The Path Forward
Outdoor specialty retailers weigh in on how they survived the past few months—and what the future holds.
Outdoor specialty retailers share insight on the current climate and the path forward. We spoke with 8 (+1) retailers: Appalachian Outfitters, Eagle Eye Outfitters, Next Adventure, Outdoor Gear Exchange, Pack Rat Outdoor Center, River Sports Outfitters, Rutabaga Paddlesports, The Trail Head, Wild Iris Mountain Sports.
Listen, Learn, Have No Fear
Darren Bush, Owner, Rutabaga Paddlesports
The Wisconsin-based paddlesports specialist was open in a limited capacity by May, and throughout the pandemic, the retailer has seen strong e-com sales. Bush believes excelling in customer service is one key that will help stores thrive going forward.
The New Normal: “Our website is doing very well, already passing last year’s sales a few weeks ago,” Bush told us in late May. “We are offering curbside pickup, showings by appointment, test paddles by appointment, etc. It has been working great, and our customers are quite accommodating.”
Virtual Offerings: “We’ve used Facetime, Google Duo and Zoom to interact virtually. We’ve had customers buy boats, paddles, PFDs, car racks, and a ton of other gear via video conferencing. We can either have them ready to pick up, or if it’s within 40 or 50 miles, we can just deliver it. Frankly, when I do them, it’s another chance to talk to the customer casually, and Midwesterners like their driveway conversations. Plus a box store CEO ain’t deliverin’ nothin’ to no one.”
Wish List: “A vaccine would calm a lot of fears, but that product cycle is slow moving. What needs to happen for all our businesses to be successful is for people to purchase good gear from specialty shops and stay offline. Amazon doesn’t sponsor your kid’s soccer team. Moosejaw doesn’t donate to the food pantry. Backcountry.com doesn’t hold fundraisers for the neighborhood library. REI.com doesn’t entertain your toddler while you try on a PFD. Few of these entities support the community in a significant way.”
A Tip for Specialty Retailers: Bush is blunt. “Specialty retailers need to up their game, too,” he said. “As much as I dislike box stores, they often give better service than we do in terms of logistics. It doesn’t matter how smart your salesperson is if the thing they’re smart about isn’t in stock or worse, it’s in stock but you can’t find it. We need to be professional in terms of business operations as well as in product knowledge and passion.”
Bright Spots: “I think the benefit of this pandemic is that it has taught us the power of community and how much we need each other,” said Bush. “That’s a beautiful thing. Our specialty retailers in town are doing okay because people want to support them. Right after we had to cancel Canoecopia, our big consumer show, we asked for help and our customers bought five figures of gift cards to help with cash flow. It was quite moving.
The good news is that we as an industry have what people need to settle their nerves and heal their souls.”
Have No Fear: “Don’t make decisions based on fear; fear is paralyzing,” advised Bush. “Get good data, look for ways to innovate, and try new things. If they fail, you’ve learned something. We tried a few things that just didn’t take off, but we found out quickly. Getting through this mess requires quick and decisive failures so you don’t waste time on strategies that don’t work. Growth like this is an iterative process. You just keep going until you stop learning things. For me, that’ll be when I’m dead.”
Reasons to Believe
Chally Sims, Manager, Pack Rat Outdoor Center, Fayetteville, AR
Over the past few months during the COVID pandemic, the shop was able to stay open and has also worked to stay connected to customers through social media and email. As traffic in the shop slowed, the staff worked on internal upgrades and customer service offerings.
Website Upgrades: “We used the time when sales were down to get our web store up and running,” said Sims. “This project has been on the back burner for a while, so we took the time to dive in, stay focused and get several staff members involved to get the web store up and running with a large portion of our inventory available for on line purchasing.”
Upgrading Customer Service: “Customers have utilized curbside pick up as well as ‘hold for store pick up’ and shipping,” said Sims. “Customers have been considerate in wearing masks, allowing a safe distance during their visit to our store and understanding the temporary changes we’ve made to manage the COVID-19 situation.”
Wish List: “I hope that everyone will continue to take precautions with COVID-19 in mind so that we don’t have another spike in cases,” said Sims. “I hope that our customers will return to our stores either in person or through our web store to shop locally for the things they need for their next adventure. Many of our vendors are pulling business and margins away from us by discounting products that are in-season styles and colors; this is doing more harm than good for all of us. If everyone will hold price, we can all benefit from full margin.”
Bright Spots: “I’ve heard a lot of talk of supporting local businesses and I believe that people want to give that support whenever they can,” said Sims. “Some do despite vendor web site discounts, but many do not because it’s tough to pay more for an item if funds are tight.”
