Outside Business Journal

Retailer Spotlight: Onion River Sports in Montpelier, Vermont

Onion River, in Montpelier, Vermont, capitalized on a bad winter by selling fat bikes

Ryan Wichelns

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Some high schools have sports to keep kids busy after school. But for some kids in Montpelier, Vermont, working at Onion River Sports was their extracurricular. And then they never left.

More than half of the store’s staff are neighborhood folks who grew up shopping there and have stuck around for upwards of 15 years, said Onion River manager Kip Roberts.

“I bought my first pair of skate skis here in middle school,” said Caroline Zeilenga, who has been an Onion River employee since 2005 and is now the store’s marketing manager.

Roberts himself has been around since 2004—nearly a third of the shop’s existence, a statistic he calls crazy. What’s more, the current owner, Andrew Brewer, showed up not long after the shop first opened in 1974. He bought his first bike at Onion River and spent his adolescence sweeping floors there and learning his way around bikes before moving away to college.

“Andrew started out like many of us did, getting tutored by cranky old bike mechanics,” said Roberts. He couldn’t stay away, though. He returned in 1999 to buy the shop.

At its core, Onion River’s focus lies in bikes, ranging from road to mountain. But through changes and expansions that include adding running, hiking, and skiing gear to the shop’s central business, its identity—and its local, loyal customers—have stayed the same, said Roberts.

Many locals simply refer to Onion River as the bike shop.

Onion River
Onion River is simply “the bike shop” to locals who are fiercely loyal customers. (Photo: Courtesy)

“In a place like this, you’ve got what you’ve got.”

Despite being the state capital of Vermont, Montpelier has less than 8,000 residents in its ten square miles. Compared to Burlington (with a population close to 40,000), its size forces Onion River to have a closer relationship to their customers. “We can’t just turn ‘em and burn ‘em,” said Roberts. “We really have to foster that relationship.”

Rather than finding the customers to fit their products, Roberts said that he needs to work harder to accommodate the needs of the largely long-term customers that he has.

“In a quintessential New England town like this, you’ve got what you’ve got and we realize we aren’t going to change our customers based on our buying decisions,” he said. Branching out into new gear happens a little more slowly at Onion River, and staff has made sure to stay true to longtime product categories like road bikes and freeheel skis.

“People threw in the towel for snow.”

During the winter, when bike sales shrivel with the foliage, Onion River depends more heavily on ski and snowshoe sales. But like everyone in the Northeast, the last couple seasons have been anything but a sales boon.

“If it’s a bad winter locally, it’s really hard,” said Roberts. But one relatively new tool Onion River has been able to capitalize on has been the sale of fat bikes. Flukey snow seasons with too little ground cover for skiing have proven, at least initially, to be ideal for fat biking. The store had success selling fat bikes during the historically warm winter of 2015/2016, but Roberts is skeptical it will hold them over. “If you’re not selling skis and snowshoes, fat bikes certainly don’t make up for it,” he said, especially as the supply of long-lasting and still somewhat niche bikes meets small-town demand.

The answer? “Get creative and shift stuff around,” said Roberts. When this year started off slow for fat bikes, Roberts reached out to a local ski area to set up a rental bike program.

“It’s a big, friendly community.”

Muddy Onion Onion River Sports Outdoor Retailer Playbook
Every year, Onion River hosts the Muddy Onion Spring Classic Dirt Road Ride, complete with chocolate-covered bacon and maple syrup shots. Vermont knows how to do it. (Photo: Courtesy of Onion River Sports)

Last month’s fifth annual Muddy Onion Spring Classic Dirt Road Ride, organized by Onion River, is just as much a staple of their tight-knit community as it is a part of store culture. Complete with maple syrup shots and chocolate-dipped bacon to go with the 35-mile ride, the annual events brings hundreds of riders out of the woodwork and jumpstart the entire town after a dreary winter. “It adds vibrancy to the surrounding community,” Roberts said. “It’s cool to see families coming out of their homes along the route and cheering on the riders. It has that quaint New England feel.”

Along with the Muddy Onion and a handful of other recreational rides, Onion River hosts what owner Andrew Brewer claims was the first bike swap in Vermont, if not in the whole country. In a state where ski swaps are as ubiquitous as the muddy season that comes after them, Onion River has found a unique way to capitalize on small-town interactions.

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