Rethinking Retail: Midwest Mountaineering dabbles in non-typical outdoor activities to attract new customers

Considered one of the most successful and highly respected outdoor specialty stores in the country, Midwest Mountaineering has succeeded in part because its owner and employees are willing to take risks and explore activities that are emerging, or not traditionally supported by outdoor shops. In its 39 years, the store has embraced a wide range of things, from adventure racing to Nordic walking and snowkiting and, now, yoga and Tai Chi. New customers, more community exposure and increased sales and profits are, of course, the ultimate goals.

In 1998, Andy Lear was working for a tree-removal service when he fell 35 feet from a dead oak and shattered the T-12 vertebra in his lower back. Doctors were not sure if Lear, a part-time employee at Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis, Minn., would walk again. But, after six tough years of rehabilitation that included adaptive yoga, he was not only backpacking again, but two years ago, he became a yoga instructor. This fall, Lear will present an adaptive yoga seminar during the Midwest Mountaineering Outdoor Adventure Expo.

Adaptive yoga, which is geared toward people with disabilities, illness or limited mobility, represents just the latest in a long line of activities that Midwest Mountaineering has helped to introduce to its local community. Considered one of the most successful and highly respected outdoor specialty stores in the country, Midwest Mountaineering has succeeded in part because its owner and employees are willing to take risks and explore activities that are emerging, or not traditionally supported by outdoor shops. In its 39 years, the store has embraced a wide range of things, from adventure racing to Nordic walking and snowkiting and, now, yoga and Tai Chi. New customers, more community exposure and increased sales and profits are, of course, the ultimate goals.

Daring to be different

"We look for additional, new programs that maybe we haven't had in the past but would bring in a new customer," Jan Fast, Expo speaker coordinator, told SNEWS® in a recent interview. (Click here to read our profile of Midwest Mountaineering, winner of the 2009 SNEWS / Backpacker Retailer of the Year award for Best Growth in Outdoor Sports.)

The store uses its biannual Outdoor Adventure Expo as a vehicle to educate people on emerging activities that not only are outdoors but also focus on being healthy. It further supports those activities with practical demos and in-store seminars and clinics.

To identify things that might interest the store's clientele, Fast keeps tabs on prominent trends in society. "I look at general themes and trends in the general population," she said, noting that she doesn't just scan outdoor magazines, but all types of publications.

"I've been hearing a lot of adults talking about the limitations they have now, whether it's due to injury or age," said Fast. "That was my intent (with adaptive yoga) -- to talk about how injuries might not allow us to do an activity in the same way as we used to, but that doesn't mean we have to stop the activity."

Midwest Mountaineering owner Rod Johnson said his store's primary goal is to help people be healthy and inspire them to go outdoors, and an important element in this is revealing what's new and interesting. That's why he spends some time during each Outdoor Retailer trade show scoping out sports and product trends that are up and coming.

Taking a chance

Five years ago, Johnson was walking the aisles at Outdoor Retailer when he noticed that Swix and Leki were selling Nordic walking poles. It dawned on him that Nordic walking could not only freshen up his product mix, but also help his store financially.

"That was at a time when the winters were snowless, and there was very little cross-country skiing," said Johnson. "So, it occurred to me, if it doesn't snow and you can't ski, at least you can Nordic walk."

At the time, few people in the United States had ever heard of Nordic walking, so Johnson was certainly taking a chance by introducing it to his customers. However, he said that once he stocked the poles, interest in Nordic walking grew quickly. To raise awareness of this primarily European exercise, the store brought in Leki reps to conduct seminars at the Expo and do outdoor demos, which then attracted new customers and increased sales.

"Programs and demos are really key," said Johnson. "You have to give people a chance to try it hands-on. It's important that you don't just put it on the shelf."

Leki rep Brad Werntz said that Midwest Mountaineering's sales shot up. "They were a strong Leki account before they opened Nordic walking, but their sales were 20 percent of what they do now," he said.

When the store would do some sort of demo or promotion, 80 percent of participants would buy poles, said Werntz. Also, the store tracked average ring-ups at the register, and when people bought Nordic walking poles, the average sale was $750, with poles representing only $150 of the total. "People would buy the shoes, the gloves, the hats, the clothing," said Werntz.

Inexact science

In some cases, when the store introduces something new there is no remarkable increase in sales. And Johnson said it's often difficult to measure how programs for fresh activities impact sales. For example, Midwest Mountaineering has sponsored an eight-person adventure racing team for the past two years, but store employees have told Johnson that they haven't heard many people asking for products for the sport.

That's not to say there isn't a market for products related to adventure racing.

David Gandrud, a marketing professional and member of Midwest Mountaineering's team, said he's seen tremendous growth in participation in adventure races in the last three years.

"Just within the state of Minnesota, there are two major race organizers, and one puts on four races per year," he said. "Every year, when we go to a race, a minimum of 30 to 50 percent of participants are new to the sport, so it continues to grow in popularity."

Gandrud noted that it's an equipment-intensive sport, and aside from bikes, Midwest Mountaineering carries the watersports, running, land navigation and nutrition products needed to compete.

Midwest Mountaineering not only sponsors the team, but also presents adventure-racing seminars at the Outdoor Adventure Expo, and hosts clinics in the store three to four times a year.

It might just take more time for the store to reap the benefits. But, even if adventure racing goes on to account for relatively small sales, as snowkiting does, Johnson won't necessarily pull his support. He sees value in having an eclectic mix of products because they make the store unique and set it apart from competitors.

Plus, a product or sport that doesn't generate huge sales can still attract new customers -- or ones who haven't been there in awhile -- who may then shop for general items throughout the store.

Another advantage in shaking up the product mix with new ideas is that it prevents the employees' working environment from becoming stale. If they're really into yoga or solo canoeing, Johnson gives them the opportunity to sell related items. Rather than having a set idea about what should be included in an outdoor store, Johnson keeps an open mind.

"It's more determined by what myself or the employees are into," said Johnson. "That helps us sell stuff better because we're excited about it."

Johnson and Fast said that it's important to be patient and give an activity time to take hold before determining its fate. That's Fast's philosophy when it comes to booking programs for the Expo. "I give a new program three tries before I do a good evaluation to see if it's something we should offer again," she said.

New frontiers

For her latest experiment, Fast added to the Expo a demonstration by Twin Cities T'ai-Chi Ch'uan Studio in St. Paul, Minn. ( Instructors from the studio did a 30-minute presentation on Tai Chi movements, and then talked for another half hour about how people could get involved and how it benefits those who play outdoors. According to Fast, about 25 people attended, which was a relatively small crowd, but decent enough. "It's new for a lot of people, but it's something people are interested in, and I expect it to grow more," she said.

Lear is confident that his adaptive yoga presentation this fall will give Midwest Mountaineering's customers a new perspective on how they can better enjoy the outdoors. He knows first hand how yoga can change a person's outlook.

"Yoga can teach people how to rest in work," said Lear, who is an instructor for Mind Body Solutions in Minnetonka, Minn. ( "It doesn't mean you walk really slow, but you become more aware of your feet, your knees, and not just the pain you feel. Becoming aware of that, everything starts to change, and it makes it more pleasant to be outside. It becomes a different experience."

--Marcus Woolf



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