Trying it All
Todd Frank, Owner, The Trail Head, Trail Head T9 and Trail Head River Sports, Missoula MT
During the initial shock of the COVID crisis, Frank says he purposely did not do a big campaign to ask folks to do gift cards while his business was closed as he “felt everyone was trying to find a way to deal with the situation and it did not feel right to join in with a hand out.” The store began doing curbside pick up before fully opening eventually. He anticipates that many customer service changes he has put in place will remain going forward. He sees the business as changed forever, however, and says many brands will be “culled” from his offerings.
Key to Success: “I came in every day for seven weeks and answered the phone and emails, and simply tried to help folks however I could,” said Frank. “It gave me a chance to talk with vendors and sales managers about the balance of Spring 2020 and Fall 2020.”
The New Normal: “We have tried it all — curbside, private shopping and early hours,” said Frank. “Taking about one third of the racks off the floor and opening up the area around the cash wraps makes the store much nicer. Over time we all tend to keep packing more inventory into the same space and I think culling the herd of vendors will be a benefit. We are of course making those decisions based on how vendors are managing their business at this point.”
Wish List: “It has changed our business forever, no question about that,” said Frank. “My real hope is the people and brands on both sides of us will still see value in what we do and be willing to come into a physical space to support us. Brands that are aggressive in how they manage DTC and consumers who are only looking at price will likely fall off for us. We are NOT going to pivot and try to be an online player. That ship left port. We will offer most products online with our new website but it is more of an attempt to give our existing customers a chance to support us digitally as well.”
Future Strategy: “We are going to move away from much of the apparel business that has been very important here for over 40 years,” said Frank, noting that he has seen his success selling apparel undercut by brands discounting it in DTC offerings. Frank said that he thinks “easy to sell items” like basic camping gear often have better price integrity online and that consumers therefore buy where they are comfortable shopping and “do not make those decisions based on huge discounts online to entice them to buy a more risky product.”
Boating Is Strong: “Our boating store is doing well,” said Frank. “Customers want to see it before buying it. And these are items that consumer see as a safe socially distant way to recreate. I hear the same from bike shop owners. It is a nice trend.”
Be the Face of Your Own Company
Mark Anderson, Owner, Eagle Eye Outfitters, Dothan, AL
Alabama’s Eagle Eye Outfitters, which opened back up on May 1 at a 50 percent occupancy rate, stayed active throughout the COVID crisis on social media, with owners Susan and Mark Anderson doing weekly video updates. And a strong “shop local” movement has emerged in the shop’s community.
The New Normal: “We have increased the number of Facebook Lives that we do throughout the week to engage our customers with brands and products that we carry in the store. We’ve been very surprised at the number of people that are out shopping and their excitement to get back to participating in normal life experiences that they missed doing for six weeks.”
Leaning in on Digital: “We made the decision to drive people to our website as soon as our business was shut down and it paid off during the month of April while we were closed,” said Anderson. “In the past, we had only offered a limited amount of brands and products on our website but we immediately started adding everything we offered in store on our website to ensure that our customers would have as close to the same shopping experience on our website as they do in store. We added private FaceTime shopping experiences and curbside pick up. Some of these things have not sustained at the same level since we have opened back up but all of them will probably be permanent additions to our service delivery model going forward.”
Wish List: “We are encouraged by what has happened thus far and see some light at the end of the tunnel. Our customers have been very supportive of us re-opening and seem eager to get back to their regular shopping habits. There are two things that we are watching very closely. First, we need our brand partners to maintain price integrity for the rest of the year and resist doing heavy discounts within their DTC channels. Secondly, we need our community to fully commit to shopping safely for the foreseeable future. A secondary COVID-19 outbreak out this fall that hits right at Thanksgiving and Christmas would be a worst case scenario for everyone in retail.”
Bright Spots: “From the very start of the pandemic, our community has rallied around the small businesses in our community. People were very upset about the Government’s ability to choose who they deemed essential and non-essential. They saw the hypocrisy of the Wal-Mart, Target, and others being allowed to stay open while the governments shut down all the local stores that actually could have provided a safer shopping experience for them through this crisis. There is a VERY strong movement in our community to shop local more consistently so that our neighbors businesses can make it. In addition, we have seen an uptick in the sales of products for outdoor activities. Brands like ENO and Yeti have really picked up again after being down for a few seasons.”
A Message to Brands: “Every independent retailer needs their brand partners to act like partners and not competitors. We realize they are in a difficult situation as well, but we do not need them to start making decisions that hinder our ability to make it or that adversely affect our partnership with them after the crisis has passed. Independent retailers have long memories. We will make a list of the brands that acted like adversaries throughout this and we will re-evaluate those relationships on the other side of COVID-19.”
Tips for Retailers: “I would strongly suggest that every owner of an independent specialty outdoor shop fully commit to being the face of their company for the foreseeable future. The more your community understands that there is a local person that owns your shop, the more likely they will be to shop there in the coming months... Show your humanity and invite them into your lives so that they will know that your relationship with them is built off way more than how much money they spend with you.”
