Brothers Mark and Bruce Lamberson founded the company in Casper as a ski shop in 1973. Mark and his daughter Lisa Lamberson run the shop in Arizona, which opened in 1980. Bruce runs the Casper store.
To celebrate the five-decade mark, the Flagstaff crew has rented out a local historic downtown theater for Nov. 3, when it hopes to gather generations of Mountain Sports employees as well as its environmental partners from 1% For the Planet.
Both Lisa and Mark spoke with The Daily about lessons they’ve learned over the years, the early days of the business, and the current retail climate.
Mark said his key to success over 50 years has been flexibility.
If you have a bad idea that doesn’t work out, “Lick your wounds and move on,” he said. “Retail is change. You have to be responsive and adaptive and prescient in figuring out that change and what you think is going to happen next. It’s pretty fun.”
While Mark doesn’t admit to any regrets, he said sometimes you get a wave that closes out, and sometimes you get a perfect left that peels for a long time.
A Brief History
Before opening the Casper store, Mark was living in Aspen as a ski bum and Bruce was in Steamboat Springs doing the same. At the time, Casper had a population of about 40,000 people – it’s since added about 20,000 more – with the relatively small Hogadon Basin Ski Area as the main ski resort.
Mountain Sports’ customers would either ski close to Casper or head to Jackson Hole and Steamboat, both about a four-and-a-half-hour drive away. Group bus tours were one way Mountain Sports helped grow its customer base.
It also helped that Casper was located in the middle of oil production country and many families benefited from well-paying jobs.
“There were boom and bust cycles,” Mark said. “But it was a pretty wealthy community, and other ski shops didn’t quite have the magic sauce.”
The magic sauce? “Blind optimism,” Mark added. That and a few new products that came out in the 1970s, including short skis, helped boost business. Mountain Sports was an early adopter of the short ski trend. Mark also mentioned Hanson’s ski boots, which developed a wax injection technique that was unique to the market.
“Between the excitement of the ski industry and other things, in the summer we just twiddled our thumbs trying to think of something to do,” Mark said. “We did tennis rackets and tennis lessons. Just finding specialty sports that you think you can respond to and build a community around.”
At first the business was mostly retail sales. It developed a rental shop later.
The current Mountain Sports store in Casper is about 6,000 square feet dedicated to ski, snowboard, bike, and hike, and a separate rental operation in the winter.
Lisa went through the iterations of hardgoods trends the business experienced at different times, including windsurfing, mountain biking, and snowboarding.
“The reality is, what I’ve learned about all of those things, is that it was an opportunity to run a business around family passions,” she said. “Dad’s been an outdoorsman his entire life. Trying all those sports became a natural combination with representing those sports in the business.”
Located at the crossroads of downtown Flagstaff, the other 1,800-square-foot store has gone in a different direction. It started as a hardgoods store similar to the Casper location, but in 2001, it shifted to a Patagonia-heavy apparel shop.
Right now, the product mix is about 80% Patagonia, with a few other brands on the shelves, including Toad and Co., Stio, and Carve Designs.
Mountain Sports has been carrying Patagonia since the 1980s. Lisa said the brand sees the opportunity to capture tourists visiting Flagstaff on their way to the Grand Canyon as one of the benefits of being in the store. Mountain Sports has a formal partnership with Patagonia.
Another reason Mountain Sports moved away from selling skis and snowboards in the Flagstaff location was the “terrible snow years” in the late 2000s.
“Without the moisture, the summers were becoming less successful as well because the forests were closed in Northern Arizona, so people couldn’t hike and bike,” Lisa added. “We suddenly found ourselves just being apparel retailers. The margins of not being in the hardgoods business is a relief.”
Current Business Climate
Similar to many retailers in the outdoor industry, Mountain Sports saw a boom during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first half of 2023 looks to be down about 15% compared to last year at the Flagstaff store.
Customers are being more thoughtful with their spending now.
“They’re not investing in their down jackets in the middle of the summer, because they know they’ll be able to get them in winter,” Lisa said.
She sees a silver lining in the return to a more normal business climate. The store can be more thoughtful about its collections and how it manages inventory again.
“It’s allowing us to go back to buying cycles and working with our head buyer and actually talking about things like open-to-buy again, instead of just, ‘Sure, find something and buy it and let’s put it out there and sell it.’”
Part of the sales decline for the first part of this year was, “Spring took forever to show up here in Flagstaff,” Lisa said. The area was still getting “huge” snowstorms over spring break and the local ski hill didn’t close until Memorial Day.
That delayed people hitting the hiking trails, which didn’t do much for apparel sales, but did help boost the sale of Kahtoola microspikes, which are made locally.
While sales may have come down from peak levels, overall, the business is up at least 20% compared to 2019.
“There was an incredible surge in 2022 that we’re just plateauing off of,” Lisa said. “It’s a good time to dust off business practices and remember what we do well. We want to set ourselves apart by offering a great customer experience.”
Bart Schaneman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.