Outdoor Shops Answer Much-Needed Call of the Wild

While it’s true that some national retailers such as REI, and brand outlets, such as Nike, Under Armour and Patagonia, are doing their part to contain COVID-19 by closing locations, an informal survey of dozens of independent outdoor stores across the country finds that most outdoor specialty shops remained open as of Tuesday March 17.

Many are limiting their hours of operation, and just about everyone is taking major precautions and altering procedures to safeguard customers and employees. But in general, outdoor specialty shops are taking things one day at a time while embracing an important role they can play in their communities during these disorienting, inconvenient and sometimes-frustrating times.

“Now more than ever,” posted the Alpine Shop of Kirkwood, Mo., “Alpine Shop’s mission statement rings true: ‘We love and need the mountains, trails, rivers and wild places. They nourish our spirit.’”

Indeed, in challenging times, it is more important and more beneficial than ever to find solace in our nation’s trails and wilderness, agreed Brian and Amy Sweet, owners of Cascades Outdoor Store in Winthrop, Wash. Cascade is staying open to provide friends and neighbors “the running and walking shoes, packs, apparel and anything else they need to stay fit both mentally and physically,” said the Sweets. “Rest assured that we are being diligent in our cleaning schedule. If you need us, we’re here.”

It’s really not a hard case to make. Just about every form of entertainment and social interactions have been shut down and could be for another month or more. Free time is suddenly available. And you want some social distance? Outdoor enthusiasts invented social distancing, albeit customers may need advice on places to go beyond the high-traffic and most-popular trails and destinations.

“During these strange, unprecedented times we want to remind you to take care of yourselves, family, and community,” posted the crew at Backcountry Essentials in Bellingham, Wash. “Short walks or hikes, bike rides, and of course skiing are all great ways to recharge when feeling anxious and overwhelmed.”

It’s an old argument that’s particularly pertinent right now. Avid trail runners, for instance, don’t have to worry about their workouts being disrupted because their local gym closed. And by most indications, folks are getting it.

According to reports from the Northwest Avalanche Center, snow is falling in the mountains, “and our community is still very active in the backcountry.” Educational programs and special events have been postponed, but NWAC field operations and forecasts continue as normal. “Our goal to provide you with the best possible resources to safely explore the backcountry remains unchanged,” said the group.

On the other side of the country in rural Vermont, home to outdoor PR company Pale Morning Media, “most of us are still getting out plenty,” said account manager Chris Hrenko. Of course, ski areas have been closed, “but there’s no harm in hiking for turns,” said Hrenko. “It’s that lodge and dining hall, maybe even the chairlift, that you need to avoid.”

With temps above freezing most days lately, “we’re doing plenty of gravel riding too, albeit in small groups with plenty of social distance,” added Hrenko.

Things certainly can be a little trickier for active users in dense urban areas, admited Hrenko, but most cities have access to at least somewhat remote experiences within a short drive. And if you’re healthy and not showing symptoms, “most experts agree that it’s still possible to get out, get some fresh air and vitamin D, without endangering yourself or others,” Hrenko pointed out.

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During the last few days at Mountain Air in San Luis Obispo, Calif., “we’ve heard from our customers about how thankful they are that we’ve been here, offering the service and products that they love, allowing them access to the things they love doing – outside,” posted the outdoor shop. “Stay tuned as we roll out some cool opportunities for you to stay connected to each other, the outdoors, and to The Mountain Air.”

All the while, we noted several instances where outdoor shops, in reaction to the extreme changes in consumer behavior, are actively enhancing their customer experience strategies. In order to alleviate any trepidation over entering a crowded store, several independent shops have instituted curb-side pick-up, expeditated delivery options and even personalized shopping experiences.

Eagle Eye Outfitters in Dothan, Ala., for instance, is now offering “virtual personal shopping experiences” via Facebook, Instagram or email. “Send us a message with what you are looking for, and we’ll be happy to send you images and price details of the products we have available,” announced the shop. Purchases can be made via PayPal, and Eagle Eye provides free shipping on orders of more than $100, and $9 flat-rate shipping on orders up to $99.

“Personal shopping – we can do that,” advised the Great Outdoor Store in Sioux Falls, S.D. “Give us a call, and let us know what you are looking for.”

“We are offering curbside pickup and free delivery in the metro area for all purchases,” posted Buffalo Outfitters in Jackson, Miss. “Just give us a call or message us on any of our social media sites.”

Similar sentiments came from Pack Rat Outdoor Center in Fayetteville, Ark., as well as Roads Rivers and Trails in the Milford suburb of Cincinnati, which invited customers to “call and schedule some Facetime” in lieu of the in-store shopping experience.

Even at Maine Sport Outfitters in Camden, which thought it best to close its doors until April 1, staff will be on-site periodically to fulfill any possible orders that come in via phone message or email, said Troy Curtis, CEO and general manager. “Maine Sport will do its best to process these requests and deliver items to vehicles on MSO premises,” he said.

Maybe it’s too soon to be talking about a silver lining, but in the near term, current conditions truly do call for some time and personal reflection within the solace of outdoor pursuits. In the longer term, efforts by independent outdoor shops to enhance channel strategies and add personalization to the customer experience not only serves an immediate purpose right now, it’s likely even more beneficial to business in the years to come.

“These are strange times, and things feel uncertain,” posted the Great Outdoor Store. “Know that we are here to lend a little normalcy.”

Photo courtesy Rumpl