Retailer Spotlight: Summit Hut in Tucson, Arizona
This Tucson shop invests time, dollars, and space into the brands and employees keeping it running
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In 1967, two 15-year-olds named Dave Baker and Jeff Conn discovered that the best way to get their hands on quality outdoor gear was by buying it at wholesale and selling the rest to their friends. They named their business Summit Hut, set up a P.O. box, convinced some vendors to be their suppliers, and handmade their own catalogue. Then, the next year, Baker borrowed $44 from his parents to buy Conn’s share of the shop and opened the first location in a 150-square-foot space across the street from his high school in Tucson, Arizona.
And while Baker is no longer selling gear today, the hiking, backpacking, and outdoor gear retailer is stronger than ever with two locations totaling more than 36,000 square feet in addition to an online store. Ownership switched hands in 2011, when Dana Davis, who started on the sales floor in 1998, and her husband, Jeremy, bought it from Baker.
“I already had such a long-term relationship there and a good understanding of the business, so it was a pretty easy transition,” Davis said. “Dave still comes in sometimes, and we still go hiking together.”
For 50 years, the shop has been a staple supplier to Arizona’s outdoorists. Not only does it help the community by providing grants and hosting events nearly every week—Banff film festival one weekend, a swap meet the next—Summit Hut is a leading example of how to be intentional about supporting brands and employees through time, dollars, and space.
To differentiate Summit Hut from having the feel of a department store or a “sea of racks,” the two locations have been set up into multiple concept shops, where brands can show off their character in their own defined sections. Hydro Flask is presented as its own rainbow wall, whereas Columbia feels like its own boutique. Davis said, “Each brand wants to tell their story.”
The first concept shop was PrAna about five years ago. Now there’s also Lowa, Osprey, Kühl, Marmot, Mountain Hardwear, Outdoor Research, and The North Face. Each time a new one opens in the store, Summit Hut sees an increase in sales and the partnership with brands become stronger in deciding what to feature and how to best merchandise a product.
In 2015 when Lowa became a concept shop, Peter Sachs, general manager of Lowa in the U.S., raved about Summit Hut’s good reputation in boot fitting.
“Owners Dana and Jeremy Davis have merchandised their new store in a way that creatively allows customers to shop by brand and Lowa is proud to have been chosen as their premier outdoor footwear partner,” Sachs said.
Having an entire wall of socks seemed impressive, Davis said, but spreading product throughout the store has proven to be less overwhelming to the customer, more aesthetically pleasing to the eye, and allows brands to really coordinate their products. A new line of base layers can match the selection of rain jackets and so on. And Davis says another perk is that men and women can shop together throughout the store rather than splitting up to browse their separate sections.
From time to time, a customer wants to see all the hiking pants in one place, for example—which Davis described as a huge area of gray and khaki. But splitting up categories of products throughout the store just requires more customer service from the employees to gather a wide selection from all the areas.
“Concept shops allow customers to linger a bit more,” Davis said. “By wandering through each designated area, I think customers sometimes feel more entertained and they find unexpected delights that maybe they hadn’t come in looking for.”
To incentivize the store’s 50 employees to get acquainted and familiar with the Tucson’s nonprofit and community organizations, Davis pays staff to volunteer one of their shifts during the year, whether it’s for trail maintenance or a youth program. Every year, they donate 100 days of staff time, or 800 hours.
“Our employees like giving back to the community, but they don’t always feel they have the time or the means to do so, and so this is a kind of a way to do that. Plus, we feel good about that as well,” Davis said.
Other employee perks include paid clinics and demos, where they’re brought as a group to a trailhead to test backpacks, hiking shoes, and other new gear. Some staff members are even trained through an eight-hour class to modify footwear. Using rice cookers and hydraulic presses to reshape footwear, employees help turn a decent fitting pair of shoes into a specialized and custom fit for each individual customer.
“We really try to take our product knowledge and educate the consumer to another level,” Davis said. “It’s really important to us that our customers know we are the regional experts.”