Outdoor Insight

January 2019

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42 • Outdoor Insight • January 2019 outdoorinsightmag.com By Cara Griffin NORTHWEST OUTDOOR SHOP Backcountry Essentials is a specialist even among the specialists. The shop, which does most of its business in ski and snowsports, has a keen focus on backcountry customers and differentiates itself as a shop specializing in ski boot fitting. The store, founded a dozen years ago by husband and wife team Erica and Chris Gerston, includes a 1900-square-foot first floor space full of new gear and an upstairs used gear attic. The upstairs space can hold 100 people for the shop's movie and slide show nights and the beer sold in the store's cooler adds a category to fill out the community-oriented shop's "beer and gear" product offerings. Here, Chris Gerston shares his insight on key product trends, finding his way into retail and what his outlook is for 2019. On the importance of location… "We are about an hour-and-15 minutes from Mt. Baker ski area. Ski mountaineering is a big focus for the skiers living here. Bellingham has a lot going for it across the board, from paddlesports, mountain biking, rock climbing to some alpine skiing — but for me, ski mountaineering is what I absolutely love about Bellingham from a recreational standpoint. "Our ski business starts up in September and then we are still skiing most years all the way into July. Every month, ski is in our top 10 categories, except for June through August — by that point people have gotten the deals they are looking for in the post-season." On the shop's specialty — boot fitting… "The thing we hang our hat on is our boot fitting. We have always touted ourselves as a boot fitting shop. Of skis, boots and bindings, we feel boots are the most important part. Boots are the comfort point and the control point and having h a p p y f e e t i n s t e a d o f miserable feet wins customers for us because it's an experience they've never had before." On why being a specialist matters… "It's really hard to buy [ski] boots online. You'll have an issue unless you try it on. It's not just about where you will use the boot, but also 'What is the shape of your foot?' There are various ways companies make a boot — one might fit the forefoot fine but not the ankle and calf, or the top of the boot can dig into your calf. It takes someone with some knowledge to find out how to make sure the boot fits your leg and foot." On the growth of backcountry gear sales… "The category is seeing a ton of growth, especially in an area like ours where the ski area has an open gate policy for 'slackcountry'. You can use lift access for the ride up and then tour out of the gates, out of bounds, ski down and then get back in bounds and ride the lifts back up. That has been the boom. So while we sell alpine boots, the biggest category [driven by backcountry growth] is the crossover boot. People want a boot with walk mode, even if they don't 'need' it. It is like having four-wheel drive in Los Angeles — people just want to have it. It's the same sort of thing. People want to have the walk mode even if it is just to walk across the parking lot and avoid that sort of ski swagger you get when your ski boots don't flex." On the importance of the "right" ski… "I downplay the importance of a particular ski, but there are nuances and preferences in skis. They are sexy and get all the glory, but to me the boot is the most important part. I run a boot fitting shop, so of course that is what I am going to say. Also, the binding is really important from a touring perspective and you want a ski that fits the type of skiing you are going to be doing. People like the idea of a 'quiver of one' ski in our area, but people who can differentiate, we like those people. There are people who recognize there will always be something you are giving up if you just go with one ski." On the store's key categories aside from skis and boots… "When we opened up the shop, my mindset was that I wanted to be a gear shop that sells gear. In some ways, to our detriment, we are very good at gear but as a friend once painfully put it to me, it looks like we dabble in clothing. We hired a manager/buyer to help us with softgoods and in the couple of years she has been here we have improved. I would say we are 70 percent gear sales and 30 percent clothing, while most stores are the opposite of that. And we are close to 50/50 men's and women's apparel sales. We have been in business for 12 years, but compared to the [Grassroots] GOA group, we still feel young and new, and we are learning things all of the time. "Our big categories are skiing, apparel, camping, hiking, climbing, footwear and accessories. We brought in a beer cooler a number of years ago and we keep about 99 bottles or canned beers in there for sale — that's our other category. We sell gear and beer." On the best (and the hardest) part about being a snowsports retailer… "My favorite thing about being a shop owner is testing gear out. When companies want to bring in a new product, I always say 'I'd love The Specialists BACKCOUNTRY ESSENTIALS, BELLINGHAM, WA GRASSROOTS P E R S P E C T I V E S

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