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Retailers speak up: Are politics good (or bad) for business?

We asked 11 retailers to weigh in.

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Politics was a big theme for 2017—in our country and in our industry. So many outdoor gear companies stepped up to take very public political stances around public lands. In some cases, it makes the cash register ring. But there are lots of customers out there who want gear companies and gear shops to stick to selling gear, and leave the politics to politicians. 

So, we want to know: When brands get political, does it helps or hurts your business?

We spoke with 11 specialty retail shop owners around the country to hear about their experiences.

Emily White, Co-founder and co-owner of Roads Rivers and Trails in Milford, OH

Emily White of Roads Rivers and TrailsCourtesy

Being political helps. Being part of a greater conversation will always be better than avoiding the conversation. People respond to passion and values, they want a genuine relationship. When vendors or retailers take a political stance, it resonates with those who agree, but also becomes an educational force for those who may not. We too took a political stance this year around Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, and this is what we know: Sales were up. Positive feedback out-numbered negative feedback 50 to 1. Negative feedback was only from those who had never been customers. This, despite us being located in a red county (over 70 percent of the 2016 presidential vote went to Trump).

Terry Lee, CEO of Gear Coop in Costa Mesa, CA

Terry Lee, founder of Gear Coop rock climbing, roped up leaning against a rock wall in green T-shirt
Terry Lee of Gear CoopCourtesy

I think it’s great that companies are taking a stand for what they believe in, and it has not helped or hurt our business. However, it is a shame how polarized the conversation is. Neither side is listening to the other. I think the extremely polarizing politics of today sets a poor example for our children on positive behavior and common decency. It breeds anger, mistrust and hatred. We are better than this. And, we need people to stand up for what we Americans have in common, and work with empathy and compromise where we disagree.

Todd Frank, Owner of The Trailhead in Missoula, MT

Todd Frank of The TrailheadCourtesy

Trump won Montana by 20.5 percent margin, nearly the biggest in the history of Montana presidential elections. One might think in a state so red, brands making a statement about how the administration has treated public lands would hurt our business. But compared to the incredibly predatory tactics employed by all of the vendors’ direct-to-consumer channels, the position brands take on politics has little to do with the success or failure of The Trailhead. Our core customers hate what is happening and appreciate vendors’ positions, which in the end strengthens the relationship between the consumer and the vendor, not between the consumer and the retail shops who support the vendors. The retailer is twisting in the wind, with only a single leading retailer (Patagonia) making any attempt to close the circle with wholesale dealers. The rest are simply attempting to remove the middle man from the relationship.

Brendan Madigan, Owner of Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City, CA

Brendan Madigan. Long haired smiling man in black hoodie standing in a retail shop
Brendan Madigan of Alpenglow SportsCourtesy

Regardless of the impact on my business, taking political stances on issues that effect our industry is just the flat-out right thing for brands to do. Too often we place an exorbitant amount emphasis on the bottom line. It’s safe to say the majority of the outdoor tribe has been in some way defined by mountain pursuits, and to not fight for public land would be morally reprehensible. I think retailers have an obligation to activate on political and environmental fronts within their communities. Larger companies with deeper pockets have an obligation to fight the good fight on a national level. If your business fights for what it believes in, the sales will always come holistically. And if they don’t and you fail, at least you did it by living by what you believe in.

Betsy Bertram, Marketing manager of Townsend Bertram & Company

Betsy Bertram in a black Arc'teryx rain jacket out on the trail
Betsy Bertram of Townsend Bertram & CompanyCourtesy

Brands taking a political stance has helped our business. We see it less as brands taking a political stance and more as brands standing up for the planet. When brands advocate for public lands, conservation initiatives, and sustainable business practices, it educates people about what it means to be a conscious consumer and gives credibility to locally owned adventure outfitters like Townsend Bertram & Company as trusted retailers making a positive impact. 

Wes Allen, Owner of Sunlight Sports in Cody, WY

Wes Allen | Black and white headshot against wood
Wes Allen of Sunlight SportsCourtesy

It’s extremely complicated. Brands can make impacts, and there are fights worth fighting. But we see danger, too. Public lands protections should be a slam dunk, but the rhetoric got divisive, strident, and too focused on Bear’s Ears when the issues are so much bigger. That one hurt our business with Patagonia because we have a lot of customers and friends who reacted negatively to how that came across. So, are we going to play to “the base” or build bridges with our stances? We need to be very careful.

Dave Polivy, Founder & owner of Tahoe Mountain Sports in Truckee, CA

Dave Polivy of Tahoe Mountain SportsCourtesy

I don’t think it affects my individual business if a brand takes a stand, but I will say that Patagonia sales have been slowly increasing for us. I can’t directly connect that to their political stances, but I suspect it is. I do think brands should be taking political stances on policies that affect their user base because as a business, they can bring a loud, powerful voice to issues. I would like to see more brands actually stand for something, anything, other than just sales and marketing.

Dana Davis, Co-owner of Summit Hut in Tucson, AZ

Dana Davis of Summit HutCourtesy

Tucson customers have yet to acknowledge a shift in vendors taking public political stances and I have not seen a correlation to an increase or decrease in sales. Summit Hut tries to be very inclusive and is somewhat “quiet” on voicing political opinions. Arizona is a “red” state while Tucson leans “blue”, located an hour from the Mexican border, surrounded by various tribal lands and active mining communities; strong, outspoken political stances can be tricky at best, devastating to one’s bottom-line at worst. Vendors communicating their point of view helps Summit Hut indirectly support shared views while not deviating from our neutral culture.

Ed McAlister, President of River Sports Outfitters in TN

Ed McCalister of River Sports Outfitters
Ed McAlister of River Sports OutfittersCourtesy

Neither.These issues do not come up on the sales floor, nor should they. For me, they only come up in conversation with people within the industry. I’m sure public lands issues are on the radar for some of our customers, but it’s not a floor topic. And I hope it doesn’t become one.

Ben Rockis, Owner of Backcountry Experience in Durango, CO

Ben Rockis of Backcountry ExperienceCourtesy

Anything dealing with a political stance is a challenging question. It’s never right nor wrong but rather a discussion. I believe that bringing knowledge or awareness to public lands issues will increase the usage of them—for better or worse—and therefore increase business. Especially for a service, knowledge-oriented retail business. However, if brands take a political stance, they have a responsibility to educate the public correctly on the issue and not grandstand on emotions.

Mike Donohue, Co-owner of Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, VT

Mike Donohue, Outdoor Gear Exchange
Mike Donohue of Outdoor Gear ExchangeCaveman Collective

When we take a political stance, we do so because we feel the issue is core to our business. All outdoor businesses should be involved with supporting the conservation of wild places and creation of outdoor spaces. We also need to support the nonprofits working for these and other environmental causes. While there may be some marketing benefits for doing so, more importantly, it protects the places we play and the landscapes that inspire us. Joining the Conservation Alliance is a great way to start.