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Editors’ note: After we published this interview with Rich Hill, ExpertVoice reached out disagreeing with several assertions made by Grassroots Outdoor Alliance. We have since published a recap of ExpertVoice’s detailed response to the Grassroots position paper. We invite you to read it and draw your own conclusions.
Rich Hill, the president of Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, has a simple message for outdoor brands that run their pro programs through ExpertVoice: Stop using this platform because it’s crushing the specialty retailers you claim to value.
He also has a simple message for Grassroots members: Stop selling the apparel and gear made by brands who refuse to leave ExpertVoice because it’s the only way they’ll learn how much this off-price model is damaging the channel.
That’s a summary of the position paper that Hill and the Grassroots team sent to the outdoor industry last week.
In the document, titled “The ExpertVoice Consumer Database and Concerns of Permanent Brand Impacts,” Grassroots provides two reasons that are of “significant concern to the long-term viability of brands in our marketplace.”
The first is that “ExpertVoice is expanding their ‘pro’ database through the addition of national consumer membership organizations.” This means, as Grassroots outlines in its paper, that ExpertVoice has grown its pro deal offering to, well, people who aren’t outdoor pros. In other words, someone with no professional connection to the outdoor industry can score deep discounts on apparel and gear instead of buying it from their local retail shop. This is a huge problem for independent specialty retail shops because non-pro consumers are buying direct from brands.
According to Grassroots’ position paper, these non-pros include individuals from “general association databases (medical professionals, healthcare workers, firefighters, police, active military) as well as paid membership organizations with minimal or no ‘pro’ qualification requirements (examples: The Mountaineers, Ducks Unlimited, IMBA, American Alpine Club, Colorado Mountain Club, Teton Gravity Research).”
The second point the paper makes is that “ExpertVoice employee counts indicate conversion from consumer to pro is permanent.” As the paper states, “The ExpertVoice database includes a significant number of ‘phantom’ employees—our term for consumers who have gained permanent brand discount status through an ExpertVoice approved company or organization, yet do not exist on that group’s actual member list.”
Grassroots details how ExpertVoice has more registered users affiliated with certain retailers than actual employees who work at those stores. “Among 86 Grassroots Outdoor Alliance member retailers who are registered on ExpertVoice, there are 2,700 reported employees in our database—but ExpertVoice listed a total of 8,162 employees at those retailers as of May 20, 2021. As an example, one Grassroots retailer with four employees has 217 listed as members of ExpertVoice.”
ExpertVoice countered Grassroots’ claims in a position paper of its own. The main point in the letter from ExpertVoice CEO Tom Stockham is that the platform “works to improve retail commerce for all parties involved.”
As we reported last year in our print magazine in an investigative report on pro-deal programs, “figuring out who deserves a steep gear discount is crucial to running a successful brand pro program. Connect with the right pros, the theory goes, and a manufacturer helps these influencers do their jobs, while also familiarizing them with the gear and driving full-price sales to local retailers for a win-win. But if standards loosen so much that practically anybody can stock up on gear for 40 percent off or more, then pro deals become something else entirely.”
That last point, Hill claims, is what’s happening with ExpertVoice.
To better understand why Grassroots has disavowed ExpertVoice in particular—and not other pro-deal programs like Outdoor Prolink and IPA Collection—we asked Hill to explain why he believes the platform is detrimental to the channel, why brands should cut ties, and why retailers should cancel orders with the brands that remain with the platform. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Why do some brands choose to partner with pro-deal platforms?
Financially, it makes sense for the brands. When a brand sells to REI or Dick’s Sporting Goods or a specialty retailer, the gross margin is the same or maybe a little less than if they sell through ExpertVoice. It’s basically the same margin as wholesale, maybe a little higher. To scale it is still very profitable for the brands. Brands are all looking to sell more, but they’ve become lax in their authorization of pros. Senior management isn’t even aware of it because it’s all buried in the sales channels. Over the years, that has morphed to a place that has become untenable for us to accept.
Why this position paper from Grassroots, and why now?
Grassroots is taking a stance on an environment that’s been changing and morphing over the years. At the highest level, there’s a big discussion about how you manage pro purchases. Do you do it in-house with your own people or do you outsource it? And if you outsource it, which platform do you choose, and what is your strategy? I have always been a proponent of pro purchases being managed in-house. If these are your most important relationships—your influencers—you can’t outsource that to a stranger. ExpertVoice has a pool of pros that they’re saying is up to a million people right now. As a brand, when you join, your product is available to that database on day one. The downside is that you don’t know who they are, you have no control over it, but it instantly turns on a sales channel. If people look the other way, they make more money. That’s a fact. And that works until people like Grassroots wave the flag and say, “OK, this is ridiculous.”
How do you hope ExpertVoice responds to the position paper?
I’m not talking to ExpertVoice. They’re trying to run a business and that’s fine. We have three simple talking points we’re making to brands and our members:
- Our concern is that when brands damage themselves through constant discounting, they are no longer a viable brand in other channels, including specialty.
- Our observations about Expert Voice were made from a review of their own materials and their own data on their own website.
- Grassroots is taking a stance. Brands that support platforms like ExpertVoice, which promote the mass movement of consumer communities to an off-price model, are brands that Grassroots cannot recommend retailers invest in.
So, are you suggesting retailers drop brands affiliated with ExpertVoice?
We are educating people to help them make the choices they need to make. We’re trying to be respectful and we’re trying to give brands time to make the right decision. As one of my members said, “Light up the brands but don’t threaten them for six months. Give them time because we’re not going to turn this around overnight. Everyone can do what they want. Just don’t expect our support of your brand if you work with this group whose sole purpose is to convert massive, non-outdoor communities to an off-price model.”
Are Grassroots members the only retailers impacted?
I don’t feel like we’re just protecting Grassroots retailers. We’re protecting all retailers. We’re protecting Backcountry.com, we’re protecting REI, we’re protecting Dick’s by putting out this message. We’re talking about millions of consumers being converted to a 40 percent-off model.
Anything else to add?
ExpertVoice simply got greedy. It got too big, forcing us to take a stance.
Editor’s note: This article’s subheading has been revised.