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Being a woman working in outdoor specialty retail is kind of like being a female out on the trail or the slopes -- you are likely outnumbered by your male counterparts. Do women have to prove themselves more in a male-dominated environment? Perhaps. Some say that on the sales floor, the plethora of technically-minded men often lean toward selling hardgoods, while women usually spend more of their time in the softgoods department -- sometimes not by choice.
"I absolutely see predominantly men selling hardgoods -- and women selling softgoods in traditional outdoor stores," said Kim Walker, owner of two Outdoor Divas stores in the Denver-Boulder, Colo., area, who guesses that the industry breakdown of men versus women on the sales floor is 60-percent to 70-percent men and 30-percent to 40-percent women. "In fact, we often have applicants come to us specifically so they have the opportunity to sell hardgoods as well as softgoods. They often get 'shut out' of hardgoods sales because there is a misconception that men are better at selling in that category."
If you have designs on being promoted or rising up through the retail ranks, a singular softgoods focus could potentially be limiting your career. If you work on commission, this could also be limiting your finances. But, these facts don't mean that female retail salespeople cannot get ahead in the outdoor specialty world.
"I don't believe men or women as a gender are better at sales," Walker said. "I just think, historically, men have been in the hardgoods department and women in the softgoods -- and customers have come to expect to see men selling that category. At Outdoor Divas, in the beginning, we literally had to train customers to believe that as women we knew just as much about hardgoods as men."
The bottom line is that it is important for any salesperson to be able to work all areas of the floor. "I would say that women can sell hardgoods as well as men no problem," said Ro Loughridge, merchandising manager at Horny Toad. "It's getting men comfortable with selling softgoods that's more of the challenge. In the end, selling skills are selling skills no matter what the product."
In addition, the flood of women's-specific product (hardgoods and softgoods) entering the marketplace calls for more of a female presence on outdoor specialty retail sales floors. "Women's-specific gear is being developed at an extremely fast rate, so I would imagine that more and more women users are being hired to fill sales positions," said Becky Rockis, co-owner of Backcountry Experience in Durango, Colo. "If they are not, I think that store owners are missing an important segment of the market."
Here, some tips for balancing your repertoire on the selling floor:
• Broaden your horizons. Developing a specialty sales area is a boon for any retail worker. Even if you gravitate to the softgoods department, it can also be beneficial to expand your knowledge to other product categories, including hardgoods. Growing your expertise to include areas like women's skis or backpacks can only help increase your value as a salesperson.
- Take advantage of on-the-job training. At Backcountry Experience, certain sales reps actually come in to work the floor to share their product knowledge with customers and the sales staff. "All of our staff wants to work on the days that Jason Livingston from Cascade Designs shows up," said Rockis. "He is very knowledgeable on all the 'nitty-gritty' details of the gear he sells and can carry on a conversation with customers at their level of interest. The best training that salespeople can have is not through clinics in a classroom setting, but through watching, listening and interacting with reps and clients on the sales floor."
- Know your inventory. "If a salesperson is serious about their chosen line of work and wants to make a career out of it, then they should be able to apply their sales and service skills to any product. Zero difference if they are male or female," said Loughridge. She suggested that a salesperson should always know their store's entire inventory of both hardgoods and softgoods to best service customers. "Know your sizes, colors and fit types -- whether it be a Gregory backpack or Horny Toad fleece jacket," she said. Outdoor Divas' Walker also suggested that women need to be armed with strong product knowledge and a selling background. "As manufacturers create more women's gear, retailers purchase more," she said. "I think we'll see the savvy retailers using the females they have on staff as a resource in the hardgoods department. Obviously, women selling to women -- but women selling to men as well."
- Interview your employer. Asking the right questions can help you determine if the store you might join is open to you selling both softgoods and hardgoods. "One must go into the retail environment with a definite understanding of what they want from their position," said Rockis. "Every store has a distinct personality and I believe you can tell a lot about a shop from its owner. An applicant needs to do their research and find that store that meshes with their own personality and goals."
This monthly column, a partnership between OIWC and SNEWS®, aims to address the issues that concern women in the industry most -- anything that is controversial, topical or newsworthy relating to women and the outdoors. The goal is to help, educate, inspire and grow. We welcome your ideas, gripes, thoughts and comments. Bring it on. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Erinn Morgan is an award-winning magazine editor from New York City who has relocated to Colorado to pursue her outdoor passions and a freelance writing career. Her work -- which focuses on outdoor sports, adventure travel, gear and sustainability -- has appeared in publications from National Geographic Adventure and The New York Times to Outside and Mountain Bike.