Focusing on the Silver Lining
Mike Donahue, Co-owner, Outdoor Gear Exchange, Burlington, VT
It was the tail end of ski season when Vermont’s Outdoor Gear Exchange closed its doors due to COVID restrictions, and in the ensuing weeks consumer demand began to shift towards bikes, another key category for the retailer. “We were closed to customers for two months,” said Donahue. “So we’ve had experience ramping up slowly and developing procedures.”
Bright Spots: “I think this summer people are going to look for quality time to spend with their family and trusted friends,” said Donahue. “And the outdoors is going to be a compelling destination. Normally people are torn between all the opportunities — whether to go on vacation and see a new city or go to a cultural event or a concert — none of those seem like the smartest choices this summer.
We’ve seen strong demand on the bike side already. We have seen both bike sales and our bike service business be quite strong.”
The New Normal: “It has been a challenging time,” said Donahue. “We have used email and social media to stay current with people and keep spirits up. Initially we had an outpouring of support with people buying discounted gift cards we sold. We began scheduling appointments for bike service and bike purchases. We will continue offering appointments as an option for the foreseeable future. People may find it more convenient in addition to it being more safe. In the store, we restructured our front entryway and cashwrap to enable more distancing and we added curbside pickup in a separate alcove. I think that will continue on in some shape or form for another year or more.
And we are using Zoom, Facebook Messenger, texting — anything to make it easy for customers to connect with us to get what they are looking for.”
Bright Spots: “I wouldn’t have wished this on anyone but there are some silver linings,” said Donahue. “The time we were shut and we had to figure out how to respond — that will make us stronger going forward.
This summer, it seems likely there will be more family trips — hiking, camping, exploring the outdoors. It is low cost and there is a ‘dispersed’ way to do it. There are going to be people excited to use the outdoors as their vacation place.”
A Sustainable Model
Deek Heykamp, Co-owner, Next Adventure, Portland, OR
While Next Adventure closed its physical locations during the early stages of the pandemic, the retailer is fortunate to have already had a robust e-com business in place, meaning that more than 35 (out of 100+) employees were kept onboard throughout a months long retail shutdown. “We had built a sustainable model and knew that if the website did the same business as the year previous, we would be sustained,” explained Heykamp. In fact, Next Adventure’s web business on many days during the pandemic was two and three times more successful versus year-over-year comparisons.
Strategy: “We were able to secure a PPP loan and it emboldened us to use the time to work on things that made sense,” said Heykamp. “We worked on building our infrastructure and things that could help us come out on the other side much stronger. We spent time on training and education and things we could do remotely. We had staff in the stores answering phones and doing curbside pick ups and appointments with COVID protocols.”
The New Normal: Next Adventure ships all across the country from its distribution center. “And to ease the pain for local people, we began offering free delivery in Oregon and Washington,” said Heykamp. “In the Portland metro area, we did free personal delivery for kayaks. That was a big hit.”
Going forward, Next Adventure will continue to do curbside pickup and schedule appointments, and the store may also extend its hours. “With limited people in the store, why not extend hours to get more customers in per day and give more staff hours with less people in the store?”
Category Growth: “We noticed a specific growth in paddlesports during the shutdown — kayaking canoeing, stand up paddle boarding. I’d speculate that it’s something people realized they could do safely with social distancing as part of it. Our web traffic for paddling increased nationwide.”
Communication Is Key: “One of the things I felt early on is that in times of crisis what scares people is uncertainty,” said Heykamp. “The number one thing we needed to do was communicate with staff, vendors, with our community. We have had HR calls every week with our furloughed/laid off employees. Likewise, our accounting department is being honest with vendors. Be transparent and overcommunicate. It has served us quite well.”
Turning Back the Clock
Ed McAlister, Founder/Owner, River Sports Outfitters, Knoxville, TN
The Knoxville-based retailer, which also operates several boat rental locations across the region, was able to stay open during the pandemic and saw strong demand from its consumers, hungry to explore the outdoors.
Bright Spots: “I feel very blessed, selling bikes and things like that, that we were allowed to stay open,” said McAlister. “We’ve had a very good demand for the cycling portion of the business for transportation, and the boating portion [too]. And people want trail shoes or hiking boots, tents, backpacks or whatever. It seems like everyone was wanting to get away and do something and were tired of being cooped up.”
Bikes & Boats: “Some [bikes] already sold out for the year,” said McAlister. “Boats are the same way. But we’re fortunate that we can go pick-up our boats as most of the major boat companies are within a three-hour radius of Knoxville. We run trips two or three times a week. Bikes are dribbling in, but we certainly aren’t getting what we need.”
