In the late 1980s, when Bob Collins founded the original Appalachian Outfitters in a strip mall in Canton, Ohio, specialty gear shops in the midwest were few and far between. A salesman for the chemical industry, Collins knew outdoor equipment only from his own pursuits: canoeing, hiking, and operating an amateur climbing wall for local enthusiasts in the barn on his family's farm. He had never sold so much as a single carabiner in his life when, in 1988, he opened the doors to his new shop and stepped into the life of a full-time retailer.
Much has happened in the 22 years since. Collins expanded to a second location in Peninsula, Ohio, in 1998, constructing a larger store with an attached climbing gym—the first professional rock wall in the state. In 2006, he sold the business to the current owners, Mike and Karen Leffler, longtime customers whose son had worked in the shop as a teenager. The Lefflers, carrying on the legacy that Collins created, reimagined a new era for the business, one founded on inclusivity and a broader customer base.
A sense of community
"Before we came in, the overall attitude was geared more toward hardcore gear people. They were focused on Appalachian Trail through hikers," Mike Leffler told SNEWS in a conversation about the shop this week. "We got feedback that some people didn’t feel welcome in the store. We wanted to focus more on families and getting as many people outside as we could."
To do that, Leffler began pushing community involvement, running a series of events to get people of all skill levels interacting with Appalachian Outfitters staff. One of the most beloved, founded five years ago, is a semiannual hiking series (cancelled this spring, for obvious reasons) that has been sponsored by brands like LEKI and has drawn as many as 200 people at a time for guided hikes around the state. Each season ends with prizes for those who complete at least nine out of the 12 scheduled hikes, a great way to get customers exposed to new brands and pieces of equipment.
The store also hosts speakers, runs gear repair clinics, and raises money for national parks at the hugely popular, beer-filled "pint nights."
"We really want to make it known that this place is for everybody," Leffler said of his efforts to draw new people in. "We’ve helped outfit customers to go to Everest, but we also cater to people who just want a good pair of gloves to walk their dogs in the winter."
A focus on depth
Much of Appalachian Outfitters' success has come, curiously, from its location. Northeastern Ohio is "not exactly a hotbed of outdoor activity," Leffler said, which has helped solidify the store's customer base. Those frequent the shop are loyal to the core.
And that loyalty is repaid in kind. Shortly after buying the business, the Lefflers decided to close the shop's original location. The Peninsula store had become more popular, and a second store, they felt, "took the focus away from who we are." It diluted the attention each customer received when they walked through the door.
The same reasoning led Leffler and his team to pursue a conspicuously modest growth strategy over the last 14 years.
"Our goal is only five percent year-over-year growth," he said. "That’s very conservative, but it allows us to pay for our inventory in cash and not rely on lines of credit. Want to have a staff that isn’t pressured to sell people things they don’t need."
If the store had bank loans to pay off, Leffler reasons, it would have to operate differently. Pressure would mount to run deeper sales, push the upsell, and open more locations.
"Of course, our vendors are infuriated by it," he said. "They want us to expand. Brands want their logo on as many front doors as possible. We’re really proud that even though we could probably increase our sales and volume, we don’t, because it would diminish the experience. If a customers is dropping $800 or $1,000 on a visit, it's critical that they feel like we actually care about them."
A boutique experience
That sense of appreciation, Leffler believes, works hand-in-hand with the boutique feel he has tried to cultivate at Appalachian Outfitters. The store's attached climbing gym, Kendall Cliffs—owned by Leffler but managed separately—helps with that feeling. The store is more than just a stop you make while running errands. It's a destination in its own right.
"One of the biggest challenges we’ve seen others stores face has been the rise of Amazon. Five years ago, people were scared to death because they thought Amazon was going to come in and eat everybody’s lunch. That hasn't happened for us. We have a slightly more affluent customer base and those people want service. I’ve never apologized for what our stuff costs. If someone is going to come in and spend $350 on a pair of boots, it doesn't matter if takes two hours to fit them—thats what it takes. What kills a lot of retail is that they try to operate in the middle; they aren't low cost and they aren't high end," he said.
The result for Appalachian Outfitters is a fiercely devoted customer base, with some people coming in two or three times a week, according to Leffler. That kind of patronage even allowed the shop to avoid ecommerce until last year, when it got into the business of selling product online for the first time. Even then, Leffler kept the website's inventory to just 12 brands, and in a year it hasn't expanded past 50.
"We went with companies like Sherpa and Hilleberg for the website—well-known, established brands that you cant get just anywhere," he said.
Looking to the future
All in all, the retail business has treated Leffler well in the 14 since he bought the shop. Several years ago he became the board chair of Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, a position he held until just a year ago.
"I like where we are," he said. "Personally, I'm at the point where I would like to start transitioning out of the business, maybe selling it to my son. But in terms of operations, I see no reason to change things."
Still today, Leffler said, only one principle really matters.
"It's about the customer and what’s right for them," he said.
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