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Straight talk: Retailers want help on these key issues

We asked 8 independent outdoor specialty retailers about the biggest challenges they face today.

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Kristin Hostetter at SNEWS' booth at 2018 Grassroots Connect
Kristin Hostetter, SNEWS editor-in-chief, manning the SNEWS booth at Grassroots Connect 2018.Drew Simmons

The black-curtained maze at Grassroots Connect is swarming with like-minded independent specialty retailers placing orders, talking shop, sharing ideas and, yes, commiserating about the challenges they face every day in their businesses.

This group of retailers, all members of the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, is massively engaged in their communities. Every one of them hosts popular, creative in-store events to bond with their local peeps. They know who they are, they know what they do well, and they know that what they offer is so much different than what Amazon or big box stores do.

SNEWS was holed up in one of these booths on Day 1 of the Connect Show in Knoxville, Tennessee in what was essentially a speed-dating session to talk to retailers and find out, among other things, what their biggest hurdle is today.

Ben Rockis, Backcountry Experience in Durango, Colorado

Ben Rockis of Backcountry Experience in Durango, ColoradoCourtesy

Teaching our staff to engage the customer, listen, and sell. We have 21-year-olds making 10 bucks an hour selling $5,000 worth of product to customers making half a million a year. They need to know their stuff and they need to be able to connect with every customer who walks through the door. Everything comes down to personal relationships.

Sarah Schuster, Clear Water Outdoor Store in Wisconsin

Not having enough foot traffic. We need to figure out how to reach the customers we want on a tight budget. We have a strong social media presence and good community involvement. We’ve had live music and done yoga in the store, but we need to find the next big thing to drive traffic.

Ed Camelli and Brian Havertine, Trail Creek Outfitters in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania

Getting people in the door. Once we get ‘em in there, we excel thanks to our engaging staff and excellent product selection and events. But we need to do better at getting people away from shopping on their keyboards and into the store.

Betsy Bertram, Townsend Bertram & Co. in Carrboro, North Carolina

Betsy Bertram at 2018 Grassroots Connect
Betsy Bertram of Townsend Bertram & Co.Kristin Hostetter

Making what we do accessible to everyone that walks through our doors. So much of the marketing our industry does is aspirational, and it’s intimidating to a lot of people who don’t see people that look like them on hangtags, in catalogs, in ads., It’s all white, thin, affluent people doing extreme activities. I refuse to use out-of-the-box promotional content that’s exclusionary and intimidating. But creating our own content is hard and costly. I’m always trying to find brands that market to a diverse market—with different body types and skin colors, and it’s really hard to come by.

Chris Bubenik, Diamond Brand Outdoors in Asheville, North Carolina

Chris Bubenik of Diamond Brand Outdoors

Finding the “next big thing” that will draw new customers into our shops. YETI revived the cooler business for a few years, and pulled in non-traditional outdoor customers. REI recently moved into our area and they have 20 billboards up around town. We need to find the new, cool emerging stuff—and be the only one in town that carries it—in order to compete.

Mike Leffler, Appalachian Outfitters in Peninsula, Ohio

Mike Leffler
Mike Leffler of Appalachian Outfitters with Emily White of Roads Rivers and Trails at Grassroots Connect 2018.Courtesy

Competing with our own vendors and keeping things vibrant. I look at our store as mutual fund. Every brand is a stock. If it does we’ll we keep them. If it doesn’t, we kick them out and bring in someone else. We are like an old growth mutual fund. We’re very conservative; we pay cash for everything and aim to grow 5 percent each year. We like to try a lot of off-brands, and we know brands need to engage directly with their customers, but if they start to go off price, we move on.

Chuck Millsaps, Great Outdoor Provision Company in North Carolina and Virginia

Chuck Millsaps
Chuck Millsaps of Great Outdoor Provision Co.Caveman Collective

Curating products is an interesting dance. There’s so much great product out there and so many brands doing all the right things like telling their story, being sustainable. We like to work with authentic brands and bring in emerging products, then educate our staff so they can introduce those products to our customers and create a purchase pathway.

Bridget Machecek, Roam’n Around in Rapid City, South Dakota

Figuring out the big picture and direction for retail. With online shopping and brands competing with us for customers, figuring out pricing, it can be challenging. I see brands have to try to save themselves by going to big boxes and selling at cheaper prices. When they’re struggling, they have to do try to stay afloat. But those actions are horrible for retailers. How do we all work together and stay healthy?

Susan Anderson, Eagle Eye Outfitters in Dothan, Alabama

Predicting trends. The life cycle of brands and trends has never been so short. Sometimes things are hot for one season—or less—and then they fall flat. We need to keep a pipeline. We have five buyers who are always on the road, going to trade shows, looking for new, emerging tuff so we can stay ahead of the curve.