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ROTY winner Appalachian Outdoors proves if it’s good for the community, it’s good for business

State College, Pa.-based Appalachian Outdoors snagged its second SNEWS/Backpacker Retailer of the Year award earlier in 2011 – this time for "Best in Community." The store won a ROTY in 2010 in the "Growth of Outdoor Sports" category.

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Geoff Brugler, owner of Appalachian Outdoors in State College, Pa., was taught by his father at a young age that giving back to the community is important. So it’s no surprise that giving back is part of Brugler’s success.

The commitment to community helped Appalachian Outdoors ( win its second SNEWS/Backpacker Magazine’s Retailer of the Year award – this time for “Best in Community.” Read the story announcing all the 2011 ROTY Award winners here.

“It’s just a really, really good feeling to win an award where you’re recognized nationally … by your customers and your peers and the reps you work with,” Brugler told SNEWS.

In 2010, Appalachian Outdoors won a ROTY in the “Growth of Outdoor Sports” category for it’s involvement in Pennsylvania State University’s Orion program, which introduces college freshman to the outdoors.

Continuing its community outreach in 2011, Brugler’s store has sponsored a number of community events including its Free University outreach program, Soles4Souls and the store’s Ladies Night event.

Ladies Night is something unique to Appalachian Outdoors. It’s a chance for female outdoor enthusiasts to get together, learn something, have some drinks and food and network with one another. It’s also a night to show off the store, Brugler said.

“We have several hundred women in the store, and we have a band – it’s a really cool event,” Brugler explained. “People love that they can come together, see a presentation, and hang out with friends.”

The most recent Ladies Night on June 2 featured custom sports bra fittings for attendees and raised funds for the local Women’s Resource Center.

Brugler said he also likes to support organizations that are committed to getting people outdoors and preserving local land such as Clearwater Conservancy, which aims to purchase private land to convert to public land. The store also supports the Banff and Patagonia Wild & Scenic Environmental Film Festivals in addition to several local bicycling and running races.

Above and Beyond

For store employees, being involved in the community isn’t just about handing over a check. Appalachian Outdoors buyer Sarah Motter said that sometimes employees go out with customers on hikes simply to show them around.

“It’s not something we do for pay,” Motter said. “There are a lot of places to go around here, and we take them out and educate them about the forests and about the land.”

Personal attention like that is good for business because it shows customers that employees genuinely care for customers, Motter added. “I’m really proud to be part of a group of people that genuinely cares about our community.”

She advises other small business to “Be really good to your customers,” she said. “You’re not just a sales person. I think that’s one of the most key things – think about how you would like to be treated and what’s most important to you.”

Despite competition from big box stores like Dick’s Sporting Goods, Appalachian Outdoors has stayed in business because it is “one-of-a-kind,” Motter said.

The store is unique because employees post pictures of their customers on their treks, send thank you notes after a customer makes a purchase, and send letters to see how the gear is working out. This has probably helped the store sell items just as well as its website does, Brugler said.

“We’re showing really substantial growth in the brick-and-mortar store,” Brugler said, adding that he hopes to “continue to become a really good online supplier but maintain a business in this town that people respect and trust.”

Brugler’s advice to other retailers who want to build that trust with customers is to do research and find out what other businesses are doing.

“We sign up for newsletters from other stores – not necessarily in our industry,” Brugler said. “Come up with your own things but see what other people are doing and put your own twist on it.”

Though community involvement is key to good business for Appalachian Outdoors it’s really just its way to express gratitude, which, according to operations manager George Schettler, is important to the store “Because (the community) has given us so much.”

The Business of Community

Brugler opened the store in 1974 after graduating from Pennsylvania State University.

“I couldn’t find a job so I worked as a waiter and a bicycle mechanic and scraped together some money,” Brugler said. As a biology major he didn’t have any business experience, he said. But that didn’t stop him from taking out a $45,000 loan to start a business with the slogan, “For the serious backpacker and outdoorsmen.” It wasn’t long before Brugler realized that slogan was limiting his business, so he began to expand and sell different things.

Though Brugler said he’s come close to going out of business a few times, he said he finds keeping close relationships with his customers and community have proved successful. He began reaching out to the community shortly after opening his doors in 1974. One of his first ventures was being a board member for the Centre County Youth Services Bureau, which provides services for disadvantaged youth such as transitional living and parenting programs in State College, Pa. He served as a Scout Master for the Cub Scouts in the same town and has raised funds for local Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America programs.

Brugler said that the store’s events calendar is pretty full so he will probably not take on too many new community initiatives in the future but his goal is to “keep improving on the events that we do and making them bigger,” he said.

The recent ROTY award win makes him and the store’s 45 employees “feel like we can go toe-to-toe with the big guys, and we feel really good about what we do and how we do it.”

“My goal eventually is to create a foundation and endowment that would live on and generate money every year to donate to some of these causes,” Brugler said.

“It’s important” to give back, he added, “because it’s what we believe in. The community needs to see a store like us do this.”

–Ana Trujillo