By Dan Foster of Mountain Chalet
One of our favorite all-time reps was Roch Horton who gave many a Monday night clinic at our store representing Black Diamond equipment and Patagonia.
Years ago, we talked about increasing competition and the perilous existence of some of the best outdoor specialty shops in the country. He referred to his favorite quirky traditional stores as heirlooms -- something you don't want to lose.
Webster's calls an heirloom, "something of special value handed on from one generation to another."
In retail the best mountain shops are part of the history and culture of their communities. They're involved in local causes and are known for solid advice, service and information on the local outdoor scene. What to wear, where to go and the beta on how to get up or down a mountain are part of the lore that the staff in specialty shops have handed down to succeeding generations.
The inventory a store carries also helps to define these specialty shops.
Increasingly, it is harder to find "special" products that are not a commodity in the marketplace. Wholesalers have exacerbated the problem by getting greedy. They believe that they can continue to cut up the pie and increase distribution in Internet sites and non-traditional outlets without hurting the core shops. These are the stores that created value and built the brand of these manufacturers over many years and now they're getting dissed.
Many manufacturers have gone public, and rather than take the long view, quarterly reports rule the day and that leads to sketchy "quick buck" decisions to satisfy shareholders.
You can't have it both ways and increasing numbers of specialty shops are closing because of flagging sales, lower margins and rising expenses. Some shop owners nearing retirement are calling it a day because it isn't as fun anymore -- the hassle isn't worth the return. Younger owners are hunkering down and hoping the current malaise blows over, but there are too many storefronts and too much square footage chasing a market that isn't really that big.
Joni Mitchell sang, "You don't know what you got till it's gone." Many customers are trying on product, getting sized and getting advice at their local shop, then walking out and buying elsewhere to save a few bucks. Imagine a grim retail world with chains and distant web sites as the only choice for people who love the outdoors.
Manufacturers can make smarter choices in distribution and can segment their lines to differentiate the products sold at specialty. Customers can vote with their dollars to support local shops and they in turn give back to the community.
Otherwise, sit back and watch the slow motion train wreck of closing specialty heirloom shops as they continue to break and are lost from the retail landscape.
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