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Retailer of the Year: Tooth of Time Traders helps grow outdoor participation like no other

Not many retailers can say their customer base is predominantly made up of 14- 18-year-old shoppers, but Tooth of Time Traders is no ordinary retailer, and Shelley O’Neill is no ordinary store manager. SNEWS asked O'Neill to shed some light on the uniqueness of her store, which was the winner of the "Growth of Outdoor Sports" category in the 2011 SNEWS/Backpacker Retailer of the Year Awards.

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Not many retailers can say their customer base is predominantly made up of 14- 18-year-old shoppers, but Tooth of Time Traders is no ordinary retailer, and Shelley O’Neill is no ordinary store manager. Tooth of Time Traders caters to thousands of Boy Scouts of America each year visiting the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. Owned by the BSA, the ranch is used as a National High Adventure Base in which crews of Scouts and Venturers take part in backpacking expeditions and other outdoor activities.

Now Tooth of Time Traders—named after the most recognizable landmark at Philmont—can add to its list of credits the 2011 SNEWS/Backpacker Retailer of the Year award for winning the “Growth in Outdoor Sports” category (click here to read about the award presentation at Winter Market 2011). SNEWS® asked O’Neill to shed some light on what makes Tooth of Time Traders such a special place to shop for so many.

SNEWS: How is Tooth of Time unique and different from most outdoor stores?

O’Neill: First, when we work with a customer we know where, how and when they are going to use the gear. When they are back in the store, after their backpacking trip, we make sure to ask them to let us know how we did. Second, the staff that work at Philmont have a passion for this place. It is hard to find that in employees elsewhere and the majority of our employees are knee deep in the Philmont passion. Third, the store is driven by youth and the program at Philmont. Every item that is purchased for the store whether gear or souvenir, we ask the question: How does this support the program of Philmont Scout Ranch?

How did the store get its name?

The store was always known as the Trading Post – like most camp stores are in the Boy Scouts of America. But since our store was located at the largest camp in the world, serving thousands of scouts, it really needed unique identification. So during a trip to the winter Outdoor Retailer trade show in 1999, Mark Anderson (my boss) and I brainstormed some names and came up with Tooth of Time Traders. The Tooth of Time, at 9,003 feet elevation, is the most recognizable landmark at Philmont. It is a granite monolith that protrudes 500 vertical feet from an east-west ridge. In the mid 1800’s, the Santa Fe Trail crossed the plains just southwest of Philmont. The Tooth of Time owes its name to this trail; travelers knew once they passed it, they only had a few weeks to go until they reached Santa Fe.

How did you get involved in working at Tooth of Time Traders?

I went to work at Philmont in the store during my summer breaks from the University of Michigan beginning in 1989. My family was very involved in scouting, and all three of my brothers are Eagle Scouts. My father highly encouraged us to spend at least one summer working at Philmont. After graduating, I did not know what I wanted to do but knew I loved Philmont Scout Ranch and wanted to move to New Mexico, so I proposed the job as a full-time store manager. Up to that point the store was only open for the summer season. Since I had been living out of my car or tent and not accustomed to any sort of salary, my proposal was to hire me temporarily to see if I could make a difference. The deal was for the Scouts to compensate me with a full-time salary at the end of one year if there was an increase in sales. I’ve been earning a salary since 1996.

What are some of the unique aspects of running a store that caters to Scouts?

One thing we do that is pretty unique is to fit boots over our radio system. In 2010, we sent out 50 pairs of boots to participants that had blown out a boot on the trail. They are usually miles and miles away, and we have a series of questions staff must ask each participant. After we gather that information, we pick out an appropriate boot. The crew is following an itinerary and we will get that boot out to them within 24 hours. We have driven out and fitted boots to crews at 11 p.m. It is quite a service, but the end result is the best experience possible so that the individual keeps on in the outdoors.

How have the store and its product mix evolved over the past few years?

We never thought we would be carrying boots, packs, sleeping bags, tents or, for that matter, high end gear of any sort. Originally, The Tooth of Time Traders was a place to get those last-minute items that you forgot to purchase at home – maybe an extra water bottle and some socks or a rain jacket.

As we found ourselves ordering boots for customers that blew a boot out on the trail we began to think that maybe we should carry a line of boots. Now we carry eight different brands. As we educated ourselves in gear and shared that information, our customers soaked it up and that’s when we decided we could best fit them in a pack that was suitable for our program and get them into a sleeping bag that would be comfortable on the trail, rather than the one they may have brought with them.

As word spread and customers began asking for more, our product mix developed into full lines of gear and brands. We can now outfit anyone that walks in the door for their entire Philmont experience.

Since we expanded our product line, we naturally had to expand the store to make the selling experience more efficient. In 2002, a 5,000-square-foot warehouse was added to the 3,000-square-foot retail floor. Prior to that we stored back stock at several locations all over the ranch. It was not uncommon that I would have to wait for a bear to leave the site of a storage unit to retrieve items or wait for bats to fly away from under the eaves. One time, I walked past a rattlesnake as I went into the storage unit and then had to wait for it to leave the storage entrance so I could escape. Retail has always been exciting at Philmont in so many ways.

In 2004, we started a website that now makes up approximately 13 percent of our sales and continues to grow and educate our customers – Wisdom (from the) Tooth is an area of our website where we get information out regarding our program and the gear we carry.

What has been the key to the long-term success of the store?

To never disregard or overlook a product, rep or brand. We want to know about everything that is available and then decide if it is a product that works for us. Plus, it’s about the incredible support we receive from our reps and vendors. I have 50 employees in the store system that come in new every June, and our vendors and reps show up for clinics year after year, and they get these employees trained and versed in all manner of gear.

What are you most proud of?

The incredibly positive feedback we get from our customers who have led to the growth of our store. To work for Philmont Scout Ranch and be part of a legacy of changing lives of young people and watching the youth of America have life-changing experiences in the outdoors. I know that what we do has an effect on the experiences of the participants at Philmont and thus gives meaning to my life, career and family every single day.

—Michael Hodgson