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ROTY winner Midwest Mountaineering keeps close ties to Minneapolis community

Celebrating its 40th year in business this year, Midwest Mountaineering, the recipient of the 2010 SNEWS/Backpacker Retailer of the Year overall award, has excelled because its staff members are always working to build ties with the people of Minneapolis. SNEWS has the tips that help Midwest Mountaineering stand out.

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This past summer, Rod Johnson, president of Midwest Mountaineering ( in Minneapolis, Minn., celebrated his 60th birthday during a three-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. In October, the Minneapolis Star Tribune website published a story about Johnson’s trek, detailing his experiment of carrying a pack that weighed just nine pounds. (Click here to read the article.)

The story clearly conveyed Johnson’s knowledge of outdoor gear and his passion for exploring. But it also achieved something else — it put a face on Midwest Mountaineering, giving the people of Minneapolis a personal look at the store’s owner. Very simply, a business has a better chance of success if people in the local community feel a more personal connection to it.

Celebrating its 40th year in business this year, Midwest Mountaineering, the recipient of the 2010 SNEWS®/Backpacker Retailer of the Year overall award and the best-in-class award for community involvement (click here to read “Announcing: 2010 SNEWS/Backpacker Retailer of the Year winners” – photo right, L-to-R: Michael Hodgson of SNEWS, Jon Dorn of Backpacker Magazine and Rod Johnson of Midwest Mountaineering), has excelled because its staff members are always working to build personal bonds with the people of Minneapolis. Through entertaining programs, effective communication and solid salesmanship, they remind locals that the authority on the outdoors lies right in their own backyard.

Connecting with the community

Each year, Rod Johnson and his wife Sharon Johnson embark on a variety of adventures, traveling to exotic locales like Mount Kilimanjaro and Patagonia. They do this in part to scratch their own itch for adventure travel, but they also use these adventures to test gear, gain travel knowledge and inspire the people of Minneapolis.

“It helps establish the fact that you know what you’re doing, because you’re out using the gear,” Rod told SNEWS. “You’re not just some executive pushing some paper around.”

Rod and Sharon do presentations of their journeys each year at the store’s Outdoor Adventure Expo events. Held each spring and fall on the store grounds, the expos include dozens of free seminars on adventure travel and include a presentation of the Banff Mountain Film Festival International Tour. While some of the presentations concern extreme expeditions to places like Mount Everest, much of the expo is intended to help the broader community enjoy the outdoors.

Both Rod and Sharon share the details of their trips and offer advice to others interested in visiting the places they’ve explored. “There are a lot of customers who get interested and want to go, too,” said Rod. “We tell them how they can do it, so we’re actually getting more people out there.”

While Rod’s extreme solo trips — such as the PCT hike — might appeal to some expo attendees, he said the trips with Sharon are especially popular. “Some people can’t necessarily do some of the more extreme things I do. But if they see that Sharon and I can do it, it sends a message that most couples can do it.”

Certainly, the Expo serves Midwest Mountaineering’s core mission of sharing passion for the outdoors, but it also strengthens the store’s position in the local community. “If everything else is equal, most people would like to buy from a local business,” Rod told SNEWS. “It’s just continually reminding people that you live in their community — that you’re one of them.”

Offering good advice

To further connect with the people of Minneapolis, Sharon produces an advice column that runs in the Southwest Journal, a paper that is mailed directly to all houses in the Minneapolis lake district.

“I try to give people content that points them to local activities they might be interested in,” said Sharon. “I try to give families things they can do outside that are fun, easy and inexpensive.” She said a key to the column’s success is that she keeps the tone casual, as if she’s speaking to a friend, and avoids making it sound like a pure marketing pitch. 

“People get barraged with so many email and marketing messages that say, ‘Here’s a piece of gear; here’s the price. Buy it from us.’ I don’t want to do that,” she told SNEWS. “Of course, we’re in business to sell gear and make money, but if they get outdoors they’ll find us and buy from us, and they’ll be glad we clued them into the activity.”

