It won’t surprise anyone reading this magazine to learn that retail, at least traditional brick-and-mortar retail, is in a bad way. Earlier this year, The Atlantic pointed out that “There have been nine retail bankruptcies in 2017—as many as all of 2016. J.C. Penney, RadioShack, Macy’s, and Sears have each announced more than 100 store closures.” In the outdoor and snowsports space, EMS, Sports Authority, and other big boxes continue tanking, and Amazon continues to grow (acquiring Whole Foods this fall). Some promising small shops are giving up: Brooklyn’s Gear to Go Outfitters, which we profiled in the Winter 2017 issue of this magazine, shut down; and the dynamic B-Corp Chopwood Mercantile in Crested Butte plans to get out of the business. Nonetheless, it’s hardly doom and gloom for independent specialty retailers with prime locations in mountain towns—if they can leverage their unique value.
For example, many on-the-hill ski-and-snowboard shops are prospering. Drive just an hour (if you don’t hit powder-day traffic) west of Denver up into the Rockies on Interstate 70 and you’ll hit Loveland Ski Area, which sits at 10,800 feet above sea level and has been hosting downhill skiers since 1937. The Loveland Sports Shop has a captive audience—and it has capitalized on that perk. Its manager, Sue Booker, has worked the modest floor space for 34 years. And while many local retailers have struggled over the past two ski seasons, Loveland’s shop has experienced its best sales in over three decades.
Join your community this January in Denver for Outdoor + Snow Show:
Booker credits that success to top-notch staff: “Number one for me is having good people working for you,” she said, “then training them well. If employees are happy, so are the customers.”
The Loveland Sports Shop also gets creative with its offerings, including a Day-Tripper Special—a rental package that includes clothing along with skis, boots, and lift tickets. The store’s Hat-Trick Demos allow customers to ride three different boards or skis in a day. They also offer a large selection of gift items and souvenirs—t-shirts with the iconic Loveland ski area logo fly out of the store (see page 16 for the importance of t-shirts)—and changing the displays often keeps the store looking new (see our merchandising tips on page 14) “We are thriving,” Booker said, “but I get concerned about online retail.”
Being on a busy ski hill is a slam-dunk. “But if we were located in Denver,” she said, “it would be a challenge because of discount places.” As for the stiff Internet competition, she reiterated what all retailers mentioned for this story: “I can’t match online pricing.”
At Sturtevants in Ketchum, Idaho, owner Olin Glenne believes that online competition has simply become a reality over the passage of time, with no “aha moment” other than that of the bubble bursting in 2008. Currently Glenne is adverse to even attempting online sales through his own website. Instead the four store locations focus on service through hiring a competent staff (see our rundown of ski shop staffing strategies on page 48).
The stores also benefit from the myriad of outdoor activities in Sun Valley. “Ground zero for adventure” Glenne calls the Sturtevants’ stores’ 11,000 total feet of floor space.
Weather—including climate change—affects business. “We are essentially farmers,” Glenne said, referring to how they manage inventory and expenses according to snowfall and increasingly frequent forest fires that can blanket Sun Valley in smoke and keep people indoors and slow business. Sturtevants has also carved out a niche as a mountain bike purveyor during the summer seasons. “Bikes, like skis, are service intensive. Also, like skis, they’re rentable,” Glenne said, “so they are insulated from the competitive online world.”
Twelve years ago, Sturtevants boosted business with guided hiking and mountain biking—supplemented with shuttle service to and from the trailheads. “You can’t just sell goods, you’ve got to be authentic,” Glenne said, hinting at a raison d’etre and the humanity that is missing from the Internet.
Located two miles from california’s Mammoth Mountain resort, the Footloose shop in downtown Mammoth Lakes rose to prominence more than two decades ago when its founder (and original owner) Sven Coomer patented Superfeet insoles for his custom-made ski boots. Although online competition is a worry these days for manager Zach Yates, thanks to record dumps—that drove the lifts into August last season—Footloose experienced record profits in 2017. While the extended winter cut into its bike sales, skiing has long comprised 75 percent of its business.
As Internet pricing caused the collapse of big box stores throughout California over the last few years, Footloose only profited, selling those parts and packages—along with personalized servicing—for the downhill gear that the Ski Chalet chain had unloaded as its doors closed. “We cater to service,” Yates said. “A lot of the [failing] super stores sold incompatible systems so we’d sometimes sell whole new packages.” It strikes Yates as a fine irony that while business has justified doubling his 5,800 feet of floor space, Footloose will do it by taking over the Bank of America building. “They’re leaving Mammoth Lakes,” he added, “probably because of the Internet.”
Like most specialty ski shops, Yates hasn’t seen a pressing need to develop an online presence because the store has grown every year. Nor does he believe that prime location is key. “But if your service is better than anyone else’s (Mammoth Lakes, pop, 20,000 in winter, 10,000 in summer, has several competing ski shops), your name gets out there and brings more customers.” He also believes that there’s no magic to this formula. “There’s nothing that we do that others can’t,” Yates said.
Off the slopes, however, and lacking a branded product like Superfeet, ordinary merchants often take extraordinary measures. This is the case with the boutique retailer Crow’s Feet Commons in Bend, Oregon.
Manager David Sword believes that his store’s stability comes through providing a service that online retailers can’t touch. Started in 2012 by owner David Marchi as a coffee shop that sold bikes out of Bend’s oldest historic home (leased from the city), Crow’s Feet has continued looking for ways to expand.
At first, the café business outpaced bike sales. Then, three years ago, the “David and David Show” leased an additional storefront, solely dedicated to backcountry gear. Like most specialty shops, it also prospers by servicing and renting skis and bikes. The other hook is a taproom, serving De Garde’s Mulligan, Boneyard’s Armored Fist, Russian River’s Blind Pig, Ale Apothecary, and The Bruery’s Tart of Darkness. As if that’s not enough, while having second thoughts about shelling out $7-10K for a custom ride, you can sample a selection of local wines while sitting in the plaza alongside the Deschutes River.
Across the country in Vermont, the Outdoor Gear Exchange has shown that a bar or slopeside location are not necessities for success. Ideally located on Burlington’s Church Street Mall and largely unaffected by an LL Bean recently opening on the same block, Mike Donohue’s shop has been in business for 22 years. Although Donohue claims that there’s no single silver bullet for prospering, it’s obvious that good service is essential. “Know your customers,” he would advise other shop owners, “they’re paying the bills.”
Outdoor Gear Exchange runs a well-balanced website—manned with store employees for live chat—but most of the shop’s sales come from personal interactions on the floor. “Our goal is to be an educational resource,” Donohue said, “to be involved in the community.”
In 2013, Donohue established The OGE Charitable Grant Fund in order to give back regionally by funding local nonprofit conservation and access projects. It’s an axiom that brick-and-mortars that succeed tend to invest in both community and conservation—but not for profit, he hastened to add, “ The challenge in our business is to have a soul .”