Outside Business Journal

The Outdoor Retailer Playbook: Part 4, Community-Building

Simply sell gear, and equip customers for a day. Build a community around your shopping experience, though, and you’ll equip them for a lifetime

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Often, online shopping appeals to a consumer’s head: I can buy this item more cheaply/quickly/conveniently from my laptop than by heading to my local gear shop. But people make buying decisions with their hearts, too—and therein lies the golden opportunity for specialty retailers and the vendors who fill their shelves.

Retailers have the power to create an emotional connection with customers that they’d never get through that laptop screen—and once a shop wins someone’s heart, pure price and convenience factors become secondary. How to do it? Build an outdoor community with the neighborhood store as the hub.

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

Why Community-Building Matters

Simply selling gear isn’t enough anymore, argues Locally’s Mike Massey. Instead, successful vendors and retailers must cultivate personal relationships with customers—everything from a quick but meaningful chat with brand representatives at a vendor-sponsored event to longstanding participation in a retailer race series.

Start by giving shoppers a reason to gather, whether that’s a free climbing clinic or a film festival. Not only do such events attract the local adventure crowd into the store, but they also build social connections and establish a retailer as a key part of the outdoor community.

And they create opportunities for crucial word-of-mouth marketing, noted Massey. “That’s not someone just telling me, ‘This Yeti cooler is great,’” he said. “It’s actually seeing people in your community using and enjoying it.”

Say a potential customer attends a retailer-sponsored campout and notices another camper using a sweet-looking French press around the fire. “Most people shop based on identifying things they see their friends, or even total strangers around them, using and wearing,” Massey said. “That endorsement is tremendously meaningful.” Next week, maybe that attendee will swing by the store to get a French press of his own.

Aligning with community events—from one-off partnerships to multistate brand tours—allows vendors to tap into this powerful social marketing phenomenon, too. And that helps customers identify with a brand far beyond what a billboard can do.

Hub & Pisgah
Beer and the outdoors go together like biscuits and gravy, which is why pint nights are so popular at outdoor shops around the country. The Hub & Pisgah Tavern have taken the pint night one step further by integrating a pub and outdoor gathering area, complete with fire pit, into their North Carolina shop. (Photo: Courtesy of Hub & Pisgah)

Beyond the Pint Night

There are plenty of ways to draw the community to a store: adventure slideshows, book signings, free clinics, sponsored trail running or skimo races, and of course, the classic in-store pint night (nothing gets an outdoorsy customer’s attention like a free microbrew). Those events are all worthwhile, but retailers that focus on two particularly powerful approaches can take community-building to the next level.

Pine Needle Mountaineering Outdoor Retailer Playbook
Pine Needle Mountaineering’s annual Chapman Challenge uphill/downhill ski race is meant to be a fun community event first, and a marketing opportunity second. (Photo: Courtesy)

For one: experiential events that get people out on local public lands using the gear. “Getting in front of hundreds of people in kayaks is so much more meaningful than giving people a beer,” Massey said. “It could be a fly-fishing class or a fishing contest, or a climbing event—something that gets people excited about participating.” For example, last summer Mountain Hardwear partnered with Denver’s Feral Mountain Co. to put on a Fourteeners series that brought hikers together for trailhead campouts (in Mountain Hardwear tents) followed by group summit climbs.

Advocacy events that line up with community values can also be particularly effective, noted Jeremy Dakan, owner of Durango’s Pine Needle Mountaineering. His shop partners with local organization Friends of the San Juans on avalanche awareness courses and holds fundraisers for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “It’s doing the right thing and supporting our customers and what they believe in,” Dakan said. “They appreciate it, and they think of us the next time they need something.”

Success Stories: Community-building

Frequent community events are par for the course at Pine Needle Mountaineering: over the past year, the shop has hosted or sponsored everything from a backcountry skiing presentation to a fundraiser for an injured local climber to a popular uphill/downhill ski race.

“We don’t create events around selling a bunch of tents,” Dakan said. “We create them about a community need.” He aims for a mix: one month might feature a slideshow about development threats at the Grand Canyon, while another is all about a ski movie “just to get the stoke going.” A typical event brings in 50 to 100 people.

What they all have in common: they’re not direct sales pitches. “If we’re hosting a lightweight backpacking clinic, it’s [full of] useful tips and tricks, versus a gear-inspired clinic,” Dakan said. “It’s about knowing our community and our customers. Give them what they want and don’t try to force something that’s just beneficial to you.”

On the vendor side: last summer, Jackson, Wyoming-based Mountain Khakis took their show on the road with the Hell Yeah! Tour, which visited 73 partner retailers (along with breweries and festivals) over six months. Each event featured cornhole games, swag, free beer, a chance to drop off worn-out apparel for recycling, and Mountain Khaki-clad representatives chatting up customers about Jackson life.

Mountain Khakis Hell Yeah Tour Outdoor Retailer Plyabook
Mountain Khakis Hell Yeah tour offered the brand a way to engage not only with the consumer, but with all its retail partners on the 73-stop road trip. (Photo: Courtesy of Mountain Khakis)

“It was an opportunity for those who weren’t already familiar with our brand to be introduced and have a high-energy experience,” noted Jen Taylor, brand manager and director of creative development. “There’s no better way to make an impression than firsthand. And the quality engagement—that’s irreplaceable. For the amount of money that you invest, you’re covering a lot of ground literally and metaphorically.”

And while Mountain Khaki declined to share specifics, Taylor noted that the tour was successful on a variety of metrics, from in-store sales during the store events to prompting replenishment orders down the line.

Do Better: Community-Building

Appeal to your customers’ hearts with these tips.

>Be genuine Customers can smell a naked sales pitch a mile away—and it’s a turnoff. Consider store happenings as an opportunity for indirect marketing instead: Put on a fun event first, inspire sales second.

>Follow up Someone who shows up to an in-store slideshow or demos a kayak at an on-the-water day is already interested. Collect information like names and email addresses from attendees, then follow up, Massey advised. “Ask for a sale—‘You ran in our race, so we think you’d be interested in this new line of running shoes we’re carrying.’”

>Talk, talk, talk When vendors and retailers collaborate on events, it’s easy for communication to break down between higher-ups and a store’s floor staff. Brands can avoid unwelcome surprises the day of a store event with a series of phone calls reminding retailers about the big day; retail managers should loop in all employees as plans develop.

Next up: how collaborating with competitors helps everyone win.