The Merkel Family Ties: Community, Competition & Connections
The Merkels Loom Large on Bozeman, Montana’s Outdoor Retail Scene.
Chalet Sports & The Round House Sports Center: Bozeman, MT
Sisters Jennifer and Marinna Merkel love everything about Big Sky Country and the great outdoors, including competing against one another with dueling outdoor specialty stores some 14 blocks apart on Main Street in Bozeman, Montana. Nearly a decade ago in August 2010, the now fourth-largest city in the Treasure State was named the “Best Place to Live in the West for Skiing” by Outside. By 2025, Bozeman is projected to surpass Great Falls as the state’s third-largest city.
“Bozeman has always been a destination for tourism, for travel because of the draw to Yellowstone Park,” offers Marinna. “We’ve been discovered. We’re definitely a destination spot now for people to escape to whether it’s winter or summer.”
Both outdoor retail businesses pride themselves in not only outfitting their customers in the proper outdoor gear for whatever endeavor they intend to partake, but also directing them to the best area “hot spots,” including Bridger Bowl and Big Sky Resort, and what places to stay away from.
Round House and Chalet Sports, the longest running ski shops in this fast-growing outdoor mecca in southwestern Montana, have both been owned and operated by the Merkel Family since 1977 when Dad Larry purchased Chalet Sports, which was founded in 1953. Both stores have been Grassroots Outdoor Alliance members for nearly five years and have seen their top and bottom lines benefit from the increased interest in Bozeman, which is also home to 15,000 students at Montana State University.
“We very much work hard on being distinctly different,” says Jennifer, confirming customers to either store aren’t made aware of the family connection between the banners.
Round House opened in 1971 on the very weekend when Jennifer was born — she was promptly shuttled to the store with mom Rita upon hospital discharge. All through high school as she biked, hiked, fished, ski raced, played soccer and rafted, Jennifer would work after school at Round House vacuuming and stocking shelves. For Marinna, the youngest Merkel, 18 years her sister’s junior, her early days before helping out in the family business were consumed by dance.
“Mom put me in ballet when I was three years old, lovingly saying she was tired of standing on a ski hill,” remembers Marinna.
Today, the 8,000-sq. ft. Round House remains a vital part of the Merkel Family business, spearheaded by Marinna, brother Ryan and father Larry, but is in direct competition with Jennifer, who took over management of 4,800-sq. ft. Chalet Sports in 1997 after college and a career outside the family business.
“There never was an expectation that we’d work in the stores,” says Marinna, “it was all by choice after each of us went off and did our own thing.” For her, it was work in the software and fishing industries.
While both outdoor specialty shops exist on the same thoroughfare, Round House and Chalet are distinctly different beyond their retail floor space and Merkel-led management teams. Buying is done separately for both Round House, considered more of a destination with customers looking for something specific when they arrive, and Chalet Sports, which caters more to walk-in traffic tourists in its concentrated downtown area. They are managed as separate corporations despite the family connection.
“At the end of the day, we’re as competitive as an REI or another local ski shop. We look at each other as another competitor,” remarks Jennifer, adding Merkel Family gatherings never get testy because business talk is prohibited.
On the retail floor, personnel work diligently to foster the same feelings among customers in both banners, “to both enjoy and experience the outdoors and community whether it be one of the areas two prominent ski areas, a river or a local museum, “ says Jennifer.
“A great asset to our organization is having the other store” she continues. “From a standpoint, if someone discovers a line or a segment of a line from a vendor that might suit the other store better and might have more success there. You have your intel, if you will. It allows us to have a little bit of added [product] knowledge about some of the brands that we might not carry.”
Adds Marinna, “The staff [at Round House] has a strong understanding of what the other store carries. Recommendations go both ways…The benefit of having family in the businesses is we bounce ideas off each other, we collaborate to better serve both [stores’] clientele and have that leverage between the two.”
But later, Jennifer laughs and admits she first might head to the Round House to grab a particular item wanted by a Chalet Sports customer.
Bozeman is a community that supports and buys local, a factor the sisters Merkel are cognizant of when making recommendations to customers for any type of product or service.
The Merkels Loom Large on Bozeman, Montana’s Outdoor Retail Scene.
One merchandise commonality among both banners is their respective lack of snowboard gear. At Chalet Sports, the summer season merchandise mix is divided among bike (45 percent), lifestyle clothing (45 percent) and footwear (10 percent) with an added service level provided by a full-time bike shop with mechanics on staff. The winter season is dominated by skis, cross-country and downhill, with a full-service ski tuning service shop and a huge footwear, apparel and accessories department.
At Round House where approximately 60 percent of annual revenue is generated during the winter season, two-thirds of the assortment is hard goods with the remainder outerwear and lifestyle garments. The ratio shifts to 80 percent hard goods in the summer when bikes, rafting and camping gear dominate. That assortment is supplemented with technical apparel. Year-round, the specialty store provides a shop to service gear whether it’s purchased at Round House or not.
Both banners carry different assortments from the likes of Patagonia, The North Face and PrAna.
So, what is the most rewarding part of being an outdoor specialty store owner?
“It’s sharing our love and passion for the outdoors and skiing,” proclaims Marinna. “I love everything about snow and sharing the experiences with someone new to them and also with the area experts.”
Jennifer shares her sister’s sentiment, adding being in business with family adds a special dimension but also a big grey area.
“I don’t think I would have it any other way. They have your back,” the mother of three teenage sons states emphatically, later noting that one of her biggest challenges is finding the proper balance of family life with the business.
But staffing is the biggest challenge for both operations, especially in a state where there isn’t a huge employment pool to draw from.
“When you find someone that has the passion (for the outdoors), you need to hold onto it… their energy for the outdoors,” says Jennifer.
Looking ahead to 2020, the sisters each express optimism about their businesses and Bozeman.
“It will be another awesome year of watching our community grow,” says Marinna, adding she hopes that there will be more time for the Family Merkel “to ski, hike and do more together in the outdoors.”
Asked the “loaded question” of what outdoor vendors could do better to help their specialty retail partners today, the sisters are both blunt and direct.
“They need to remember the specialty retailers who put them on the map and made them who they are today,” says Jennifer. “They need to remember where they came from.”