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Malcom Daly was a part of Neptune Mountaineering long before he started to work there.
Literally, one of his frostbitten toes preserved in a jar was part of Gary Neptune’s famed mountaineering museum in the Boulder-based specialty retail store. Daly lost the toe in a 1999 mountaineering accident in Alaska that shattered his legs.
On his web site for his Core Shot Strategy consulting business, he jokingly describes himself as “a middle-aged, post cardiac, multiple amputee with a head injury. Most people in the outdoor industry know the man — he founded and ran Great Trango Holdings, which manufactures Trango and Stonewear as well as imports other brands. And he has played a positive role with numerous nonprofits, serving as a founder and executive director of Paradox Sports, getting disabled folks outdoors from 2007-2011, as well as stumping for the creation of a Greater Canyonlands National Monument.
So what’s his new career at Neptune Mountaineering? Sales clerk — “working three days a week at $10/hour and enjoying every minute of it,” Daly tells SNEWS.
You have been an athlete, you have run a climbing manufacturing and importing company, you have worked for nonprofits. What brought you to retail?
I started out in retail so I’m really just closing a circle. I travelled to Fort Collins [Colo.] in the fall of 1973 for college. I was already a climber so I quickly hooked up with that crowd through the local climbing shop, The Mountain Shop. It was owned by Phil Teeter and located off of Laurel Street in an alley. Damn store wasn’t 300 square feet but Phil managed to cram a wood-burning stove into it. Going in there was like what every tourist based “country store” can only dream of. Local boys sitting around a pot-bellied stove, whittling wood (really) and swapping lies. My dad was sending me $5 per week in allowance as an excuse to write a weekly letter. I’d take that down to the shop and buy two carabiners every week. To me, the retail store was the portal and the hub of the local community. It was where I’d meet climbers and skiers, learn about the gear and the sport and, importantly, it was where we’d plan our dream trips.
How is your experience running a brand informing your new life in retail?
I’m slowly wrapping my brain around this one. To me, a brand is just the pot-bellied stove around which the tribes gather. It dosen’t matter whether it’s a personal brand defined by a common self-image (think beanie-headed boulderers or the ski town Carhart crowd), an activity defined by a difficult challenge (base jumpers) or something that is built by a company trying to sell more stuff. Chouinard is building a brand around the responsible corporation, Arc’teryx around technical design and Icebreaker around merino wool. My challenge in a retail environment is to quickly determine which brand the customer is affiliated with at the moment (interesting people have many brand affiliations) and say, do or show them something that demonstrates that I “get” their brand. If I’m successful, I get to sit around their pot-belly stove and begin to help them with their needs.
What about the reverse? Are there things you have learned from being in retail that could have helped you when you were a vendor to these retailers?
I designed and built products for customers, not for retailers. Technology driven design is a false promise that rams too much product into the pipeline, confuses customers and keeps the close-out and used gear stores in business. It’s a rare customer who comes in asking for new technology. Customers walk in to a store looking to fill a need, solve a problem or brand themselves. This did not make my life easy as a manufacturer. Trade show times were tough; buyers want to see what’s new and if you didn’t have new stuff — every six months — they didn’t want to talk. And then they’d forget about the old stuff. Sometimes I’d spend the entire trade show appointment discussing the packaging. It’s a razor’s edge to walk and I did a lot of bleeding.
What keeps customers coming into a brick-and-mortar store?
The pot-bellied stove. Seriously — it’s pretty hard to feel any warmth through an Internet connection. If you walk in to a store staffed by uniformed, minimum waged, clone-like kids who have to read the specs off the packaging when you ask them what belay device is best for trad climbing, you’ll lose that customer to the Internet every time. The Internet thrives on specs, comparison charts and articles on the “10 Best Whatever”. But you can’t fit boots on the Internet and nobody at Amazon is ever going to ask you you how your trip to Cedar Mesa was. Our best customers come in, already Internet educated and completely spec’d out. They know that crap already. Shit, I’m sounding like Gary (Neptune). My job is connect with them, feel their pain, share their joy and, hopefully be asked to sit at their campfire. Only then can I hope to hook them up with gear for their next adventure.
I am blown away by the energy and psych of the current Neptune’s staff. We will spend hours with a single customer, working for the perfect boot fit or selecting and fitting a pack. Nordstrom’s “Personal Shoppers” have nothing but envy over Neptune’s employees and there is simply no such thing on the Internet, despite the “Live Chat” attempts.
What type of input does new owner Backwoods have in a store like Neptune? How do you reassure customers that it’s the same store… but better?
We’re still on the learning curve. Backwoods has never bought another store and Neptune has never sold themselves before. Right after the sale, Jenn Mull, the new owner, was in Boulder and we met for lunch. Her biggest goal was to not fuck it up. My two recommendations? Improve the lighting and take down all the T&A posters and related crap in the back. Perhaps the biggest challenge has been the computer system. At the same time that the company’s merged, Backwoods did a computer software conversion. I’m glad I missed that but things are getting better. I can now check inventory on the computer. I no longer have to yell at someone in the back to check to see if we have a 38.5 in a LaSportiva Women’s Miura Velcro. Backwoods has been around just as long as Neptune, since 1973. I met Mike Burns, Lew and Jenn Mull in the early 80’s when I was a Latok rep and Backwoods was my second best account after Neptune. Jeff Lowe and I used to go out there and do clinics for the stores. Lew Mull’s partner was Hap Klopp who went on to start The North Face. Backwoods has been just as specialty as Neptune’s ever was, but it means different things for people who live in Wichita and Austin than it does for people who live in Boulder. Many of the Backwoods stores have fly fishing departments that are every bit as technical as our climbing and ski departments and their customers live for ultralight backpacking. There are amazing similarities and we are learning to speak and understand each others’ language.
What stuff on the shelves gets you excited?
I love things that show real problem solving innovation. There is too much stuff out there that expresses what we can do rather than what we should do. A wood fired camp stove that charges your cell phone? Really? The technology needs to be taken to Africa where they have fires going all day and there’s no electricity, not into the American backcountry. The flip side of that is the new cooking systems. Stoves, fuel and pots that weight less than a pound, freeze dried food that weighs nothing and actually tastes good are great applications of technology that make sense. That’s what gets me excited.
Any customer interactions that have given you faith in the future of specialty retail?
Every day I see eyes light up when I give a customer a bit of information that comes from experience, not from marketing brochures.
I think the industry needs to take a hard and honest look at how much crap we produce. Marmot offers 62 styles of gloves. Scarpa offers 20 styles of ski boots. And Patagonia offers god-knows how many weights, thicknesses and styles of Capilene. To paraphrase Chouinard, one of the worst offenders, “Do we really need all that crap?