In 2005, gear retailer Evo was enjoying healthy growth as an internet startup when founder Bryce Phillips made a curious choice: he opened a storefront in Seattle. In the following years, Evo would open locations in Denver; Portland, Oregon; and Whistler, British Columbia. Today those shops bring in a significant percentage of the company’s $110 million annual revenue. More important, Phillips says, they’re gathering spaces for the local outdoor community, offering live music, events, and showings by local artists, and serving as organizing centers for philanthropic projects. In 2014, Evo doubled down on real-world retail by launching La Familia, a program that allows its online customers to pick up purchases at independent gear shops. This winter, Evo will start building a commercial campus in downtown Salt Lake City. Plans include a hotel, apartment units, restaurants, a skate park, and a climbing wall. We checked in with Phillips to ask about his enduring commitment to serving urban adventurers.
OUTSIDE: Why the focus on cities for your stores, instead of classic outdoor towns?
PHILLIPS: When Evo first started, we saw that there was a huge population of people living professional lives in cities, and what inspires them is the outdoors. But there wasn’t a place for them to connect. So when we opened our first store in Seattle in 2005, it was as much—if not more—a venue and community center.
Why invest in stores at all when three-quarters of your sales are online?
In the early 2000s, when I talked about opening a store, a lot of people looked at me strangely. They said, Stores are going away. And I was like, You don’t get it. What we do here, you cannot do online. You can’t have a movie premiere with a bunch of people screaming and high-fiving. You can’t get your boots fit. If you want to thrive, you have to foster a sense of connection with your customers. The businesses that create a place for this to happen will thrive.
Many retail chains seek uniformity across their stores. Why do you do the opposite and give your shops a strong local flavor?
If we build a store that doesn’t respond to the uniqueness of the location, we’re stamping something out. The assortment of products or the art on the walls has to be relevant to the local community. An algorithm isn’t going to tell you which kind of events to host, and those insights are what we bring together in a retail environment. This matters more and more as Amazon commoditizes the world.
Having online customers pick up purchases at non-Evo gear shops—which might be your competitors—seems a strange choice.
For the health of outdoor sports and the outdoor community, retail stores need to endure. And the reality is that Evo can’t and shouldn’t open our own stores everywhere. But when we sell online, we can’t connect the final dot to the customer without a store. So why not lean into the great ones that are in business for the same reasons that we are? It’s a one-plus-one-equals-three kind of thing.
What’s the vision behind the Salt Lake City campus? Who is it for?
Every detail is tailored to people living the dual lifestyle of urban and outdoors. We want the experience to be seamless. You come for a restaurant and end up watching someone climb, or you realize that this is a place to bring your kids skateboarding. We create something much better when we think about the holistic experience rather than just carve out our four walls.