Sports Business/01/23/2018

USA: How outdoor and snow sport retailers thrive despite Amazon & Co.

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During the Great Recession more and more outdoor and winter sports products were bought online. A whole flood of company acquisitions and dealer bankruptcies followed. Now, about ten years later, has been looking at how successful US retailers are managing to grow again.

Alpenglow Sports focuses on personalized customer service.
Alpenglow Sports focuses on personalized customer service.

Similar to the development in Europe, the US outdoor and snow sports market saw an increase in online shopping activity alongside the Great Recession in the 2000’s. Brand acquisitions and discontinuance as well as many shop closures followed and are still ongoing and measurable today.

The year is 2018 and there are only a handful of giant online retailers left where everybody shops his or her gear. Well, not entirely... A few indomitable brick and mortar shops still hold out against the Amazons and some even started successfully in the aftermaths of the online shopping explosion. And life is not easy for the shop owners. But what are the strong outdoor and snow sport retailers doing differently? What is their secret?

Selection of brands instead of mass bestsellers

Even as a bigger brick and mortar retailer with multiple shops one can’t compete with the numbers brands are making with big online shops. Vigorous shops in the US realized and committed to this fact.

They are picky and very selective about which brands and collections they stock. Specialty tradeshows, like the new snowboard show Parts & Labor or even the Agenda shows, pay tribute to those shops willing to sniff out new innovators rather than just following for example SportsOneSource data and buying mainly the big players’ bestsellers. They function as an addition to Outdoor Retailer Winter and Summer Markets, it’s Snow Show and the USRA Shows (United States Reps Association Shows).

Powder7 in Golden Colorado sells smaller brands and harder-to-find products
Powder7 in Golden Colorado sells smaller brands and harder-to-find products
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Beezer Molton, owner of eight Half-Moon Outfitters shops in South Carolina and Georgia explained “Bringing the freshest, coolest thing in protects the notion of shopping as an activity and maintains that specialty experience—which is unattainable looking at a screen.” Asked what distinguishes them from other businesses in their category, Amy Dannwolf, owner at Powder7 in Golden, Colorado told The Denver Post that amongst others, it’s that the shop carries many smaller brands and harder-to-find products.

With no exception strong US outdoor and snow sport shops are highly involved in community building through events, in-store attractions and social media. Events include slideshows, book signings, art shows, movie nights, races, snowboard contests, demos, wax parties, free clinics and many more.

Emily Burke at Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City, California explains: “We are very focused on community engagement through events such as the Alpenglow Mountain Festival, our twice yearly celebration of human-powered mountain sports. The festival is designed to increase accessibility to the great outdoors by providing free classes, guided trips, and information sessions to the community.“ 

The Hub & Pisgah Tavern in North Caroline attracts the community with an outdoor bar with fire pit.
The Hub & Pisgah Tavern in North Caroline attracts the community with an outdoor bar with fire pit.
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Hub & Pisgah

The outdoor shop as a community spot

Some shops even go a step further and create a permanent gathering opportunity for the community within their shop, such as The Hub & Pisgah Tavern at Pisgah Forest North Carolina. An actual pub within the shop including a charming patio with fire pit invites the community to spend time after their outdoor and snow adventures. This is all to foster word-of-mouth marketing at its best, when customers share their true experiences with brands and products with each other. 

Another important tool for community building, which is used by successful US outdoor and snow sport retailers is of course social media. Well maintained profiles on Facebook and Instagram at least, daily posts, offers for followers, behind the curtain details, special shop themed hashtags, video channels, podcasts, just to name a few, are crucial.

By giving their employees the opportunity to get an actual share of the company, a lot of US shops ensure more commitment and loyalty of their sales force. Newest addition – since January 1st, 2018 - to the employee owned outdoor and snow sport businesses is for instance Wilderness Sports in Dillon, Colorado. Also Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, Vermont states on their website: “We encourage long-term employment with through profit sharing,...“

While turning a retail business into a employee owned business is a big step, having genuinely stoked employees, at the point of sale, who have a true passion for selling and know outdoor and snow sports like nothing else, is equally important. 

Emily Burke at Alpenglow Sport says, that in the shop their main strategy is humanity: „We focus on personalized customer service, and creating a unique experience for every person that walks through the door. It’s more about learning something from our customers than selling something to them. Our customers are often on their way to or from an outdoor adventure. By asking questions and finding out what excites them, makes them nervous, or challenges them, we can better help them find the gear and tools they need to be successful. It’s about making fun happen.“ 

Raul Pinto at Satellite snowboard shop in Boulder, Colorado told Transworld Snowboarding: "I would say the number one thing is that we've been physically doing this (editor’s note: snowboarding) as long as anybody. We know more about it from actually doing it. Putting that kind of time in riding makes such a big difference in what you can tell someone about what they're going to buy,"

The hall plan of the Munich trade show makes it easier for you to find your way around ISPO Munich. Discover the diversity of the exhibition areas.

US shops adapt to the market

To ask a brand in the US not to sell to Amazon as a shop in 2018 is simply unrealistic. Instead of abandoning important brands, because they sell to the giant online retailer, even a lot of small to mid-sized US shops decided to go the route of actually selling right there and making good business.  By doing that and playing by the minimum advertised prizing rules, they avoid or minimize brands selling directly to Amazon.

This keeps Amazon from selling it and not sticking to the minimum advertised prizing rules and thus ruining a healthy online market. Most shops that do so also have a competitive online shop themselves on top. A shop that is doing all of this right for example is Gear Coop. The healthy company started as an Amazon-only retailer in 2009 and only later set up his own online store and opened up a brick and mortar location including a boulder wall in Costa Mesa, California.

Gear Coop’s webshop competes directly with Amazon & Co.
Gear Coop’s webshop competes directly with Amazon & Co.
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Gear Coop

Successful US outdoor and snow sport retailers online shop’s are comparable to the big players, including smooth navigation, appealing design, a mobile-friendly page, customer service, fast shipping, price matching and free returns, But even the strong brick and mortar shops, that don’t have an own online shop constantly optimize their online presence by making sure they can be found easily and the information is perfectly accurate.

This includes updating the shop’s address, hours and contact info everywhere someone could possibly search for it. For the US this means for instance Yelp, Google, Facebook and, equally important, each vendor’s shop locator. Services like Locally, Yext or Sweet IQ are helpful for smaller shops that don’t have a whole marketing team to spend time on listings and are available in Europe as well.

During the annual staff retreat of Burlington’s Outdoor Gear Exchange the staff gets tuned in on the upcoming season.
During the annual staff retreat of Burlington’s Outdoor Gear Exchange the staff gets tuned in on the upcoming season.
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Outdoor Gear Exchange Burlington

Second hand equipment enlarges collections

The outdoor sports community needs one thing after all – a healthy environment to play in. Therefore, outdoor and snow sports enthusiasts in the US seem to be particularly open to buy used gear. Consignment shops take gently used outdoor or snow sports gear and resell it by splitting the revenue between them and the customer they got it from initially.

This is also a great way of community building for the US shops since the customer who sells his gear usually doesn’t get cash but store credit from his deal. A lot of shops have a bigger or smaller consignment segment within their store, like for instance earlier mentioned Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, Vermont or Disco Bay Outdoor Exchange in Discovery Bay, Washington.

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