SNEWS Qs, Retailer Edition: Wes Allen, Sunlight Sports

The subject of this week's SNEWS Qs is Wes Allen, owner of Sunlight Sports in Cody, Wyo.

Wes Allen, owner

Sunlight Sports, Cody, Wyo.

What are some of the most popular items at your store right now, and why do you think they're selling well?

Right now, we are seeing a lot of movement with Patagonia clothing and bear spray.

Patagonia has done a very good job with its line this year, and the distribution strategy is probably the closest of any of our lines to aligning with what we like to see as an independent retailer. We'll see how the trend goes with the company in the next couple of weeks as it takes its spring line off-price on its site — it's pretty early for those of us in the northern Rockies to be clearing out spring merchandise.

Bear spray is moving because of our proximity to Yellowstone, and the increased awareness of bear issues in the area.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the outdoor industry and how can we overcome them?

Despite some very positive recent numbers across the country for the outdoor industry, I think that our future is a bit daunting. From an industry standpoint, I think that some of the Amazons of the world — including big box brick-and-mortar — make it really attractive to eat our own young, so to speak. The growth that some of these companies show on a quarter-to-quarter basis make it very difficult for publicly traded brands to make the right decisions for the future. We're seeing tons of brands featured in-season, and off-price online. But experience shows that when that happens consistently, that brand is looking at a future of selling its product only on clearance as the consumer learns not to pay a listed full price. In the end, that consumer training is deadly to specialty retailers trying to support the brand. And that chain of events eventually leads to our powerhouse brands wilting away, because they change from special to a commodity.

We need our flagship brands to show some backbone. Again, I think that Patagonia is taking some good steps in that direction. The specialty outdoor retailer — specifically the owners — are really aging. We losing a lot of the dynamism associated with young ownership in traditional outdoor. When the industry really got going, and when specialty was really thriving, there were quite a few young (30s and down) people who started shops. That was years ago, and the same people still are the owners. We need to find those younger folks that have the capabilities to do this well and mentor them. We need to help them get financed. The first generation that started in the '70s is about done. They have done great things, made money and are starting to take some well-deserved relaxation time. We need to find their replacements. 

And obviously, youth participation is a huge challenge. I think that the outdoor industry has developed some very compelling programs to grow that segment. But, the competition from all of the other activities — online, gaming, etc. — is very strong. We've definitely seen studies that say that the post-millennials are shaping up to be the least engaged generation ever in regards to conservation issues. That is not a good indicator. All of us need to really get behind some of the quality initiatives that our industry has teed up, and we need to make sure that we are engaging on a local level with the young folks in our community. It's not optional if we want to have a viable business in 20 years.

What do you think is the key to competing against big box retailers like Dick's or Sports Authority?

Flexibility. The big boxes got big because they are formidable competitors. However, even with the approximately 6 billion SKUs that some of those stores carry, there are chinks in their armor. Those of us with small stores just need to be flexible enough to adapt to hitting those spots. Everyone talks about service, and that can be a big advantage for a specialty retailer. However, with all consumers getting more comfortable with online shopping, service differentiation will continue to mean less.

So we need to look at where these stores are weak and adapt. There is a huge opportunity to engage with your community, and use the buzz around your support of your town to carry customers through your front door. And, even though the term is overused, curate your assortment. You are probably never going to compete on overall selection, but you sure as heck can compete on selection of product that matters in your local area. Those boxes have a buyer sitting in Kent, or Pittsburgh, or Denver, who doesn't know anything about what activities your customers do locally. Find the gaps and fill them in.

The problem is that being super flexible can take us away from what we imagine our business to be. It can be hard for an owner when the business opportunity doesn't line up with the fantasy, and so all of us hold onto things that aren't profitable. We need to pivot more smoothly.

What makes your store different from other specialty outdoor retailers?

Well, there are a lot of outdoor retailers so I won't say that we are different than all of them. I would say one thing that is uncommon about us, particularly in the summer, is the way we leverage trip planning into quality sales. We are in a town that is the east entrance for Yellowstone. We get a lot of folks from all over that hit town the day before they go to the park. Most of them want to hike and experience wilderness while they are in Yellowstone. Unfortunately, hardly any have a plan to make it happen. The Park Service tells us that fewer than 10 percent of visitors to Yellowstone get more than 100 meters from their car during their visit.

So, we have a question that we ask all day long during the summer: "Do you know where you are going to hike in Yellowstone?" Almost everyone says no, which gives us a chance to take them to our trip-planning table and give them four or five trails to try. That inevitably leads to map, bear spray and other sales. We really focus on getting everyone we can set up to get away from that car.

What is the best part of working in the outdoor industry?

Do I have to pick one? Well, making a living doing good things for customers is an amazing thing. When we do our jobs, customer's lives are better because they are having a great time engaging with the outdoors. It's better for them, and we make money. It's sure better than running the cell phone kiosk at the mall.

The industry is filled with people that you want to hang out with. Trade shows are a blast. You have sales reps who become lifelong friends. You get to play with cool toys every day. What's not to like?

--Compiled by Ana Trujillo



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