Rod added that the column does include things that will drive store traffic. “It usually ends with something specific to bring the people into the store, like a waxing clinic, or climbing lesson for women…one of our many monthly clinics,” he said.

Rod said he actually pays to have the column placed in the paper, and also runs in the same issue a separate, traditional ad that features a product or sales promotion. “This is expensive, but it’s worth it,” he said.

Digital promotions

While Midwest Mountaineering puts significant effort into marketing through print media (it mails Expo promotions to 38,000 people), it has recently shifted more focus to electronic media.

The company sends about 23,000 people a monthly email newsletter with content similar to that included in the advice column, though it usually contains additional promotional offers. Rod said that a critical element of the newsletter is a coupon for 50 percent off a purchase, and he periodically offers a free stainless steel water bottle with a purchase. “It gives the customer something they can go right out and use immediately,” he said.

Rod said the newsletter is also a primary tool to keep customers up to date on the store’s schedule of clinics for the public. “We usually have about three clinics a week,” he said.

One great advantage of electronic media is that the store simply saves money on its promotions. “We’re spending less and less on postage and printing, and doing more with email,” said Rudi Hargesheimer, manager of Midwest Mountaineering. “It’s dirt cheap compared to printing and postage.” He said that email allows the store to save $12,000 each time it runs its July sales promotion and December sales promotion.

As many outdoor businesses are realizing, Facebook provides another cost-effective way of communicating with the public, and Midwest Mountaineering has about 2,000 fans on its Facebook page.

“We’re still learning, and we have a lot to learn with social media,” said Sharon. “The major aim is to build community and to keep our presence important in the community.”

She said the great advantage of Facebook is that it allows her to interact effectively with consumers who want quick communication. “They can place questions about what we have coming in, or whether we have a particular item,” Sharon said. Plus, the page allows her to build community around the brand, allowing Sharon to “shine a light on issues that are out there in the rest of the world, like the U.S. winning medals in cross-country skiing, a sport we’re involved in.”

She said she hopes that Facebook fans will tell their friends about the store, and increase the consumer base. As of now, Sharon said she’s not able to calculate how Facebook directly affects store traffic, but she anticipates that this will be possible in the future. “It’s clear that email promotions increase traffic in the store, so I expect that the same will happen with Facebook,” she said.

Investing in people

While Facebook and other electronic media benefit Midwest Mountaineering, the shop’s position in the community depends greatly on the quality of the staff.

“We’ve been doing more staff training and more manager training to offer a better level of customer service,” said Rod.

To get ready for the summer season, the store will have four hours of training every Tuesday night in March. While many of these sessions will focus on product knowledge, more emphasis is being placed on selling skills.

Rod said he especially likes the sales training programs offered by The Mann Group ( “There are a lot of different sales training programs out there. But the thing I like about Mann’s training is it gives people a chance to actually practice some of the techniques, instead of just hearing a lecture,” said Rod.

Midwest Mountaineering is also beefing up education for its managers and supervisors.

In February, managers and department heads participated in training by the company Human Nature ( Rod said a basic tenet of the program is that an employee’s satisfaction depends largely on that person working well with a direct supervisor. “The primary reason people quit is they don’t get along well with their direct supervisor,” said Rod. “Your staff is extremely important, and it’s critical that you make the right hiring decisions.”

Rod realizes that talented, motivated employees create the greatest bonds with consumers, and Midwest Mountaineering has not only survived, but thrived, for 40 years because people feel a special connection to the store and its staff.

Special connections as simple as a birthday card, for example. Midwest Mountaineering still sends customers a card and coupon on their birthday. “A lot of people really like getting that birthday greeting in the mail,” she said. “Just the other day a customer said, ‘Thank you for this birthday card. It’s the only one I got, including my four children and six grandchildren.’”

Most of us won’t get to enjoy our birthday on the Pacific Crest Trail. But sometimes it just takes a card to make us feel special.

To read about the other ROTY winners from this year and in 2009, click here.

–Marcus Woolf