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Behind the rise in branded outdoor retail stores

A behind-the-scenes look at why outdoor brands are opening up new, in-person retail locations—even after the pandemic prompted a surge in online sales.


Last March, we all got really comfortable living life online. Even my three-year-old added “Zoom” to his vocabulary—and not in reference to trucks. As for all the online shopping we’d already been doing? We did a whole lot more of it. In fact, 2020 online spending was up 44 percent year over year, according to research organization Digital Commerce 360.

And yet, this summer, many brands that have long succeeded in online, direct-to-consumer and partner-retailer sales (e.g., REI) are opening up new brick-and-mortar locations. Their reasoning: Having a physical location will increase brand awareness among new customers and garner further trust with current customers. Oh, and they hope the stores will do better than break even.

Read more: Boulder, Colorado, is a branded retail hotbed.

Case in point: This summer, online giant Backcountry is putting its money where the customer is and opening two new retail locations in Park City, Utah, and Boulder, Colorado. The brand will rely on lessons from its 2019 pop-up presence in New York City—namely, that a store needs to offer more than just “one-and-done transactions,” says Chris Purkey, senior VP of customer experience and head of retail for Backcountry. To do that, the brick-and-mortar locations will have experts (dubbed Gearheads) on site to help customers plan trips, host events like film screenings, and organize volunteer service days with local nonprofits. Ultimately, retail locations will allow the brand to take a page from the indie gear shop playbook and add value in a way that a stand-alone website can’t.

It’s about meeting customers where they are—and that’s omnichannel, Purkey explains. “In recent years, there’s been a convergence of retail models,” he says. “You’ve got pure-play, e-commerce retailers like us now launching into brick and mortar, and traditional retailers investing heavily in digital capabilities.”

Black Diamond, which has historically sold either direct to consumers or through partner retailers, is also slowly expanding its own retail presence. Since 2019, the brand has opened flagship locations in its hometown of Salt Lake City and nearby Park City, as well as in Big Sky, Montana. Black Diamond will open a store in Boulder, Colorado, this July, and has three others in the works.

All of Black Diamond’s stores take an aesthetic approach to community integration: The Big Sky site features local tie-ins like Montana barnwood, and the Park City shop has a memorial to a hometown athlete. Says Devin Gillette, Black Diamond’s director of retail, “It’s not the quick, plug-and-play retail store where you’ll walk in and it will be like, ‘Oh, it’s a Black Diamond store.’ It’s going to be like, ‘Wow, I really want to go see another store because they’re all so different and unique and match the community.’”

While brands seem sincere in their desire to be a part of the surrounding communities, there’s considerable business strategy behind branded retail, too. Having a physical presence in an outdoor hub like Park City, Big Sky, or Boulder puts a brand front and center with outdoor-minded consumers. And custom retail shops allow brands to “tell their story from A to Z,” says Steve Stout, vice president of retail for brick-and-mortar veteran Fjällräven. Since 2010, Fjällräven has opened 33 North American retail locations.

Read more: Does branded retail help—or crush—local independent retailers?

The sites serve as a vital, in-person touchpoint with the consumer, one that has allowed the Swedish brand to explain its origins, mission, and premium price point, Stout says. “Those questions have to be answered along the way, and you have a much better chance of doing that in your own brand store.”

Brick and mortar has been part of Stio’s strategy from day one. The apparel brand opened its first retail location in 2012 in its hometown of Jackson, Wyoming, to coincide with its website launch and first catalog mailing. “I was a little nervous [that we would be perceived as] just another catalog company out there,” says Stio founder and CEO Steve Sullivan. After all, anyone can set up a website. Opening the retail store was a strategic move to establish legitimacy. “I think it added a lot of weight for a new, direct-to-consumer brand to have that,” Sullivan says.

That proof of legitimacy is a vital step in building trust with consumers—especially when a brand is selling gear that lives literally depend on, Gillette says, referring to the climbing safety equipment Black Diamond is known for. “This really strong trust relationship comes naturally with having human interaction and connection. And what better way to do that than having a brick-and-mortar store that provides community engagement?”

Community members welcome those efforts. “We’ve had such an explosion of interest in the outdoors and so many people going out who are totally new,” says Katie Massey, a Black Diamond fan, avid rock climber, and 10-year Boulder resident who frequently attends local retail events. She’s concerned about overuse of local trails and appreciates the kind of community that builds around retail shops—even branded ones. “It helps spread the word about the right ethics outside,” she says. “[These stores] help people get into the outdoors in a responsible way.”

Some local shops hope for a symbiotic relationship with their branded neighbors. Sally Gilman, owner of Boulder specialty climbing retailer Rock and Resole, says increased awareness of brands like Black Diamond just makes it more likely that her customers will recognize the brand in her store. She also points out that her shop may be better suited to serve local customers compared to the new stores on the tourist hub of Pearl Street. “We have different niches that serve the climbing community,” she says. “Truly, I want to have a spirit of collaboration.”

Shelley Dunbar, owner of the iconic Boulder store Neptune Mountaineering, agrees that retailers on Pearl will cater more to out-of-towners. She adds, though, that the brands she carries could have provided her a courtesy heads-up that they’re moving to her neighborhood to allow her to adjust her orders. “It’s better for brands to be up-front and transparent ahead of time so that we can adapt,” Dunbar says.

Cohabitating and, in some cases, collaborating with local shops offer additional  benefits to brick-and-mortar branded stores. But the drawback? It’s expensive. Personnel and real estate cost a pretty penny, especially in prime locations like Pearl Street where lease rates can be so high that stores become more about marketing than moneymaking. In these cases, “if you break even, you’re stoked,” Sullivan says, though he’s quick to note Stio’s stores have always ended up in the black.

As for the timing? The pandemic had some impact on Backcountry’s retail strategy,  Purkey says, but it never left higher-ups hesitant. “If anything, because of quarantine, there’s pent-up desire to create epic memories outside, to create human connection,” Purkey says. “We’re probably better positioned to do this, and do it in a way that will be received by our consumer positively, now more than ever.”

This story first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of our print magazine. Read the full issue here.