The new face of outdoor retail

Young retailers attracting consumers with more experiential offerings.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2015 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 20 – 24. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

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As Baby Boomers age out of their roles as outdoor retail shop owners, a new generation is taking the reins — and they’re doing things a little bit differently. From an in-house taproom to a backyard lake, the new brigade centers its business on providing an experience, whether on the shop floor or outdoors, rather than focusing solely on selling product.

Do what you love
At a time when most people aren’t exactly bullish on mom-and-pop, brick-and-mortar retail, there’s still plenty of attraction to run an outdoor specialty shop. Just like their predecessors, today’s owners are signing on for the lifestyle.

Take former risk manager Michelle Reagan, 43, and her husband, Scott, 42, who, fed up with corporate life and jonesing to spend more time biking and skiing, moved to McCall, Idaho. When approached by the former owners of Gravity Sports to consider buying, she grabbed the opportunity. “For us, it was quality of life. I basically wanted to have my job relate to what I was passionate about,” Reagan said.

Olin Glenne, 40, who recently took over Sturtevants of Sun Valley, Idaho with business partner Ben Jacobson, credits his outdoorsy parents — dad worked for a skiing magazine, while mom held tenure as a ski patroller and instructor — as the source of his mountain sports passions. He first began working for the 67-year-old Sturtevants in 1997 and calls the move to ownership a natural progression. “Did I dream of having a ski shop as a kid? Maybe a little bit, but it was more how things ended up fitting together for me,” he said. “I enjoy business, I love working with customers, and I love all the cool new products, but it’s about the lifestyle. That’s where the wealth really is for me.”

Like Glenne, Joe Butler, 46, grew up around outdoor sports, and in his case, outdoor retail in particular. “I’ve been doing this since I was 15 years old,” quipped the soon-to-be-owner of Black Creek Outfitters in Jacksonville, Fla., whose parents started the business when he was a teen.

With the new wave of retailers comes a whole new way of doing retail, much of it a response to changing consumer demands, online retail behemoths and competition from brands pursuing consumers directly. “You just can’t unlock the door, turn on the lights and expect people to come in anymore,” Butler said.

A new tune
Given the explosion of smartphones, social media and volumes of information at their fingertips, it’s clear that younger Gen Xers and Millennials are consumers of a new breed. And whether it’s growing up during the recession or an overload of materialism, they’re placing higher value on experiences versus owning the latest products. “They’re on social media sharing their experience. They want to say, ‘Look what I did! My life is cool!’” Glenne said. For that reason, Sturtevants offers experiential services via its sister company Sun Valley Mountain Guides, which provides guided hiking, mountain biking and fly-fishing outings. All the better that his shop sells the softgoods and hardgoods needed for the trips.

Butler’s Black Creek Outfitters caters to an experience-hungry consumer with its backyard lake, where for $25 a customer can take a 90-minute long paddling lesson. In addition, its 2,000 square- foot, in-house yoga studio lets customers get their om on.

Both Glenne and Butler recognize that these side businesses won’t always lead to an immediate consumer purchase — but that’s not the point. Rather the hope is to plant the seed. “We’re not going to convert every single person to a sale. There’s going to be a certain percentage that’s always looking for the best deal,” Butler said. “But then there’s always a [group who thinks] ‘I could buy this 500 other places, but this is where I got the positive experience and that’s worth something.’”

Gear and beer
The new outdoor retail experience goes beyond just the outdoors. It involves a wider scope of social activities that commonly go hand-in-hand with spending time outside. At Outdoor 76, in Franklin, N.C., owners Cory McCall, 32, and Rob Gasbarro, 38, “knew from day one we wanted to be extremely hospitable.” So once the opportunity to move into a larger facility presented itself — a big step after just two-and-a-half years of business — they merged their two passions: the outdoors and good beer.

Now, nestled in its own cabin within the greater store, sits the Rock House Lodge, a cozy little bar with 12 craft beers on tap. The atmosphere is relaxed and on many nights of the week a “little subculture of the outdoor world” gathers together to sip beer, hang out and chat — with no pressure to purchase anything. “We’re not a sales-driven business even though we are in sales,” McCall said. “We tried to create an environment that was warm and inviting for people to hang out with us.”

Similarly, Black Creek hosts Pint Nights — complete with a guest speaker, flowing hops and donations to a local charity — while Sturtevant’s has held fashion shows, Summer Solstice parties and mini-bike races in the parking lot. More serious events from this band of retailers include informational nights about backcountry safety practices, free avalanche awareness sessions and tips for what to pack when hiking the Appalachian Trail. Each of these events further ingrains the retailer in the community, bolstering loyalty, and somewhere down the line, sales.

David vs. Goliath
With online retailers able to undercut prices, these monoliths pose an intimidating foe for brick and mortar shops, especially those of the small, local variety. Reagan with Gravity Sports doesn’t balk at the challenge. She noted, “Competition from online is what it is, and it’s just going to continue to grow. But what we provide is really an exceptional experience when people come in.” Pointing to staff members who are often “overqualified” for their roles, as well as a top tier rental and repair service, she understands where Gravity Sports fits into the larger equation.

“At the end of the day, everybody needs work done on their bikes and skis, so that’s a big part of what we do. Someone might buy their skis online, but we’ll still be there to service them,” Reagan said.

In addition to monster e-commerce sites, young retailers also have the deck stacked against them with more brands seeking to sell direct to consumers. To young retailers, that’s just evidence that brands don’t recognize the importance of understanding the consumer as an individual. Black Creek’s Butler gave the example of West Coast brand XYZ that outsources its products to Korea and attempts to connect with his consumer base in Jacksonville. “We as retailers can help connect the dots, but I don’t think they see the value. They’re lured by that siren song,” he said.

Another element to this problem: brands incentivizing consumers with coupons and discounts to buy directly from them over a retailer. Wes Allen, president of the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, an organization focused on specialty outdoor shops, noted the seriousness of the problem and the unfortunate yet necessary consequences. “Retailers need to be really selective with their brands and have an open and honest conversation. If they’re doing business with a vendor that won’t support [their store], they need to move them,” he said. In his opinion, brands that discount products early are “just training the customers to only buy it on sale. You can’t expect retailers to support your brand in the marketplace.”

Echoing Allen’s frustration, a few retailers note that they’ve dropped brands that operate in this fashion.

Overall, though, the new breed of storeowners is confident that success and profitability are attainable, at least for those who deserve it. “I think that brick-and-mortar is going to survive — but only the best will make it,” Glenne said.

--Courtney Holden

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