The Grassroots Outdoor Alliance just announced that its new president is Cody, Wyo. local Wes Allen. SNEWS spoke to him about his extensive experience in specialty retail, his goals for the organization and how he likes to play outside — given that Greater Yellowstone is his backyard.
SNEWS: How did you get your start in outdoor retail?
Wes Allen: I got into outdoor retail at the store that my (now) wife owns. I had just finished college, and was looking for a summer job. I wound up getting hired at the local outdoor shop, and loved the whole experience. I stayed at Sunlight Sports for a couple of years. And then one Christmas, the owner's sister, Melissa, came home from college to work over the holidays. Melissa and I got married about 18 months later. We decided to go out and get other jobs in the outdoor industry, which led us to REI, Ulu, Chaco and then back to Sunlight Sports. Pretty much everything that I have, I owe to working the floor at Sunlight Sports and meeting Melissa. Now I have a real opportunity to pay that back.
SNEWS: What do you think are some of the biggest issues facing independent specialty retailers? What do you think about OIA's Retail of the Future project?
WA: There are a ton of issues facing independents. Obviously the competitive environment right now is brutal. Independents face a lot more square footage from big box retailers than ever before, big real estate and technology costs, negative participation trends and competition from brands selling direct and online. However, the biggest challenge that a lot of independent specialty folks face is expressing their own importance to the vendors that they partner with. We're lucky to have more than 70 brands that are a part of Grassroots — 70 vendors that understand how specialty really builds connection and collateral for brands.
Grassroots really believes that given the opportunity to compete on a level playing field with the rest of the industry, outdoor specialty stores will thrive. We're already connected to our individual communities on a level that national chains, online-only merchants and closeout retailers can't approach.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of brands out there that pay lip service to specialty but execute strategies that are really detrimental to the independents. If you are a specialty retailer, and your key vendors don't get why they should support you in real, tangible ways, you are in big trouble. The people that you give all of your dollars to are using those dollars to put you out of business. Which, ironically, will really hurt those brands in the long run — they will exist as another space in a big box without customer interaction and as a website fighting for Google search ranking. Meanwhile, the brands that get specialty will be thriving because we will drive customer discovery of and connection to those brand stories.
As far as the Retail of the Future project, I think that it is fascinating. There are some paradigm-shifting insights to be gleaned from a project like this. From an independent specialty point of view, we're going have to figure out how to make the actions from those insights realistically affordable. Plus, we'll have to have the courage to make meaningful changes in the way that we have been doing business based on those insights.
SNEWS: How do you anticipate Grassroots supporting retailers as they grow and evolve in the future?
WA: That is a big push for our group. I think that it's important to remember that Grassroots is made up of two groups : 50 of the very best specialty retailers in the U.S., and more than 70 brands that truly believe in the importance of specialty as a conduit for their own businesses. We've had a very deliberate focus on sharing the best adaptations and practices that our individual members have implemented. Roanne Miller really set the table for us there because she has been so focused on making improvement accessible to everyone.
Going forward, I feel that our big opportunity is continuing to strengthen our position as advocates for independent specialty outdoor retail and the brands that champion specialty. Make no mistake — we're passionate advocates of all specialty retailers, not just the ones in Grassroots. There are several compelling scenarios out there: acting as a distribution point for meaningful education, having a strong voice to influence industry direction, advocating for effective grant programs and conservation efforts.
SNEWS: How do GOA shows compete with or complement big shows like OR, or smaller, regional shows?
WA: Grassroots summits really complement OR and the regionals. The big advantage is that at the Grassroots summits, we really have the opportunity to have in-depth conversations that help us shape our businesses going forward. Brand leaders and principals from these influential retailers get to sit down every day for meals together — some of the most amazing industry conversations happen around those dinner tables. We get to sit and listen to a lot of the industry's best buyers go through great lines together. There's just a lot of shared brainpower. At OR and the regionals, the pace is a lot faster.
SNEWS: Do you have a three- or five-year plan for GOA?
WA: Well, the Grassroots board does, and that is who I really answer to. I definitely have ideas to contribute to the board, but the Grassroots board is made up of really, really smart people. We have a shared vision of what success looks like going forward. We have a five-year plan. However, one of the strengths of the organization is that we are nimble. If we need to adjust the plan in order to hit that vision, we'll do it.
SNEWS: What's one of your favorite ways to get outside in your hometown?
WA: Cody, Wyo., is an outdoor paradise — we're adjacent to the Greater Yellowstone (the largest intact, temperate ecosystem left on the planet) and narrowing it down to one is hard, and it depends on the season. The climbing, hiking, fly fishing and biking around here is phenomenal. If I had to pick just one day and one activity, it would have to be getting on my touring skis. I love to ski from the North Fork of the Shoshone and up into Yellowstone in winter. It's an amazing, beautiful experience. Plus, it's almost all downhill on the way home.