"Ben Rockis with his team. // Photo: Courtesy"
Outside Business Journal

Retailer Spotlight: Backcountry Experience in Durango, Colorado

Backcountry Experience’s deep commitment to hardgoods and custom fitting sets them apart in retail-heavy Durango

Ryan Wichelns

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Ben Rockis is the first person to tell you his investment in Backcountry Experience back in 2003 may not have been completely thought-out. “Being young and dumb, I wanted to own a business so bad that I didn’t really look at the numbers and where the business was health-wise,” he admitted. In fact, when he inked the deal, the banks were just two months from swooping in to claim everything. So Rockis got to work.

Paying the bills to fend off foreclosure was easy, he said (although it took close to five years to get back on track). His biggest hurdle was with the people in Durango. “Helping the community understand that we were a new business, with new ownership and new passion about the community—that took a lot of effort,” he said.

The store’s motto is “Gear for self-propelled backcountry travel.” Rockis has developed a reputation for his hardgoods selection and expertise, as well as his talented boot-and pack-fitters. Between that, and his hands-on, personal approach to working with customers, it’s safe to say Durango’s Backcountry Experience isn’t the same shop it used to be.

Along with its extensive boot selection, Backcountry Experience is the first and only continuous Osprey Packs Pro Shop that maintains a full stock of Osprey’s line. (Photo: Courtesy)

“All of a sudden we’ve earned a customer.”

For Rockis, the key to developing BCEXP’s reputation as experts has come from a focus on fit-centric hardgoods, particularly boots and backpacks. In fact, Backcountry Experience maintains roughly a 70 to 30 ratio of hardgoods to soft. But the emphasis on setting up customers with comfortable boots and packs puts the shop in a rarefied class of professionals and with a niche like that, customers remember them.

For packs specifically, BCEXP worked directly with Osprey in 2006 to become the first and only “Osprey Pro Shop,” and carry every product and size Osprey makes. Rockis said it’s just another way to ensure his customers walk away with the best possible fit.

“We focus on customer interaction,” said Rockis. Packs and boots allow his employees to work with customers and get to know them. You can modify a boot to fit someone’s foot. With a fleece jacket you can’t really do as much beyond telling them it looks good, he explained. “When we get it right, we’ve made a connection and all of a sudden we’ve earned a customer.”

The downside, of course, to being exceptional fitters is that it requires a lot of training.

Rockis says there’s a strong education-by-mentorship component that’s important to the culture of the shop. His top training technique is just getting his hands dirty, working alongside staff every day to drill in the process and the smaller details of fitting. His secret weapon? “Have more of a group interaction,” he said. By getting a second or even a third set of eyes on a hard-to-fit customer, you can really work out the kinks, dial in comfort, and create teaching moments.

Most of the events taking place throughout Women Outside are free and open to the public. // Photo: Courtesy
Women Outside brings crowds of local women (and men) to a handful of Durango hotspots for events. (Photo: Courtesy)

“We’re helping people move forward in life to find better jobs.”

While studying the relationship their shop has with the community, Rockis, along with BCEXP’s marketing coordinator, Margaret Hedderman, noticed an obvious lack of women looking for jobs. “It came down to, what is the intimidation factor and how can we try to educate women to see that the industry is a phenomenal and inviting place to work,” he said. The result? The pair started the Women Outside Adventure Forum, a three-day event put on by BCEXP. Events take place all over Durango and feature presentations, panel discussions and big-name speakers like skier Alison Gannett and ultrarunner Anna Frost. The idea, according to Hedderman, is to connect local women with others actively involved in outdoor pursuits, whether they’re athletes, writers, photographers, activists, or outdoor industry professionals at-large.

“I’m sure a lot of women—myself included—have experienced being talked down to or patronized in an outdoor gear store,” said Hedderman. “Women Outside is a way to break down a lot of those barriers that women face when shopping for gear or looking to start a career in the outdoor industry.”

Whether boots or people, at BCEXP, it’s all about finding a good fit.