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Opinion: For your own good, I can’t sell you this carabiner

Are retailers responsible for their customers' safety, especially when those customers are untrained novices?

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“I’d rather not pay that much for a harness; I’ll make something else work.”

My expression changed from shock to concern when the customer followed that statement with, “I didn’t realize ropes were so expensive. I’ve got some lying around I can use.”

The customer, who was hoping to experiment with rock climbing for the first time, left without buying anything. I still worry about that person’s safety years later.

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I’ve worked in a small Ohio outfitter, Roads Rivers and Trails, for several years. I’m not an adventure guide or trainer in any outdoor sport, but I know how to recreate responsibly. I know that climbing, cycling, kayaking, and backpacking all hold inherent risks. And I’ve seen firsthand how, in the absence of proper mentorship, novices can make dangerous choices, like trying to rappel on paracord or treating grigris as hands-free belay devices. 

The popularity of outdoor adventure, from climbing to backpacking to kayaking, has risen exponentially in recent years. In sports traditionally explored through mentor-apprentice relationships, this rapid growth has led to newcomers relying on internet videos and their own experimentation to break in. And that’s a problem. As an outdoor industry professional, it leads me to an important question: When there is no mentor involved, does responsibility for a beginner’s safety fall to the retailer selling him or her gear?

In my opinion, from both a business and a moral standpoint, the best customer service sometimes means withholding a sale. When dealing with novices who are set on doing things their own way despite potential consequences, sales associates can, at the very least, perform basic competency checks and put a small buffer into an otherwise purely hazardous situation. 

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A caveat: When customers are a threat to themselves, it doesn’t fall on sales associates to teach them proper techniques. That’s what guides and mentors are for. But preventing customers from harming themselves is very much within the responsibility of retail professionals, based simply on the nature of the job. Even if the retailer can’t be held liable for equipment misuse, our unwritten code of ethics dictates that we ensure every customer is aware of the risks they’re taking.

In a perfect world, of course, we’d each be responsible for ourselves. But that’s a burden not everyone can handle. In a rapidly growing industry, we can’t turn a blind eye to bad choices when we, the experienced, know better. On the other hand, retailers can’t—or shouldn’t—be gatekeepers to recreation.

There may be no right answer to this dilemma, but we certainly need to talk about it as the industry welcomes more newcomers each year. The million-dollar question, at the end of the day, is this: How do we ensure the survival of our businesses, the free will of buyers, and the safety of adventure seekers simultaneously?