. We have lots of events and they have evolved to a high level and always benefit either an environmental non-profit or an educational institution. We have had the great fortune to host a number of musicians who are interested in reaching out to those who might not make a late night concert like Matisyahu, Michael Franti, Ingrid Michaelson, Donovan Frankenreiter, and Amos Lee. At the Michael Franti show we had 400 people crowded around our climbing wall, 100 of them children. The music lover and outdoor enthusiast can be very similar (or the same), so we think it’s an interesting way to have these people excited about Half-Moon in a new and unexpected way.

Half_Moon_Moonshiner5K.jpg

SNEWS -- Success is found in sweating the details. What are the key details of retailing you and your team consciously “sweats” every day?

Molten -- You name it, we sweat it. From open-to-buy to marketing and branding opportunities to managing our employees. It is a huge and complex game where only a team mentality works. And with 115 employees, the biggest challenge is staying aligned.

SNEWS -- Where does your team look for inspiration and ideas when it comes to merchandising, retail operations, etc.?

Molten -- We look everywhere starting at Outdoor Retailer trade shows and the interesting booths that we encounter there, but also design magazines like Dwell and Metropolis and for a while New York boutiques, but now Portland seems to have stepped in as a style leader or is at least an area that we are paying a lot of attention to. We try to be conscious of how style on a national level is trending and there is nothing like the New York Times Sunday Style section to keep one abreast of certain aspects of style. Of course with any inspiration that we act on, we have to put our own South Carolina spin on the end result; for example, our stores always use regionally harvested materials like South Carolina pine and cedar, even if the design inspiration came from a boutique out west.

SNEWS -- How does the Half-Moon management team ensure that everyone on the team, from the buyers to the stock room employee to the part-time sales clerks are each hard-wired with the culture and DNA that is Half-Moon?

Molten -- We have a five-person management team that I lead and we clinic the stores ourselves and try to make sure that we are exactly aligned behind the idea of serving others first and foremost. We apply this idea to every single person that we encounter from the UPS man to reps, to every single customer that we encounter. We have a book club for full time employees to pass around the following books: The Tipping Point, Good to Great, Made to Stick, Delivering Happiness, Why we Buy, Blink, among many others. I have just started Tribal Leadership and we will see if it makes the cut for the club. We circulate a lot of internal memos and I personally provide a “State of the Moon” and “Lunar updates” every month outlining our performance to date, our challenges, and celebrating promotions. These usually include some quotes and testimonials as well as the periodic customer complaint.

SNEWS -- What are your greatest daily challenges? Opportunities?



Molten --
The greatest challenge is also potentially our greatest strength and that is maintaining and balancing collaboration with lots of different people and personalities spread over two states.

The greatest opportunities for Half-Moon involve the ability to leverage our brand through the Internet and the advent of social media coupled with the realities of the real estate market, which will open doors for us in places we had previously written off. Furthermore, it seems the best lending opportunities now are for owner/occupied commercial space, which fits in perfectly with our model.

SNEWS -- Any regrets?

Molten -- Well, there was that one time I vandalized my algebra teacher’s mailbox (Sorry Mrs. L) and I might have had one too many beers in college, but generally I try not to focus on mistakes in business. It is all just a learning process and we have been through the fire more than once and I am grateful for every lesson learned. Also, I am very grateful for the numerous teachers and mentors of all stripes who have graced Half-Moon.

--Michael Hodgson

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