What Makes Outdoor Specialty Retailers Successful?
I came across an article the other day about an independent outdoor retailer that’s thriving in a competitive landscape where many outdoor specialty retailers struggle just to survive. I thought, “Wow, I need to feature that on our blog!” But then I looked at the publish date and I was bummed because it was 2015 and we try to keep our content as current as possible.
As I continued doing research, though, I realized that all the things this particular outdoor retailer was doing to be successful, still applied today in 2019, so I thought the strategies would definitely be worth sharing.
Retail Strategies That Worked Then…And Now
River Sports Outfitters started more than 30 years ago as a 700-square-foot watersports shop that has grown into a go-to resource for everything outdoor. The store boasts a bustling retail space, climbing center and two seasonal rental locations near some of the finest biking, climbing and paddling areas available.
At the time the store was featured in the article, owner, Ed McAlister, offered the following 5 tips for how to run a successful outdoor specialty store. They are accompanied by examples of stores using those same methods today:
1. KNOW WHO YOUR CUSTOMERS ARE
2015: At River Sports Outfitters, they don’t sell products just to make a sale. McAlister truly wants to help his customers by asking the right questions, listening to what they have to say and working with them to find exactly what they need.
In addition to asking for contact information whenever a customer makes a purchase, the company continually works on learning more about its customers by putting a kiosk in the store to survey customers on their attitudes and opinions about the outdoors. River Sports Outfitters also uses an online survey at events to collect data from people who don’t necessarily go into the store.
All of these extra efforts combine to help McAlister and his staff understand who their customers are and how they can serve them better.
BEYOND: Not unlike RSO, Crazy Mountain Outdoor Company in Bozeman, Montana, is focused on getting to know it’s customers so they can help them make the best purchase for their needs. The owner, Sam Valone, states:
“We’ve shown customers that we’re here as a resource, and they’re learning quickly when they shop with us, their needs and wants will be taken care of,” Sam said. “We don’t simply want to make the sale. We want to sell the customer the correct piece of gear that will keep them comfortable and safe on their next adventure.”
“Businesses are getting to know their customers on a deeper level, and they have to in order to deliver the type of experiences that customers crave,” says Geoff Galat, CMO at Clicktale. He goes on to say that it’s essential for businesses to understand what makes customers tick on a human level.
Companies such as Crazy Mountain Outdoor Company and River Sports Outfitters will continue to thrive in today’s competitive retail market because they understand how important it is to genuinely know who their customers are so they can provide them with the best experiences possible.
2. CONNECT WITH THE COMMUNITY
2015: River Sports Outfitters connected with the community from the very day they opened their doors. Their event calendar is packed with activities that engage the community and build relationships with customers. Events include social paddles, ladies’ climbing nights, biking excursions, trail runs, GoPro clinics, climbing lessons and demo days to lure customers outside to have fun and meet new friends.
The store also provides a full range of rental equipment, making it easy for people to sample new sports. Additionally, RSO hosts monthly pint nights that attract hundreds of folks who donate $5 a beer for local charities.
All of these events help the outdoor company cultivate a community of loyal customers for life.
BEYOND: For Pack & Paddle of Lafayette, Louisiana, focusing on building community and being a welcoming central hub for “outdoorsy” people in their area is a key part of their business. It’s a smart move for their outdoor specialty store because according to CMX:
“[Community] can completely set your business apart from every other company in the field. . . .[it can] give [customers] a sense of belonging and make them feel an incredible bond with your company.”
The folks at Pack & Paddle know that without their commitment to community, they may not have made it through the challenges posed by four big-box competitors, another specialty store in the area, and online retailers.
But the company believes that as long as they keep their business about the people, the Lafayette community will turn to Pack & Paddle for all their outdoor adventure needs.
3. SELECT AND MANAGE INVENTORY WISELY
2015: River Sports Outfitters admits that anticipating what customers want and managing inventory can be a constant challenge. While the company carries a huge selection, it also brings in new items on a frequent basis to keep customers returning to the store.
Being a member of Grassroots Outdoor Alliance helps the store keep up with industry trends. More importantly, though, the salespeople listen to what customers say they want and write it on a “needs clipboard.”
BEYOND: As a new outdoor shop in St. Louis, Missouri, KAMP thoroughly researches the inventory it carries and knows the products inside and out.
Like River Sports Outfitters, KAMP listens to customers and takes their requests seriously. If a customer wants something that isn’t available, the owners ask what the customer likes about the product to see if something they have in the store could be a good match and if not, they guide the customer to where they can find it.
4. MAKE COLLABORATION PART OF YOUR MARKETING
2015: River Sports Outfitters aims to maintain customer awareness in a town full of competitors. In addition to traditional and digital methods of marketing, the store partners with the University of Tennessee to offer noncredit classes, effectively tapping into a treasure trove of 27,000 students that are only 2 miles up the road.
The company also tries to find innovative ways to partner with local businesses. For example, RSO teamed up with a restaurant whose servers wear their t-shirts, turning them into walking advertisements that promote local shopping and dining.
BEYOND: Backcountry Experience has discovered that building a network of community sponsors and other partners helps them to reach a broader audience for their store events.
For example, their Women Outside event collaborates with non-competing local businesses like yoga studios and accounting firms. Participating businesses are asked to help promote the event through their employees. The outdoor retailer also works with local restaurants, bars, and museums to help host the event. The venues don’t mind helping to spread the word because the event adds value to the community.
As a result of these collaborative efforts, Backcountry Experience’s marketing reach has expanded exponentially.
5. DON’T GET STUCK IN A RUT
2015: As River Sports Outfitter’s owner, Ed McAlister is quick to emphasize the need to always be innovating and not get stuck in a rut. He’s not afraid to try out new things. From hosting a happy hour to opening an indoor climbing center next to the store, his experiments range from small and safe to huge and gutsy (most of which have really paid off).
The store also moved into rentals, opening two seasonal locations with hundreds of boats, bicycles and standup paddleboards. RSO also partnered with Ijams Nature Center to create a new climbing route and plans to help build a handicapped-accessible dock on the Tennessee River.
BEYOND: In Fairbanks, Alaska, a unique outdoor store also serves as a yoga studio…and an art gallery. TRAX offers hot yoga in a 90-degree room, vinyasa power hour, candlelight yoga, and paddleboard yoga when weather permits. The yoga experience doesn’t end with classes, either. Yoga clothing and gear are available for purchase and the store offers a 200-hour vinyasa teacher training certification course.
The first Friday of every month transforms TRAX into a makeshift art gallery, displaying work from photographers, painters, potters, etc. The non-traditional gallery atmosphere makes the art experience more relaxed and provides a unique opportunity to engage with the store’s active patrons.
“2019 will be a pivotal year for brands and retailers to focus their efforts on making sure customers get value that goes beyond the product,” says MyCustomer.
That’s why River Sports Outfitters continues to thrive today, despite fierce competition (including a large retailer that opened down the road). The great thing is, the strategies RSO was using 4 years ago are still applicable in 2019 and can be adapted to any outdoor store.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that one thing each of the shops mentioned above seem to have in common is a real passion for what they’re doing.
When asked what has kept River Sports Outfitters in business for so long, McAlister’s answer is simple: “The absolute fun of hooking people up with something they’re going to enjoy. What we sell is fun. This passion infuses everything he does and spreads to his customers.
Use the tips above, along with your passion for the outdoors, to make your retail store a success for years to come!
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