Outside Business Journal

Retailer Spotlight: Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, Vermont

From making movies to giving conservation grants, learn how this specialty outdoor retailer has evolved into so much more than a gear shop

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Outdoor Gear Exchange (OGE) in Burlington, Vermont, is on fire. It was recently accepted into Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, the elite group of specialty outdoor retailers. It’s only a few likes away from scoring 13,000 followers on Facebook. And it just wrapped up its very own short-form film series, More Than You Think, which follows a group of East Coast women pushing each other on challenging backcountry ski trips.

This is a store that’s much more than just a store. Owned by Mike Donohue and Marc Sherman as well as ten other employees who have invested in the company, Outdoor Exchange is a production company, a marketing company, and a charitable grant foundation.

Investing in Staff

With 110 employees (80 full-timers), OGE is a substantial company. Whereas many specialty retailers rely on floor staff for things like merchandising and social media, over time, OGE has built a team of dedicated experts to manage these important aspects of operation. A full-time marketing manager oversees the Facebook, Instagram, Vimeo, and Youtube accounts. A full-time merchandiser keeps the 44,000-square foot, two-level store looking spiffy 365 days a year. And a full-time videographer shoots gear reviews, events footage, like the annual Ibex Tent Sale.

Outdoor Gear Excchange #CoolShop
The OGE marketing team gathers ’round the campfire in the Northeast Kingdom during their annual retreat. (Photo: Sam Davies)

Donohue says his staff is more than just a bunch of colleagues. They’re friends. “We play together all the time,” he explained. “We do Monday morning coffee rides, Sunday Shred Fests (group bike rides), then there’s our Moon’s Out Goons Out staff retreats, where we close the store and break off to do all sorts of different activities from hiking to biking to skiing. We get a keg and a campsite and have a big bonfire. It’s key to get people out of store and cross-pollinating.“

Another cool thing about working at OGE: the Living the Dream Program. For every five years of employment, OGE gifts each staffer $6,000 to use for a dream trip, buy a house, or enable them to do something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.

Outdoor Gear Exchange #CoolShop
One big, happy family: the OGE crew poses during the 2016 all-staff retreat at Mad River Glen. (Photo: Sam Davies)

Donohue says it’s important to recognize long-term employees and add incentives towards consistent employment. “You can’t pay high school kids minimum wage and make that a long-term strategy,” said Donohue. “You have to do more to invest in retaining good staff.”

A Multi-Media Approach to Branding

OGE views itself as an adult toy store, said Donohue. “We need to get creative in how we engage our customer and establish the OGE brand. We want to grow the sports we sell and make people appreciate nature, and make it all fun.” Video has proven a powerful tool, and one that few other independent outdoor retailers have invested in on the same scale as OGE.

“Like all retailers right now, we’re trying to figure out our digital versus physical path,” said Donohue. “We use video to convey our expertise, engage our customers, share our stories, and inspire people.”

Donohue said it’s been a substantial investment. “We bought $10K worth of equipment and we pay our videographer a full time salary plus benefits. To be honest, from an investment perspective, it may be dumb, but we think it will pay off as we tell more stories.”

There’s no doubt that the robust video program (there are almost 260 videos on OGE’s Youtube channel) gives customers a new way to engage with the OGE brand.

Giving Back in a Big Way

In 2013, the shop launched the OGE Charitable Grant Fund; the goal is to regularly give back to the local community by helping underfunded access and conservation organizations. “In the past four years, we’ve granted over $38,000 to local non-profit organizations,” said Donohue. “We fund these gifts primarily through customer-donated money and our consignment sales.”

While Burlington is by no means “just a college town,” there’s not doubt that having four colleges in the immediate vicinity has impacted business in a very positive way. And OGE gives their student customers plenty of reasons to walk through the door, from its giant consignment department to its robust calendar of ski and bike movie events.

Donohue counts himself fortunate that OGE is located in such a dynamic, year-round outdoor mecca. And the people of Burlington are just as fortunate to have OGE as a mecca within the mecca.