A firsthand account of the brand new REI "experience center," plus what locals have to say about the giant retailer moving to town.

When I enter the nearly 25,000-square-foot space of REI’s new North Conway store, it feels slightly different and familiar all at once.

My eyes search the room for the recognizable features I’ve come to expect in my dozens of visits to REI stores. Displays of small outdoor accessories like water bottles and hats greet me near the door. In front of me is an open area with a U-shaped counter, rubber-topped tables, and rows of wooden benches that pull me into the heart of the store and toward the crowd. Off in the back corner, a partially visible backroom is clearly well-stocked with a variety of gear available for demos and rentals. The rest of the gear and the cash register are deeper in the store.

REI calls its latest site an "experience center"—a retail-experience hybrid. At first look, it's not much different from other REIs. But the intentional floor plan and the philosophy behind it are more focused on community building and experiences, from planning trips for people to outfitting them in full kits of rental gear for climbing or skiing or camping. 

"Experiential" stores are having a bit of a moment recently. The North Face opened an 8,000-square-foot one in August in Soho, Manhattan, complete with the scent of Yosemite, chairs made of duffel bags, and displays of the brand's heritage.

Backpacks and a cloth table at REI North Conway

Big tables throughout the store lend themselves to chatting with other customers, and not just shopping.

On the night before the grand opening, the new REI store is neatly organized. Local REI members have the store to themselves for an invite-only party and the place is packed. It’s not just the local food, microbrew beer, and live bluegrass music that’s generated the excitement. Folks are clearly happy that the outdoor retailer decided to put down roots in the Mt. Washington Valley of New Hampshire. “We’re stoked to have them here. It will definitely support the community,” says Katelyn Krumperman, an avid mountain biker who moved here from Colorado.

“North Conway is an historic community of outdoor enthusiasts and stewards, and an amazing gateway to some of the best outdoor pursuits in the country,” says Kurt Feilke, REI’s divisional vice president of retail. “We want to connect our members to the richness of both and be a partner in sustainable use and access.”

Around 53,000 REI members live, work, and play in New Hampshire. And North Conway sits at the foot of the White Mountains and attracts millions of visitors each year. This is the state's first REI and setting up shop here puts them at the epicenter of the state’s most rugged adventures. 

“We are not your average REI store,” says Store Manager Shannon Hanley, who previously worked at the Seattle flagship. “We’re totally new and fresh. Although we’re a smaller footprint for REI, we have a huge fleet of rental gear on par with our flagship stores. But the emphasis here is on the experience.”

According to Hanley, the shop’s smaller size and well-stocked supply of rental and demo hardgoods—bikes, tents, SUPs, snowshoes, tents, and more—aims to get mostly out-of-towners hooked up with gear and guides right in the middle of the store.

Woman handing shoes to customer at REI rental center in North Conway

Not all REI stores have the breadth of rental and demo gear that the North Conway "experience center" carries. REI's North Conway store is stocked with a full bike fleet, and climbing, camping, and ski gear—and the counter is at the front of the store.

Outdoor specialty retailers react to REI’s move

Before REI moved in, there were already a dozen high-end outdoor, ski, and bike shops in North Conway. But most of them seem to believe that there’s room in this town for everyone.

“We’re a mom-and-pop store,” says Stan Millen, co-owner of Stan & Dan Sports, a ski and bike shop in downtown North Conway.

Stan & Dan Sports has been around for 30-plus years, thanks to a loyal customer base of hardcore skiers and bikers. (It’s where I went when I needed new ski boots last year, and I loved the personal service and expert advice). “We know the area—both the ski and bike scene," Millen said. "But what keeps us alive is the dedicated skier.” He sees REI moving in as a positive thing. “If they’re successful in creating more customers, it will only help us all.”

Millen is not the only one who feels that having the big retailer in town could be mutually beneficial. Andrew Drummond owns Ski The Whites, a backcountry skiing outfitter that hosts popular events at nearby mountains. During the summer, inventory rotates to serve the trail running community and the store’s name switches to Run the Whites.

“When REI came into town, they did a lot of things right,” says Drummond. “They set up meetings to talk to local businesses and donated a ton of resources to the local outdoor community,” he says. Drummond is referring to donations exceeding $200,000 from REI to help restore the Crawford Path, the oldest continually used hiking trail in the U.S.

“From my perspective, they’ll get more people involved in backcountry skiing and that’s excellent for me. You really just want to see more people recreating outdoors,” says Drummond. “There’s always going to be some crossover between the smaller independent shops and big retailers, so hopefully it elevates business for everyone.”

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