As more outdoor retail sales go digital, so do other facets of the specialty outdoor experience — including local trail tips.
While the best hikes still might be kept in a notebook behind counter or in the minds of seasoned floor staff, a flurry of trail websites and apps are spreading advice to the masses with no need to visit the shop in person.
The question for specialty outdoor retailers is: How best to play along?
While the instinct may be to safeguard the most cherished routes for in-store customers, a growing number of specialty shops — even those without online sales — are going digital with advice as a way to advertise their stores and expertise through websites, apps and social media.
“We’d love it if customers were always in our store, but the reality is that the Internet has become the pathway to information,” said Chuck Millsaps, co-owner of Great Outdoor Provision Co. with seven stores in North Carolina. “It’s just another way to get our name out there.”
Great Outdoor is beefing up its local trails page and recently joined Roots Rated, a new website gathering, organizing and disseminating local outdoor advice curated specifically by specialty retailers to further spread the word.
Making the advice digital also helps with in-store conversations, said Millsaps, who, like an increasing number of retailers, is arming his staff with iPads.
“When we are engaged with customers, we can not only answer their questions right away [with accurate and consistent information] but also shoot them an email with the information right to their phone,” Millsaps said.
The digital info and iPads aren’t meant to be a crutch, he said — in-store customers still want genuine face-to-face conversations, sans screen in the middle — but it’s a way to share at the end of a conversation and build a digital connection, too.
“Digital is the vernacular for so many now,” Millsaps said. “To try to shield information or to think that we could contain it would be naïve on our part. Especially for the younger generations, digital sharing is one way you validate yourself in their world.”
Getting a return
As retailers share more local trail information and advice online, some wonder if there’s such a thing as too much sharing. As the newspaper industry well learned, once their information went free online, many readers stopped paying for print editions.
Could customers stop paying retailers a visit?
“There’s always that possibility,” said Ruth Wade, manager at Ute Mountaineer in Aspen, Colo. “But over the past 10 years, I think people realize that they don’t get the same customer service online, even if a lot of the information is there.”
She and other retailers told SNEWS that sharing trail information online does more to advertise and gain good standing with customers, leading to future business rather than driving it away.
One way retailers are looking to get an extra return is to add product advice at the end of their shared trail descriptions — e.g. these technical jackets or boots (that the store carries) worked best for this trail. Retailers also can point to maps, guide books and GPS devices they sell with further information. In other words, they’re giving customers reasons to stop by the store before they head out onto the trail.
Even outdoor manufacturers are getting into the trail information market to advertise their brands. The North Face created its Trailhead app in conjunction with EveryTrail.com. It crowdsources and shares routes and photos from users. And Backpacker provides several trail and mapmaking apps sharing its wealth of information, whilst promoting the magazine.
There are, of course, countless other trail websites and apps (see some our favorites below) to point customers toward for additional trail information.
Among them, newly launched Roots Rated stands out for its outreach to retailers. Founder and CEO Fynn Glover said he’s always thought that local outdoor, running and ski shops have the best advice, and wanted a way to digitally share and promote that information on a national level above other crowd-sourced data.
Roots Rated works with retailers to publish the information in one place — organized by city and activity — then in turn, promotes the retailers that provided the information.
“Most retailers that have signed on see this as a way to put up their knowledge base to a larger audience,” Glover said. "The advantage is that we’re working exclusively with those in the outdoor retail industry, so it’s not crowd-sourced information, it’s curated from the experts.” Glover said he encourages retailers to add extra tips, too, like the best place to get an espresso before the trail, or where to grab a meal and beer afterward. Roots Rated tells users about the trails and gets them to the trailhead via Google Maps, but isn’t going into topographic trail mapping for now.
Retailers also can use Roots Rated as their database to digitally share their own trails on the sales floor (either through the website or mobile-enhanced site) without having to create or store their own separate system, Glover said.
There’s no cost for the retailer to join, but they must be approved and submit a minimum of 15 destinations. In the company’s first year, Glover said Roots Rated has partnered with more than 40 specialty retailers covering 30 cities and more than 1,000 trips. It recently hired a director of content to help busy retailers create more information.
At just 25 years old, Glover said he relates to the next generation seeking time outdoors.
“You want to be out on the trail fast,” he said. “You don’t want to be spending hours digging through multiple websites looking for directions. A good experience will remind you of that retailer and have you coming back for more.”
Here are a few of our favorite trail websites. Tell us your favorite sites (local and national) in the comment section, or on our Facebook page: