Outdoor specialty retailer Wilderness Exchange Unlimited sits on the corner of a Denver street kitty-corner from REI’s Colorado flagship, with a good number of other branded retail stores directly across the street.
“We’d like to believe that we’re in a neighborhood of outdoor stores,” said Jeff Keele, general manager of Wilderness Exchange. Opening the store in the shadow of REI was intentional, he added.
“They support us probably more than we support them,” Keele said.
Established in 2000, Wilderness Exchange offers a wide variety of outdoor apparel, footwear, and gear for a long list of activities, including hiking, climbing, skiing, and snowboarding. The core focus of the store is backcountry activities, but it also has a variety of “front of the mountain” products.
The 6,000 square feet store is experiencing the same business challenges the broader industry is facing but is doing fine financially, according to Keele.
“There are inventory and pricing issues, we all know that, but for the most part things are moving along,” he said. Sales for the year are “pretty even” or slightly better compared to 2019, the last “normal” year since the COVID-19 pandemic, he added.
The Daily walked the floor with Keele to talk about the store’s sample and consignment models, the return to wholesale for some companies, and what brands are selling well.
Sample Sales Business
According to Keele, Wilderness Exchange’s mission is to make the outdoors more affordable and accessible, which is why consignment and sample sales are a big part of the operation.
Sample sales are a core part of the store’s business strategy and make up 20%-25% of its sales.
How that works: When sales representatives for a brand are done with the sell-through process and the season is over, they sell them to Wilderness Exchange.
Keele said they can buy one of everything a company makes if they want it. That also means a lot of unique colorways that other stores don’t typically carry.
One catch: The samples only come in one size. In the sample section of the Wilderness Exchange store, there are a lot of men’s mediums and women’s smalls in apparel and outerwear, and in footwear a lot of men’s size 9 and women’s size 7.
“If you are that perfect size, you win,” Keele said.
Most of the samples are apparel, but the store also gets hardgoods, including tents and sleeping bags.
Wilderness Exchange typically pays wholesale prices or less for the samples and offers them at a discount that can vary based on the product.
The downside is that when the store buys from a rep they get every SKU the company makes for the season. “We buy a whole set,” Keele said. “It is interesting trying to check that into a point-of-sale system and for our warehouse to be able to process all of that.”
The sales reps appreciate that Wilderness Exchange offers this option, and it helps to build relationships, Keele said.
“They see it as we’re doing them a service,” he added. Instead of the sales reps having to sell off the samples piecemeal they can move the whole set at once.
“Our customers get thrilled that they get unique colorways and a great buy on samples,” Keele said.
Consignment “Heart and Soul”
The store started as a consignment shop, and today consignments make up about 20% of overall business. “It’s our heart and soul,” Keele said.
Wilderness Exchange offers a few options for the customer wanting to sell on consignment. Customers can take a 60/40 split with the customer getting the bigger share, have eight weeks to sell an item, and can set the price. Or the store offers cash for consignment with a 50/50 split, and the store sets the price.
“If it’s something we think will sell quickly, or know that there’s high demand for, we’ll just do cash,” Keele said.
They take most types of outdoor gear, with some exceptions, and the focus is on backcountry items.
Move Back to Wholesale
Similar to what Angles in Longmont, Colorado, told The Daily, splitboards and other backcountry hardgoods have been slower to sell at retail of late.
According to Keele, one problem is that backcountry vendors and manufacturers have been selling direct-to-consumer at heavy discounts because of oversupply. “The market has yet to recover from that,” he said.
To their credit, some brands that were the worst offenders have come back to selling through Wilderness Exchange, Keele said, and are removing a lot of their direct-to-consumer marketing.
“There is a wave of certain companies going back the other direction and realizing that wholesale is really important to them,” he added.
For example, since Neil Fiske took over at Black Diamond, he’s been having conversations with Wilderness Exchange and that’s moving in the right direction, Keele said.
He listed Mammut as another brand that is making commitments to work more with wholesalers.
“That excites us,” Keele said. “A few years ago, it looked like everybody was just going to go DTC and leave the wholesalers behind.”
Rental Business Growing
According to Keele, the gear rental part of the business has been a good revenue driver, with a higher profit margin. The demand for rentals has gone up as more people are traveling after the pandemic.
With Wilderness Exchange’s focus on backcountry, they’re seeing people renting gear to go on a hut trip, for example.
“Or maybe they have their own gear at home but don’t want to fly with their skis,” Keele said. “They can get all the backcountry stuff they need.”
The store offers front side of the mountain rentals as well.
The past couple of years, ski boots that work for both skiing at resorts and in the backcountry have been the store’s bestsellers, Keele said. One standout: The K2 Mindbender with BOA technology.
Having the BOA technology on them helps with the fit when a customer is between sizes, Keele said.
BOA adding their technology to ski boots has been the biggest innovation to hit the stores recently.
The store brought in Cotopaxi’s backpacks this year, and Keele said that has been “a hot brand. Obviously, the colorways stand out.”
The brand is a little more lifestyle than Wilderness Exchange is used to, but they’ve sold, he added.
Osprey also “kills it” for them every year in the backpack segment, with high quality and good fitting products.
In the technical pack segment, Mammut and Deuter sell well, Keele said.
For climbing, Keele said the Organic Climbing pads are moving well for the bouldering crowd, and the Tenaya shoes have been a success.
“They’re just comfortable shoes,” Keele said. “You can send 5-14 and be comfortable.” The $110 price point also makes them competitive.
Black Diamond’s climbing gear is “always solid and strong,” Keele said.
For footwear, Wilderness Exchange is noticing many hikers moving away from the big brown boot and toward lighter trail-running style shoes.
“I wouldn’t say we’re ahead of the curve on that,” Keele said. “But we’re following the trend. You don’t need a big boot if you don’t have a 40-pound pack.”
Among skis, Atomic’s Bent Chetler Freeride has been a hot seller. “It’s just a great crossover ski,” Keele said.
In apparel, Wilderness Exchange brought in Smartwool’s base layers last year, and Keele said that’s been a bright spot.
Getting people to buy merino wool as a base layer can be a hurdle because it can be “pricey,” but “people who know it, love it,” Keele said.
Bart Schaneman can be reached at email@example.com.