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Tom Barney reflects on his Retail Immersion at Backcountry Experience

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Tom Barney, former CEO of Osprey Packs, tackles the sales floor. His involvement with Backcountry Experience has taught him invaluable lessons about retail, and he encourages other executives to take a break and learn.


Tom Barney spent more than 15 years at Osprey Packs before leaving his position as CEO last year. Instead of going right into another executive role, he has been taking some time to work at the retailer Backcountry Experience, in Durango, Colorado, to learn what it’s like to be on the sales floor today. Barney has been reporting on his experiences for SNEWS as part of “The Retail Immersion Project.” During his second week on the floor, he told us the experience had already been invaluable.

1. Why did you want to take a break from the executive life to work in a retail store?

I felt I was lacking a real knowledge about how outdoor specialty stores were operating today. There is a gap between shops and vendors, who each have the same goal (to sell gear), but different specific needs and challenges around that. I decided I wanted to act as a bit of a liaison. So I’ve been observing and taking good notes, interviewing owners, buyers, and staff, and trying to be fair, like a reporter, in bringing forward what I’ve learned.

The most surprising thing I’ve learned is the complexity of retail. Shops are far more than places to display and sell goods. The shop I’m working in becomes such a gathering point throughout the day for people like reps, customers, guides, and browsers. I’m surprised at the sense of community that’s been generated at Backcountry Experience. I’ve also underestimated what it takes to manage and grow a store. (Watch a recap video of his time on the sales floor here.)

2. What do you think vendors should change in order to help specialty retail succeed?

My suspicion is that vendors are currently focused on the classic omnichannel equation, and they’ve likely been selling at wholesale to outdoor stores across the country for decades. I would remind vendors in particular that they need to design selling tools for these invaluable retailers.

Some age-old problems or challenges that you think might be worked out at this point simply aren’t. There’s a greater need for proper hangtags, for example, with well-printed UPC codes and clear tech specs. And product needs packaging that communicates and merchandises and can be reclosed again and resold. I can say the same about fixturing. It needs to really communicate and be a selling aid, and it can’t be just a side project for the marketing team. Lots of fixtures are poorly made and don’t merchandise the product very well. I know it sounds basic, but this is frankly the daily struggle of a specialty store, and vendors can help them by providing better on-floor materials.

3. What should specialty retail know about the vendor side? 

While retail is more complicated than you think, I suspect that retailers underestimate how complicated it is to develop and grow and responsibly run a brand. Every company is almost magical the way everything comes together and ships on time. We’re all trying our best and every aspect is complicated, including distribution on the part of the vendors. While it’s not a solution, I think you need an awareness that it’s all complicated. Spend some time on the phone and dig deep into these issues.

Barney helps a customer during his Retail Immersion at Backcountry Experience. // Photo: Courtesy
Barney helps a customer during his Retail Immersion at Backcountry Experience. // Photo: Courtesy

4. Would you recommend other executives do this, too?

Absolutely. It may sound a bit like a joyride or a gap filler, but for me it’s serious business. I’m working here 115 hours over five weeks, which is a lot of listening and learning. I would really encourage leaders of the vendor community to follow suit. Maybe they don’t have five weeks, but spend at least a week. Not just a day or quick stop by, but three or four or five days. Then, report on your perspectives to your own companies and to the greater community. I would love to see couple of CEO types get on the floor of REI, too. If you’re going to be designing product and merchandising materials, it makes hell of a lot of sense to be on the floor.

5. Tell us about your new venture with Kristin Carpenter-Ogden, Verde Strategy.

Kristin and I will be providing clients with strategic growth solutions. We’re focusing on channel management, product development, and sales issues, especially around the direct-to-consumer challenge. Verde Strategy will build directly on my 15 years with Osprey Packs and even my fascinating experience working specialty retail at Backcountry Experience. Both of these great organizations, as well as most of our clients, face the very growth issues Kristin and I will tackle.

–Kassondra Cloos

This article was originally published on p. 61 in the Day 2 issue of Outdoor Retailer Daily Winter Market 2017.