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Bobbi Gale Bensman has spent more than three decades working within the industry. She started back in 1981 at Desert Mountain Sports in Phoenix, Arizona, while climbing professionally at the same time. She retired from the climbing circuit in 1999, but continued building her outdoor resume with sales jobs at The North Face and La Sportiva.
Today, she’s an independent sales rep with the Rincon Group in Boulder, Colorado, covering the Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico territory for brands including Mammut and Darn Tough. Bensman’s history has taught her to fight for the specialty retailer in a market where brands and shops can have different priorities.
Without retailers, she tells us, the top outdoor brands wouldn’t be where they are today. So, how can the two sides get back on the same page to help the customer find the best gear? Bensman has the no-nonsense answers that every brand needs to hear.
How are you managing the relationship between brands and retailers as more companies are selling direct to consumer (DTC)? And what can brands do to smooth over those tensions?
Bobbi Gale Bensman: This is a very tricky and relevant topic now. Some of the brands I work with don’t sell DTC, which has been great, but I don’t know how long that will last. With others that do, there have been major complaints from retailers, especially if the brand is running sales. I go to bat for my retailers, because brands come and go, but the retailers are in it for the long haul. If I don’t have their trust, I don’t have anything.
I don’t think the brands should ever discount their products when selling direct, or even offer free shipping, and compete against the very stores that got them where they are today. Their websites need to have a solid dealer locator, where consumers can shop locally.
How are your best retailers keeping up with the changing retail landscape?
BGB: A lot have seen success by ramping up their community events with speakers and slideshows, local environmental cleanups, ladies’ nights, pint nights, and customer- appreciation nights. You have to find creative ways to get people into the store. Offering great customer service is key. I don’t think you can have a store and just expect people to come because they want to buy something. Shoppers need to have a wonderful experience so they’ll come back and tell their friends.
What lessons from pro climbing still apply to your job?
BGB: I was nomadic as a pro climber, traveling from climbing areas to competitions all over the world, so I’m no stranger to “windshield time.” It was a natural progression to get behind the wheel to visit accounts all over my territory.
When I was a pro climber, I also had to sell myself to my sponsors and keep up my duties to them and make sure I represented them to the best of my ability. This directly translates to the relationships I have built with my accounts as well as with the brands I represent.
Goals were very high on my priority list and remain so today. I have sales goals to meet for my brands, business growth goals, and building my account base. This equates to the goals I had as a pro climber. I attended a certain number of competitions, and rock climbing grades and climbs that were imperative to my status as a sponsored athlete. Back then, there was no social media, and you actually had to climb, train, and compete to stay relevant.
What’s your travel schedule like? And how are you doing bringing on new accounts?
BGB: At the busy times of the year, like early December, I can be on the road 20 out of 30 days, but then it slows down. Throughout the year, it’s about 130 days total. We’ve brought on a lot of new retail accounts for our brands, particularly as the industry’s gear appeals to a wider swath of the population. That includes farm-and-ranch, running, climbing gym, and hunt stores. We have to be persistent. I usually find that you have to try about nine times to get a new account before moving on. With some of our brands, we have a very limited dealer base, and our distribution is mature [with consistent, longtime retailers]. Other brands are expanding rapidly. With Darn Tough, we opened up in 40 new stores in 2017 and 60 in 2016.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry over the past three decades?
BGB: You used to have to visit a specialty retailer to buy your products. Now with Amazon and the internet, things have really changed from a distribution standpoint. People can buy climbing gear, toothpaste, and dog food without leaving their homes. Another big change is larger-format retailers, i.e., REI and DICK’S Sporting Goods. REI has expanded into dozens of markets, sometimes pushing out smaller retailers. Consumers have so many options now. Fifteen years ago, there was Smartwool, Fox River, Thor-Lo; now there are 30-plus sock brands. And sporting goods brands have entered the outdoor arena, adding to the competition.
This article originally appeared in Day 3 of The Daily (winter 2018).