The Canoe Rack, a specialty paddlesports store that has served Missoula, Mont., since 1976, is shutting down, a victim of both the economy and what some have called an over-retailed market.
“We simply cannot weather the current economic storm and are going out of business. We are literally up the creek. The era has ended and after over 30 years Canoe Rack is no more,” said a message posted by owner Ben Schmidt on his website (www.canoerack.com) on Dec. 3. “We will be closing our doors for good by month’s end. Times have changed and Montana’s only true shop for paddlers, Canoe Rack will no longer be. With optimism of a new future, we bid farewell.
"Many factors have made our closure necessary, including national and local financial changes, wholesale increases, shipping costs, late deliveries, reduction of vendors supporting small shops (I only saw two reps in 2008), discount ‘box’ and non-local shopping practices, as well as many other factors including (that) I am a paddler not a hustler. We hope that those who remain true to the paddlesports world will be able to address the plight of so many small paddle shops who are being squeezed by the economy, big business and the little things that make the difference. Remember shop local ownership and local product and service, (that’s my soap box).”
Schmidt told SNEWS® that the doors to his store, which he has owned since 2001, will be shut and the space empty by Dec. 31. His goal, he said, is to pay off all outstanding invoices, clear up all vendor credits owed him, and move all his existing inventory and fixtures to willing buyers.
The Canoe Rack has had a storied history. Founded by Don Burke, who was a paddler and Gulf gas station owner, the store was operated out of a bay in the gas station until 1998 when Burke, according to subsequent owner, Matt Stribe, grew weary of retail and simply loaded the store inventory into a trailer for storage.
“Don was ready to retire and so he closed up shop and rented out the gas station to a pizza place which, at only five blocks from the University of Montana, quickly began to do brisk business,” Stribe told us.
Stribe, a national-class paddler himself, was interested in acquiring the store and after an original deal with other buyers fell through, Burke contacted him and offered the inventory and store name.
“Our first year we pulled in $119,000 gross and quickly began growing,” said Stribe. However, Stribe’s father, also an avid paddler and owner of Fluid Fun Kayaks (www.fluidfun.com) in Bristol, Ind., near the Michigan border, was now also ready to retire. In 2001, Stribe told us he sold the Canoe Rack to Schmidt, having grown sales by then to $450,000.
“We were doing a booming business,” said Stribe. “None of the other stores in the area carried the depth that we did. We’d park 100 boats out by the highway and folks just ate it up.”
So how did a successful, growing store with such a history arrive to the point of having to shut down?
“The economy is part of it,” Schmidt told us. “Folks are not spending as much money, and it is dramatic how quickly the shopping landscape changed.”
Schmidt said that his store’s peak year was 2006. In 2007, when economists are now acknowledging is when the recessionary period began, sales declined to 2005 levels and never recovered, spinning downward at an alarming rate by mid-2008.
“We were behind pace in June and July, but I was not overly concerned then. When we hit August and September, and the economy began really tanking, our sales began to evaporate,” said Schmidt. “By the end of October, I realized we had no hope of making it through the winter.”
For Schmidt, like many paddlesports stores, sales in the spring, summer and fall must carry them through winter, when far fewer folks are buying boats or any products having to do with paddling.
“Sales in October crashed 90 percent when compared with the last six years of historical data,” Schmidt told us. “Since I run a seasonal shop, I have no back up if boat sales don’t happen. Little things can make a big difference. And in this economy, it became very evident that shoppers were no longer concerned about quality, they care only about price.”
Schmidt pointed out that in Missoula, a town of between 50,000 to 60,000 folks, there are too many stores selling boats –--ACE Hardwear, Costco, Wal-Mart, Sportsman’s Warehouse, REI, Pipestone Mountaineering, Edge of the World, and more. He wondered aloud to us if his store closing will even be missed.
As for what he will do next, Schmidt is very sure he wants to stay in the outdoor industry, maybe repping, consulting if needed, and even boat-building. His specialty is hand-built cedar strip boats, which several folks with whom SNEWS has spoken for this story said are simply beautiful works of art that can be paddled very well.
“I’ll continue building boats and performing boat and gear repairs for many of my loyal customers and friends,” said Schmidt. “I am avid paddler who is true to the sport on the basis that paddling is fun, so it should be treated that way. I will keep my ears and eyes open and my paddle in the water. The change I am looking most forward to is, more time on the water.”
SNEWS® View: So perhaps his store will not be missed by customers in the long-run. After all, there are a lot of doors where people can buy boats in Missoula. However, any store shutting down, especially a high-end one such as this, does not bode well for the paddlesports industry or the broader outdoor industry. For the vendors, this is just one less store whose staff lived and breathed paddling, and one less store selling paddles, boats and PFDs where staff likely offered that homespun over-the-counter advice and camaraderie too.
We are in Darwinian times -- you know, survival of fittest and all. And this should be a wake-up call to all retailers. As good as The Canoe Rack once was, and its staff certainly is, is it possible it became a bit too elite in its product mix? While we admire Schmidt for his personal standards of only dealing with manufacturers whose owners would speak directly to him, those kinds of smaller vendors who have the luxury of intimate time with all accounts are dwindling. Too, one must never forget that to successfully sell product to customers, you have to think like a merchant and listen to what it is your customers want, not just what you think they want or you personally want. If a store no longer becomes compelling and sales plummet, pointing only at the economy or at the competition is only examining a part of the problem.
In talking with Stribe, and also many other smaller paddlesport store owners in the last month, none had a stellar October or even November. Many saw sales drop in August and September, too. In Stribe’s case, he is also a passionate paddler first and foremost. But here is a merchant side that must also be factored into the equation. Sales rise and wane. Economies fluctuate. Consumer needs and desires change. Merchants must either adapt or die.
It is sad when a store with the rich history and service to the community such as the Canoe Rack dies. But we suspect we’ll be writing many more of these business obituaries in the months to come -- unless, holding true to Darwin, retailers quickly adapt to a changing environment in order to survive.