What’s Next: “I see slowing demand for some products that have been in high demand, such as boats and bikes, but I still see demand for getting outside,” said McAlister. “We’ve been here 37 years. This goes back to 20 years ago when we were sort of the only store of this kind and people would come by to get outdoor advice, information and products to get outside. It seems as if someone turned the clock back. I’m hoping that we are providing something to those people who may have gotten out of the habit of going outside and doing these things. Maybe they’re now having a second thought—‘Wow, this is fun! Let’s continue doing it when this [pandemic] is over.’ That’s the positive side to me.”
Inventory Strategy: “I think there’s going to be a lot of issues on the soft side of the business,” said McAlister. “A lot of discounting… that’s [something] everyone is going to have to be careful with. There’s a lot of surplus product right now... We’re going to try and be a little extra careful with what we bring in [for Fall] and not be caught without product. But I also don’t want to be caught with a lot of surplus products. It’s a tightrope.”
Keeping the Community Spirit
Amy Skinner, Owner, Wild Iris Mountain Sports, Lander, WY
Wyoming’s Wild Iris Mountain Sports has remained open over the past few months, just in more restricted ways, said Skinner.
The New Normal: “In mid-March, we locked our front doors, but were able to keep staff working as we adapted to delivery of orders, curbside service and started upping our game online,” said Skinner. “Mid-April, we started making appointments for in-store shopping and mid-May we opened our doors to five customers at a time, with six-feet distancing and masks being worn, while we continued appointments before and after hours.”
In the Community: “At the heart of Wild Iris is community service, so we adapted our usual Spring Fling fundraiser onto an online effort to raise money for Lander Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Relief Fund,” said Skinner. “We were able to come close to our normal fundraising level and were delighted, but not surprised, that our regulars were engaged with our effort.”
Skinner said that another trend in Lander has been businesses collaborating. “For instance, the Lander Running Club raised money for The Middle Fork restaurant and Wild Iris by engaging their members in online challenges,” she said. “Elemental Fitness and Performance partnered with Wild Iris in a social media challenge and shout out for our 30th anniversary. The International Climbers Festival, Lander Bar and Gannett Grill and Wild Iris collaborated to present an online Q&A with a showing of the documentary, ‘Wind and Rattlesnakes.’ We have seen strong efforts of this type from lots of groups in town.”
Wish List: “Our biggest week of the year, International Climbers Festival which is usually mid-July, has been postponed until mid-August with plenty of uncertainty surrounding whether it will happen at all this year,” said Skinner. “I hope that we will come to a safe and reasonable way to celebrate ICF, either in person, online or a combination. And I have the same hopes as we continue to celebrate Wild Iris’ 30th anniversary.”
Bright Spots: “There has been huge support for local businesses and I believe that support will continue,” said Skinner. “Our customer wants to see Wild Iris continue and we are feeling the love! If Memorial Day weekend is any indication, we will see outdoor recreation continue to be an essential and vital part of our community. Customers have been thoughtful and very willing to follow our guidelines as we work toward the new normal.”
Play the Hand You Are Dealt
Mike Leffler, owner, Appalachian Outfitters, Peninsula, OH
During the time his store was shutdown, Leffler and staff sent “occasional email updates” to consumers, but not too many, he said, as people in his hard hit state of Ohio were more focused on jobs and putting food on the table. He is very realistic about the tough road ahead.
The New Normal: “We added curbside pickups and an appointment calendar,” said Leffler. Prior to May 2nd, the store was not allowed to do appointments or curbside. “Going forward, we will probably keep the online appointment calendar for items that require more time and expertise, such as pack fittings, kayak consultations, footwear fittings. Things that take time and that customers want to schedule in advance.”
What Retailers Need: Leffler’s top wish? “Vendor’s need to stop selling against their wholesale specialty retailers,” he said. “We brought in all our Spring 2020 inventory just before the state mandated shutdown. Vendors then started selling direct at deep discounts while our inventory sat in the dark. There is no way we should be invoiced for the pre-shutdown value of our merchandise when the vendors themselves obviously feel their products are worth 25 percent to 50 percent less as demonstrated by their own DTC web sites.”
Category Challenges: “There is a movement away from clothing and into hardgoods,” said Leffler. “We don’t anticipate much travel until maybe late third quarter but more likely in the second quarter of 2021 if a vaccine or some other treatment is available. Local running and day hiking covers a small portion of what we sell. A pair of shoes, or a pair of running socks, or a day pack, don’t offset the losses from not selling trekking packs, $300 backpacking boots, tents, stoves, etc.”
Wish List: “We have to manage through this with the facts and data as they are,” said Leffler. “If we choose to ignore the virus and pretend life is like it was last year, we are looking at potentially being closed down even longer if it takes off again. No retailer wants to miss the holiday season but we could put ourselves in that position. We are planning on being down 40 percent to 60 percent this fall and are adjusting accordingly. We don’t WANT that outcome, but we must play the hand we’re dealt. Wishing things were different is not a strategy.”