I have a love hate relationship with outdoor stores. The more of them I find on my travels, the more my love begins to fade to the point where though I may enter their doors, I do my best to avoid talking to anyone. Why? I can assure you it's not because I'm socially awkward, but rather it's because I regularly know more about the products being sold than the employees do. The only exception I've found to this is in a specialty store where the footprint is small, the theme is clear, and the owner or employees actually do the activity the store sells gear for. I hate to say it folks, but more often than not, outdoor stores suck.
Now, before you go thinking I’m just a negative Nancy who thinks he knows it all, hear me out. I've done a lot of thinking about this and while I know there are plenty of business reasons why stores like REI are the way they are, I still take issue with the fact these stores only exist to attract the masses and to move product. I get it - it's business - but how many dollars are spent on items that are totally unnecessary, wrong for the user, and simply not good quality? Go spend an afternoon in REI and you'll see more than one person rolling around the store picking out gear for what looks like an expedition to the North Pole with an employee who just finished servicing a bicycle. So, the dude selling bikes is now all of the sudden an expert on backpack fittings? Oh, and he's also a footwear guy too? Unless these employees are some sort of freak outdoorsman, I'd put my money down that he (or she) may know a great deal about their personal outdoor hobby, but very little about the other represented activities in the store. Yet, day after day products are sent out the door under the arms of patrons who think they just got the best one on one advice on planet Earth.
Again, I get it. It's one stop shopping for nearly all of your outdoor needs and stores like these do serve a purpose. Hell, I do some of my shopping at these places myself, but you won't see me asking anyone for advice on anything. Being what these stores are, the more I talk to people who want to get into backpacking, the more I hear about how they went to a store such as REI and spent hours and hours with a staff member looking at a dozen different products that do the same freaking thing, only to be utterly confused about what exactly to purchase. When they do purchase the item, they still wonder if they made the right choice. I've been into outdoor stores of all shapes and sizes and in varying geographic regions, but they're all the same! Big or small, they look no different than one another. Gear from wall to wall, piles of clothes, and in more stores than I care to remember - tents hanging from ceilings!! Someone tell me in why on this green earth would it make any sense to hang a tent from a ceiling?! It's as though owner is trying to display as many items as they can because that's what the store down the road does. All I want to do is shake the owner and ask them one simple question; "If you can't honestly describe to me in detail why I would need each item sold, why do you have it available in the first place?" If they tell me it's because they want to provide the customer with "options,” I’d probably blow my top and within minutes you'd find me swinging from those upside-down tents hanging above me fifteen feet in the air.
How are these buyers choosing what to sell in their stores? Have they actually used the gear they're selling? If so, did it work the right way? Why or why not? And if it didn't work, is there a reason it's still on the shelf? And don't tell me it's because you got a good deal on it. And again…why is that tent hanging from the ceiling and why are you stocking laptop backpacks when this is an outdoor store?
Here's what I think - the outdoor store must be reinvented, or at a minimum shaken up. The current model that exists is not designed to serve the customer, rather it's designed to serve the bottom line. When patrons walk out of the store they will have a pack full of gear that may "work," but will it work for what they intend to use it for? I used to think these stores had all the answers to my questions, but the more I've researched the topic of backpacking and learned about gear, the more I've realized that outdoor retail is more about moving product and less about helping the customer find exactly what they're needing.
What burns me the most about this standard retail model is if a store sells someone the wrong product, it could actually result in some really bad experiences for the customer. Anyone entering that store is literally putting their comfort and even safety in the hands of whoever they interact with that day because they're the so called "experts." Am I alone in thinking that this is a huge responsibility? If I suggest a piece of gear to a friend, I make it personal because I know they're relying on me to suggest something that meets their needs.
This post is full of a lot of generalizations, but I hope you get the point. I admit, though I have my issues with outdoor stores, I still visit them regularly to put my hands on products, to see what's new, and to engage with those few employees who happen to be experts in a certain activity. More often than not, when I'm asked if I'm looking for anything specific, I usually reply "nope, just here for my outdoor store therapy." It's fun being around all that gear on the walls because I like to think of all the adventures that could happen and will happen with it. Someone somewhere is going to buy that backpack on the wall, stuff it full of gear, and carry it with them to some remote wilderness where the stresses of day to day life will disappear for however long they're there for. It doesn't get any better than that and it drives home to me why it's so important to make sure whoever that someone is has exactly what they need.
Mark my words - change will come to the world of outdoor stores. If it means I'm the one to change it then so be it. If I do, you'll all be the first to know, and if not…well, I'll just sit here in my armchair and spew forth opinions all day on how these stores could improve how they serve their customers. I'll make this promise to you right now - if there is ever a time when By Land retails anything, you can bet the farm that when you come to visit, you'll be met with employees that actually use the gear they're offering, they'll know why they're offering it, and they will ensure that when you leave the store you're as informed on the gear as they are.
Oh…and I promise there won't be tents hanging from the ceilings.
Till we meet again (insert cool sword move and foggy exit)!