For the past five decades, Neptune Mountaineering has played a key role in the independent outdoor specialty retail space in Boulder, Colorado.
In the past, the store might have been seen as slightly snobby, with pricier products for the more hardcore outdoor enthusiast. But lately, it has prided itself on appealing to a more inclusive customer base, according to General Manager Aaron Kutzer.
“The past iterations of the store were seen as something that’s a little elitist,” he said. “You’d go here for the most technical gear, but then you’d go to a bigger box outdoor place for your general camping supplies. Boy, that has changed so dramatically. It’s a much more inclusive business than it was.”
The Daily stopped by to chat with Kutzer about what’s selling, trends in the industry, and the overall business picture.
Wider Range of Customers
Kutzer said Neptune trains its staff and selects its products to serve everyone from the “hardcore alpinist” to the “fresh-faced college student who comes from an urban environment and has never gone on a hike.”
“It also works on a larger scale,” he added. “We just fundamentally think the world’s a better place if more people go outside.”
That means Neptune carries a wide range of products, from high-end prestige products all the way to lower, price-point pieces.
“We couldn’t say we’re inclusive and not try to cover the whole range,” Kutzer said.
Founded in 1973 by Gary Neptune, the store changed hands a few times after Gary retired in 2013 and was ultimately acquired by Bob Wade and his daughter Maile Sprung, co-owners of Aspen-based Ute Mountaineer, in 2021.
The roughly 10,000 square foot Neptune shop is located in the heart of the Boulder community and carries a wide range of outdoor gear and apparel for hiking, camping, climbing, uphill skiing, and more.
The store shares buyers with sister operation Ute Mountaineering.
“If a thing works better in the Aspen market than it does in the Boulder market, we’ll switch it back and forth,” Kutzer said.
Uphill and Backcountry Here to Stay
Other retailers have told The Daily that product categories like splitboards have been a tougher sell after the pandemic because people have gone back to front-of-the mountain resort activities.
But Kutzer sees uphill and backcountry enthusiasts as having gained an appreciation for the sport that doesn’t involve fighting traffic and the high access costs of resorts.
“It turns out it’s really fun once they learn how to do it,” he said. “We haven’t necessarily seen an increase in people going back to the resort. Instead, they’re sticking around.”
Outerwear Brands That Are Selling Well
Thanks partly to their breathable fabrics, “stuff that stretches and stuff that breathes really well,” customers can wear those brands to mountaineer and resort ski, not just uphill ski, Kutzer said.
Those logos may not be as well-known as others in the market, and that’s part of Neptune’s strategy.
Dynafit, for example, has been around since 1950, and despite being known for specializing in uphill activities, it has evolved into offering a wide range of products beyond just skis, bindings, and boots.
“Neptune is a place where we have the space to take risks on brands that maybe aren’t as well known in the U.S.,” Kutzer said.
Another category that has sold well this season is soft-shell pants and jackets, which fits with Kutzer’s point about the ability to use the outerwear to sweat in, as opposed to lift-service skiing.
Backcountry Ski Packs Leading the Category
Kutzer said the most exciting pack on the wall is Raide’s 40-liter backpack designed for uphill performance and downhill style.
“This is probably the best backcountry ski pack made right now,” he said. “It’s just a fully featured, comfortable pack.” Kutzer estimated about a half a dozen employees at the store are skiing with one of those packs.
Other backpack brands getting attention are Hyperlite Mountain Gear and Ortovox.
Scarpa Ahead in Ski Boots
Neptune offers boots for the “weight weenie” who wants to win a race, as well as boots for the skier who wants to summit a peak 10 miles into the backcountry, according to Kutzer.
One boot that sells well within that range is Scarpa’s 4-Quattro line, which allows for a pin binding as well as an alpine binding. “The industry is moving in that direction,” Kutzer said.
Smith Dominating Ski Helmets
Smith’s Vantage helmet is hard to beat, because it looks cool and has a full range of features, according to Kutzer.
