Rutabaga Paddlesports: Bringing the Love to Watersports

Rutabaga Paddlesports has everything you need to get on the water, and plenty for off the water, too.

Rutabaga Paddlesports / Madison, WI

1 Location

Notable: Rutabaga’s annual Canoecopia 3-day consumer trade show draws more than 20,000 attendees from the Midwest and beyond to hear speakers and browse new product.

Quotable: “I know that each of my employees is an agent whom I trust to do what I would do. They know me, they know how I feel about our customers, so they are tight and aligned in that mission.”
— Darren Bush, Rutabaga Paddlesports

If you’re looking for a good place to buy a canoe, kayak, SUP board or any of the accessories and gear you’d need to use them, Rutabaga Paddlesports in Madison, WI, is the place to go. The shop stocks Native, Old Town, Swift, and Northstar Canoes, and the tight-knit staff has the know-how and experience to sell you what you need.

But under owner Darren Bush, Rutabaga isn’t just a place to buy: it’s the place to get you in the water by any means necessary.

Not interested in owning a craft of your own? The store’s seasonal rental program, operated out of a location in nearby Olbrich Park as well as the store itself, will get you in a kayak, canoe or on a SUP board to enjoy Lake Monona in downtown Madison or any other non-categorized waters you want to go visit for an afternoon or a day.

Maybe you’re a beginner, or an enthusiast looking to take your skills to the next level. The retailer’s 30-plus year-old Outdoor Programs department will teach you and your kids how to paddle, about wilderness education or get you certified by the American Canoe Association as an instructor.

And every March, the retailer’s immense three-day Canoecopia consumer show attracts enthusiasts from across the Midwest and beyond.

As far as Bush — who uses the title “Chief Paddling Evangelist” is concerned — it’s a business, but it’s also a calling.

“No one ever said ‘I want to be a specialty retailer when I grow up,’” he says. “I got into this because it’s what I’m supposed to do.”

Bush first joined Rutabaga in 1990, when the shop had already been in business for more than a decade and was a “little paddling shop in a broken-down old grocery store.” It was a side gig, he says, that he fit around a full-time job at the Department of Health. But it got its hooks into him. “After a day at my ‘real’ job I was often tired and grumpy, but after a day selling paddle gear, I was totally stoked. Physically I might have been exhausted, but my heart and mind were lighter at the end of the day,” he says.

In 1993, when Rutabaga moved across the street to a new, bigger location on the water, Bush took a leap of faith, quit his government job and started as a manager.

But by 2002, Bush was feeling restless. “I was tired of working for someone else who was sorta checked out of the business, and I didn’t like cleaning up other people’s messes, so I gave notice,” he says. The owner countered: Would he be interested in buying the business? Bush and a partner took over that year; in 2007, Bush bought out his partner and has been running the organization since, centering it on a mission to connect customers with nature and each other.

“They know that the minute they come into the shop, they’re loved,” he says.

Bush is banking on that connection — and on Rutabaga’s depth in a wide variety of watersports categories — to continue to grow sales.

“As far as opportunities, I can’t tell you what categories are magic bullets. I mean, everyone wants the newest thing to boost sales,” he says. “I think our best option right now is to buckle down and sell the categories we know and love.”

Bush says he’s not necessarily looking for the next hot item as much as he is the right kinds of products. “Categories aren’t important as much as features — we see a strong trend towards lighter and more comfortable,” Bush says. “As the bell curve shifts older, so do our customers, and they want to be able to paddle and do so comfortably.”

And features trump price, he adds.

“Not everyone needs the lightest and most comfortable, but if they do, we’ll happily explain why it’s a good value if not a low price. It’s all about dollars per times used,” he says. “The most expensive kayak is the $299 kayak-shaped object from Costco that gets used once because it’s such a piece of garbage.”

Maybe nothing better exemplifies Rutabaga’s point of view than Canoecopia. An event that started as a few vendors with trailers in front of the store now attracts more than 20,000 attendees who come to learn about all things paddle and outdoor related. There are more than 180 seminars across the show’s duration covering topics as diverse as travel, beginner’s and family info, conservation, and art and music. And at the heart of it, it’s a chance for them to check out the latest boats and watercrafts in 250,000 square feet of exhibition space and pass the time with fellow paddlesports lovers.

Rutabaga brings on some 150 people to put on the event and closes the store in preparation. It’s not a discounting event: Vendors typically offer a show special of 10 or 15 percent (not nothing, especially on a four-figure boat purchase, but not a loss leader, either), and Bush says that’s by design.

“Does that mean we don’t sell boats and paddling gear? Of course not, it’s a big part of our business. [But] we don’t push sales; we push a quality event that gets better every year, with a discount as a thank you to our customers. We give them gear and know-how, they give us funds so we can keep giving them gear and know-how.”

Expanding the love of watersports to new faces — and especially to the next generation — is also a main thrust of the Outdoor Programs division of the business.

“Virtual recreation is what will kill us if we don’t get kids off the tablet and outside in the dirt where they belong,” Bush says. “That’s why we have Rutabaga Outdoor Programs, and why we have a large part of that devoted to kids, including a scholarship fund for kids who can’t otherwise afford our programs.”

Bush says those personalized recommendations and straight shooting help Rutabaga compete in a crowded marketplace.

“Box stores nibble around us and certainly take a few sales with off-pricing and the temptation of a rebate, of course. I can’t do anything about that — I can’t beat their marketing in the traditional sense. I can’t match their pricing every time their algorithm says drop it,” he says. “But what we can do is love our customers. They can’t.”

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