Week 2 | The Retail Immersion Project: People and Products


There's only one way to fully understand—and help solve— the challenges that specialty retail shops face today: Log time in a shop. That's how former Osprey CEO Tom Barney is spending his holiday season, and every day is a new lesson.

My second week at Backcountry Experience was a little mystifying as I put myself in the (big) shoes of owner, Ben Rockis. From order management to staff training to the unexpected walking through the door, I was almost ready to return to the comforts of Osprey. Since that first article, we’ve had snow and cold in the Rockies, local resorts have opened, I’ve gained a bit of insight, and the holiday panic has set in. The shop is hopping and so are my ideas for how vendors and retailers can better work together.

Owner of Backcountry Experience Ben Rockis working the pack wall during the holiday rush. // Photo: Tom Barney

Backcountry Experience footwear and pack specialist Dave working the pack wall during the holiday rush. // Photo: Tom Barney

It’s all about the people

When I say people, I mean the long chain of retail-related outdoor folks who make it possible for gear to move from vendors to the retail floor and out the door with customers. I like to imagine the successful co-dependency between dealer service and buyer where great people are managing preseasons and re-orders to ensure the right outdoor products arrive at the right time.

Trust and promptness between vendor and store drives successful inventory management. And I further admire the store staff who receive shipped product, check it into inventory, and prep for the floor.

Finally, I have new-found respect for the fine staff who work the retail floor to sell the apparel, footwear and gear that makes up the core of our industry. I’ve found floor staff to be dedicated to their sports, excited about passing along product knowledge, full of local insight and having a surprising interest in the success of the store.

Our brick and mortar retail team remain the artery between product design and brand communication to our shared outdoor customer who still looks for advice, selection and immediacy in a store transaction. Find the best people, treat them as well as you can afford, invest in them to attend shows and use the gear, make time and pay for product training, and watch your customers shine as they walk out the shop door.

Actually, it’s all about the product

Ok, it’s both! Product is certainly king at Backcountry Experience. Our customer comes in looking for the best and hottest brands. I see their disappointment when we don’t carry their favorite; customers rarely seem to understand the distribution challenges our retailers and brands face.

Sports Footwear Industry News

A boot wall filled with a good selection and a backroom stocked with full size runs is mission critical. // Photo: Tom Barney

While it’s an overused word, the concept of a “curated assortment” has real meaning in the store. Customers want the styles and fabrics that buyers have pre-selected for them and they trust that those products will perform outdoors. With time and patience at a premium, it’s a relief for customers to not have too many overwhelming choices. And consumers want selections that work both locally and on big adventures.

But on the flip side of curation is the benefit of carrying a wide selection and stocking size runs. Too often I see a tight assortment just not working for a shopper. Or their disappointment when the medium is out-of-stock and vendor ATS (available to sell) is gone. In the end selecting, managing and knowledgeably selling the best outdoor brands is the core of outdoor specialty retail. I suggest store owners and buyers renew their commitment to successful inventory management.

Store vibe matters

A wonderful benefit of hanging out on the retail floor is appreciating the store environment and its role in selling gear. As simple as it sounds, a hearty welcome at the door, comforting music, creaky wood floors, and printed posters hanging about all contribute to a shop’s legitimacy.

I’ve noticed the appeal of a slightly over-inventoried floor where the merchandise looks like it’s bursting to get out the door. Traditional retail merchandising standards should be stretched—in my view—to create a comfortable and slightly worn feel.

Even the dog roaming the floor (ours is named Harry) contributes to the vibe, despite shedding on the merino products. Maybe it’s the campsite in all of us but I’ve found a comfortable store environment—not too shabby but certainly not too perfect—creates the right vibe and helps make the sale.

Weather matters, too

As a long-time vendor, I occasionally rolled my eyes when I heard the weather excuse. Too hot, not enough snow, smoke in the mountains…I’ve heard it all and chalked it up as a big “maybe.” But no longer.

I’m amazed at the direct and positive correlation between what’s happening outdoors and the ringing cash register. Even customer perception of weather—rather than what the sky says—plays a role. That perception is harder to judge for retailers and vendors, but I believe it’s real and persuasive. Creating an expectation with your customer that cooling rain is around the corner, a snow storm is brewing to the west, and the smoke will go away soon is key to getting the sale now, not when the weather actually hits. And vendors: Please take seriously your retailer’s weather prognostications and always help your business partners, rain or shine.

Next up: We’ll take a hard-hitting look at e-commerce and specialty outdoor retail. How can these strange bedfellows grow because of each other, not despite each other?

See you on the retail floor!


Tom Barney makes his first report from the field, on his first day as a sales employee at Backcountry Experience in Durango, Colorado.

Video: Tom Barney's first day working retail

Tom Barney starts his new gig on the sales floor of a Colorado outdoor gear shop, and shares his first report for The Retail Immersion Project. Former Osprey CEO Tom Barney has started a new job as a seasonal employee at Backcountry Experience in Durango, Colo. Yep, that’s ...read more