Dynafit’s helmets are also popular for uphill activities because of their light weight.
Åsnes Popular in Skis
Neptune is the sole U.S. distributor of Norwegian brand Åsnes’ skis, according to Kutzer, and he said the store gets a lot of customers interested both locally and online. Some of the skis are designed for uphill only, while others are beefy enough to “crush it inbounds,” he added.
French brand Black Crows’ Freebird skis are a hot seller, as well as DPS’ carbon fiber uphill skis, despite their steep price of close to $1,700. Kutzer said it’s important to share the value with the right customer and remind them the carbon fiber will last a long time.
Crossover Footwear Stands Out
Neptune does best with approach-style footwear that can work for both climbing and trail running.
“The shoe that someone could use to run up the first Flatiron,” Kutzer said. “That’s where we see the most turn.”
An example of that is La Sportiva’s Wildcat.
Despite the trend in the footwear market toward lighter, faster hiking shoes, Neptune still does well with the traditional, supportive, high-top hiking boots like the Lowa Renegade, according to Kutzer.
“We’re just known for being one of the last places that have the really supportive, traditional boots,” he said. “We still turn a fair amount of them.”
The partnership with Ute Mountaineering also lets them try out some more fashion-forward footwear like Blundstone boots or On Running shoes, Kutzer added.
Sleeping Bags Bright Spot in Camping
Neptune is proud to carry a full line of Western Mountaineering sleeping bags.
“It’s a really premium bag for everyone from climbers trying to get it done in the desert to folks heading to the Himalayas,” Kutzer said.
On the more price-point side of things, Nemo sleeping bags are turning quickly, according to Kutzer, because people see Nemo as a trustworthy brand. (Nemo won The Daily’s 2023 Outdoor Brand of the Year award.)
Vuori Strong in Women’s Apparel
Despite Vuori increasing its physical store presence over the last couple of years, Kutzer said, “it’s a brand that you just have to have in-store to serve that customer.”
Part of that is the customer who is training for their outdoor objectives might want to train in the gym in the winter months, he added.
Neptune recently hired “a really good women’s apparel buyer,” according to Kutzer. “She finds the best uphill skiing apparel as well as the best sort of casual, warm, cozy, fuzzy apparel.”
Scarpa and La Sportiva Ahead in Climbing
Neptune offers a full assortment of climbing gear and even features a climbing wall for customers to test out equipment.
Kutzer said La Sportiva and Scarpa’s Instinct line are standouts in climbing shoes.
“One thing that’s interesting about the climbing section is it’s kind of its own marketing,” he added. “The products themselves are colorful and inspiring, and you want to go outside and get into some adventure just by seeing the product.”
Guidebooks Selling Well
Neptune has an extensive collection of guidebooks, including for climbing, hiking, and various other activities.
“We’ve just seen interest in our print selection skyrocket,” Kutzer said. “We’ll probably add another fixture as well.”
A Challenging Year Ahead
Despite the winter season getting a slow start with a lack of early snow, Kutzer said business picked up at the end of December and into January with a “big spike” in ski sales and ski apparel this month.
The past year, “the market was really challenging coming out of COVID,” Kutzer added. “It felt like most of the outdoor industry had really high inventory and the market was kind of hoping for a third record year of sales.”
That didn’t happen, creating a race-to-the-bottom scenario, he added, with a lot of discounting. The prior year, 2022, was better than 2023.
“It was just very, very competitive,” Kutzer said. “We also saw declines in foot traffic in 2023.
But the holiday season was “pretty strong,” and consumer confidence is trending upward. “We saw a really strong December in particular,” Kutzer said.
Neptune anticipates a flat year-over-year for the first quarter, and an opportunity for growth in the second and third quarters as the race to the bottom and discounting hopefully ease.
“Then the fourth quarter is anybody’s guess,” Kutzer said. “In general, I think we’ll start flat and have some growth, and then see how we finish.”
Bart Schaneman can be reached at email@example.com.