Amazon and the Local Gear Store Conundrum
Think the death of specialty outdoor retail has been foretold? Don't let your favorite local shop go down without a fight.
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Choosing the humanely sheared organic merino over the petrochemicals? I applaud your conscious consumption. But as a 20-year veteran of specialty retail—I buckled people into ski boots and skimmed a waxing iron over skis from junior high through graduate school—I’m here to tell you that where you shop matters just as much as what you buy.
Our friends in specialty retail are under attack. As Mya Frazier recently reported in Outside, neighborhood shops have the nearly impossible task of trying to compete with Amazon on cost. According to that article, the online behemoth may now move more product annually than all other outdoor merchants combined—which, at roughly $20 billion in the United States, is no small feat. What’s more, specialty retail requires us to get off our collective asses to buy something, not just press a few icons. Then there are the shops themselves, typically full of anachronistically friendly people looking to chat about local trails, avalanche conditions, hatches, and flow levels, which freaks out our increasingly Amazoned, agoraphobic, cheapskate, supine selves. Who wants that hassle? We’d rather click and wait for the UPS Brown Santa. I’m guilty too. I shop online probably a half-dozen times a year—so add hypocrite to my list, right after cheapskate.
I don’t want to live in a world without brick-and-mortar shops. It’s the people inside who matter. When I first got into mountain biking in college, the local bike shop led group rides on Monday evenings, called Monday Mud. Those sales clerks and backroom wrenches showed me where and how to ride. Today, even with mapping and social apps that make local knowledge easy to obtain, local shops welcome new users into outdoor sports. I’m no longer a newbie, but many of my riding and skiing buddies work in those shops. Life without them would make me a lonely creep. “Hey, what’s up, Brown Santa, want to shred?”
It’s also nice that most of the people working in shops care about what they do, even though retail can be low-paying and soul-crushing work. That bullshit maxim about the customers always being right? They aren’t, and they should control their unruly spawn before I do it for them. But despite the drudgery, setting somebody up with the right gear because you know the terrain and took the time to listen to their needs is rewarding. Twenty years after my own stint in retail, I still remember customers I fit boots for. Unable to ski, one had tears pooling in her eyes from arch cramps. The next time I saw her, she was gleaming. There’s a shop in Taos called the Boot Doctor because boot fitters—and bike fitters and pack fitters—alleviate pain. They simply call it service. Good luck finding that on your phone. Imagine asking Amazon to convert the tires on your new trail bike to tubeless so you don’t double flat on your maiden ride. Hold on, do you hear that? That’s the sound of e-commerce laughing.
To be fair to online retailers, many specialty shops abandoned the art of service and contributed to their own doom. Too often, you walked into a shop only to be treated with anonymous disdain by a clerk who should know you by name. Did you really just tell me that it will be two weeks before you can replace my rear derailleur in the height of riding season? Don’t you think I know the pack you’re trying to sell me is too big but is all you have left in stock? Negligent retailers take notice: Your competition is now, quite literally, in my pocket. As with manufacturers that put product over marketing to succeed, shops have to learn to lead with service. Skis and bikes and tents may be misconstrued as commodities, but service is about the type of human interaction that no “guru” on a live chat can replicate.
The good news is that forward-thinking shops are figuring this out. Those weekend group rides and runs? Turns out they’re vital to business. I buy items from shops with such community ties first. And when I do so, I end up on newsletters so they can let me know about deals. The retailer’s job is no longer done when you close out the register for the day. My son and I attend evening lectures and films at the local dive shop. Colorado’s Breck Bike Guides was conceived as a guiding operation in 2013 to help out-of-towners navigate Breckenridge’s confusing web of singletrack. Today, Breck Bike Guides is a full-service shop—and a template for community-focused, service-driven retail businesses. Quick repairs by the best mechanics in town are a given, but BBG also sponsors a regional race team, offers spinning classes taught by elite cyclists, and leads winter fat-bike tours. In the works: an espresso stand and bar (now becoming a bike shop essential) and a scheme to offer the type of healthy and fresh grab-and-go food cyclists need but can rarely find in tourist towns.
“Creating a cool culture built on service was always our goal,” says BBG co-owner Sydney Truitt. “But now we’re doubling down on that. Typically, all these initiatives come from hearing it over and over again from our customers—our friends—but the healthy food idea is just as much self-serving. People want us to specialize in cycling, and we do, but all these things are essential to cycling.”
I’m not anti-technology. The same modernity that lets me buy a mountain bike component I can’t find in town so I can be up and riding in three days also lets me work remotely for the first time in my career. Nor am I wearing blinders. Many brick-and-mortar shops will die in the coming years—and many of them should go. But one side effect of the information age is that, as individuals, we’re growing increasingly isolated. Kicking back with a beer at a local shop as they fix the sidewall on your ski and your spouse shops for a new set of poles while a film crew prepares for a show is a brief antidote to the estrangement of modernity. And we can buy it for a few dollars and a conscience.