ROTY winner Backcountry.com transforms into mecca for shoppers researching gear online

Backcountry.com has developed a vast consumer community and deep stores of product information to make it a rich research tool for online shoppers -- and helping it score the 2010 SNEWS/Backpacker Retailer of the Year award for best online retailer.
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The folks at Backcountry.com have learned an interesting fact about the Internet: While people like to buy outdoor gear online, they primarily go to the Internet to investigate things they’d like to purchase.

“They’re coming to our site with the intent to research,” said Dustin Robertson, chief marketing officer for Backcountry.com (www.backcountry.com).

The winner of the 2010 SNEWS®/Backpacker Retailer of the Year award for the online category, Backcountry.com has developed into a rich source of information, and a great research tool, for online gear shoppers. The site not only includes product information supplied by manufacturers, but more importantly, it now serves as host for a vast community of outdoor enthusiasts who share information with each other and get advice from vendor reps, athletes and other experts.

At the same time, Backcountry.com has beefed up other aspects of the business, creating new websites to sell closeout merchandise to niche markets, and also drive discount shoppers to its full-price store.

Through its careful study of online shopping habits, and its willingness to explore creative concepts, Backcountry.com has become a $230 million company, and a clear leader in the online world of outdoor retail.

Building community

When it dawned on the leaders at Backcountry.com that customers were chiefly seeking more detailed product information, the trick was figuring out how to deliver it, given the company’s limited resources.

“There’s no way we could ever provide all the information people needed, so we needed to leverage all these people coming to the site, and give a better research experience,” said Robertson.

The answer was to allow customers to communicate with each other, as well as industry gear experts.

In March 2008, Backcountry.com gave visitors to the site the ability to submit questions and answers concerning products. It encouraged vendor reps, sponsored athletes and other outdoors experts to provide answers and offer advice to help people make better buying decisions.

Over the next year, the site began allowing people to post whether the answers to their questions were helpful or not. Plus, site members were allowed to create profiles, upload their own gear photos and reviews, and even vote on each other’s reviews. By 2009, Backcountry.com had developed a great free-flow of information, and one of the most robust communities of outdoor enthusiasts on the Internet, with more than 85,000 member profiles.

Key to the success of the Backcountry.com community has been the participation of outdoor experts, who are ranked on a “Leaderboard” by their level of involvement in answering questions. Jon Webb, a rep for Mountain Hardwear, ranks No. 5 and has provided more than 700 answers concerning everything from sizing to questions about where products are manufactured.

Webb said that communicating with consumers via Backcountry.com has become an important aspect of his job as a rep.

“It’s so rare to have dialogue with customers. And any time you can have a conversation with your customer, you need to take advantage of it,” said Webb. “The more honest conversation you’re able to have with people, the more people will go to that site because they know they’re going to get quality information.”

Granted, Webb is paid by a manufacturer, but he remains a credible information source because consumers can post messages to scrutinize anything they think is marketing spin.

“One of the principles is that the message is in the control of the community,” said Robertson. “If the rep decides to give bad advice just to sell product, he will be called out for that, and it will be obvious he’s not putting the customer first. Our goal is to have the truth about products told.”

Webb said that online communities are actually driving the way manufacturers market products and interact with consumers. “We’re entering into a very customer-driven, transparent time with brands,” he said. “The customer is starting to drive what they want. And in the past, the media and traditional marketing have driven it. Frankly, a lot of the young folks these days are not interested in hearing what the brand has to say about itself.”

Dave Drulard, a rep for The North Face and also a member of the Leaderboard, said that Backcountry.com’s extensive community has really set the site apart from its competitors.

“It’s been one of the milestones that has differentiated them,” he said. “It’s clear it’s very much a destination, just by the number of questions coming in. The content elsewhere is not sufficient for what people are looking for online. People really look at it as a resource where they can talk to legitimate people, whether it’s reps or athletes.”

The new library

One thing that sets Backcountry.com apart from the competition is the site’s vast store of information on older products (pictured - left: Backcountry.com staff). Robertson pointed out that people are not only interested in researching new products, but they also want to read about a product’s history and its predecessors. “Just because it’s not sold anymore, it doesn’t mean people aren’t interested in reading about it,” he said. For this reason, the site recently launched a Permanently Out of Stock section with links to all information on previously sold products -- including all community posts, questions and answers, reviews, photos and manufacturer-supplied information -- going back to 2005.

This creates a great amount of indexed information, meaning that when someone goes to Google to find a product, the person will find a link to Backcountry.com and its great reservoir of detail on that product. With such tools, Backcountry.com is extending the traditional boundaries of retailing by establishing itself as a vast online library of outdoor gear.

A place for enthusiasts

With its online community and deep catalog of information, Backcountry.com is becoming a gathering place for people who are extremely passionate about the outdoors and gear. And key to the company’s success has been the realization that it needs to tap into this passion -- even when selling gear at deep discounts.

Last year, Backcountry.com expanded its number of One Deal At a Time (ODAT) websites to serve niche categories, such as cycling, skiing and snowboarding. Actually created by Backcountry.com in 2005, the ODAT concept puts quantity and time restrictions on sales of closeout items, and the scarcity and time crunch build excitement around the sales, so items move quickly.

Backcountry.com’s ODAT websites for vertical markets, such as Hucknroll (www.hucknroll.com) for mountain biking, take the ODAT concept a step further, appealing to audiences of core users. “The closer you get to someone’s passion, the more they’ll pay attention,” said Robertson.

“The audiences we’ve amassed on these ODAT sites are super core customers that are constantly consuming and using gear, destroying it and getting more,” he said. “These customers are purchasing at minimum 5 pounds of shipped goods a year, which is pretty high frequency in the outdoor industry.”

He said the ODAT sites have exceeded expectations. “It’s 25 percent of our business,” said Robertson. “It’s not high-margin business, but it’s become a really clean way to get rid of closeouts, rather than them sitting on a website for six to nine months.”

To better take advantage of the heavy traffic on the discount sites, there are links that drive discount shoppers to the Backcountry.com site for gear sold at full retail prices.

“It’s an amazing audience to expose our retail brands to,” said Robertson. “Running the marketing here for 10 years, I couldn’t buy that audience anywhere else on the web for really any amount of money.”

While there is cross-marketing between the discount sites and the Backcountry.com site for full retail, the company is very conscious of ensuring that “Backcountry.com” remains a premium brand name.

The company is going to close its traditional outlet store, Backcountry Outlet, and use its new store, Department Of Goods (www.departmentofgoods.com), to sell closeout items. (Unlike ODAT sites, Department Of Goods has no quantity and time restrictions for sales.) Robertson said the company made the change because the Backcountry Outlet name had the potential to dilute the Backcountry brand name.

Looking to the future

As Backcountry.com works to manage its rapidly expanding universe of websites, the company is also determining how to proceed as new technologies shift the landscape of Internet commerce. The latest trend is the exploding growth of smart phones and the emerging concept of mobile shopping. In the not-so-distant future, many people will no longer sit in front of a laptop or desktop computer to shop online, but rather use their phones to shop while on the go.

Robertson couldn’t provide details about Backcountry.com’s strategy for mobile shopping, but those plans are definitely in the works.

“None of us know what’s going to happen, but we know the mobile business is going to rock everything,” he said. “Over the next five years, I would expect it to be a dominant component of our business.”

To read about the other ROTY winners from this year and in 2009, click here.

--Marcus Woolf

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