Grassroots perspective

A Mountain Shop with Heart

Alpenglow Sports, Tahoe City, CA

When Brendan Madigan first began working at Tahoe City, CA, mountain shop Alpenglow Sports in 2003, he was a self-described “part-time employee and mostly full-time ski bum.” He credits the influence of “legendary Alpenglow-ers” such as Dave Nettle, Aaron Zanto and Mark Kircher for teaching him “the value of pre-work dawn patrol and what it meant to live a fully realized life in the mountains.” Madigan eventually moved into full-time work at the shop and then ownership in 2011 when he purchased the shop from original owner Don Fyfe.

Madigan says his retail ethos centers around giving back to the mountain community that has helped the shop grow over the last 40 years. For him, community and retail are intertwined. In addition to being the owner of the shop, he is the brainchild behind more than a few high-end, large-scale experiential events in North Lake Tahoe. These include the Alpenglow Mountain Festival, the Alpenglow Winter Speaker Series, the Broken Arrow Skyrace and Afterglow, A Mountain Storytelling Podcast.

Here, Madigan shares his thoughts on life, retail, the outdoor industry and how selling snow sports has its peaks and valleys.

On his favorite things about being the owner of an outdoor shop…

“The people, unequivocally! Working with a tight knit group to create something bigger than ourselves is the most fulfilling job I could ever ask for. It’s not always easy, but the tough times bond us closer as a family and we’re able to pass this familial feel on to our customers. After our team, the customers are the best part. We like to say we inspire others to do what inspires them… and have been doing so for nearly 40 years.”  

On the challenges of retail…

“To be honest I don’t view anything as a challenge, outside of unpredictable weather patterns, fire and the state of the economy. We’re firm believers that if we follow our hearts (and community-centric business mantra) things will always work out. Luckily we have 40 years of track record here. I think challenges have a negative connotation … but we view traditional challenges merely as opportunities in disguise.”

On the impact of weather on business…

“Weather can influence things greatly if it doesn’t snow in the winter or is smoky in the summer. The December holiday season is pretty important, as we can do 15 percent or more of our annual volume in two weeks. If there’s no snow during that timeframe it can hurt. However, generally things have an odd way of working out. For instance, it can snow too much where it closes the highways and people can’t get to the lake, so it’s all about timing and quantity. We also carry a diverse enough product offering that if it doesn’t snow we sell more running shoes and lifestyle apparel through the calendar year. And if it really snows we sell backcountry touring gear well into the summer. I believe in the yin and yang of doing retail in a mountain recreation destination.”

On the relationships between retailers and brands, and the big issues facing the industry…

“We are drawn to brands that have an identity, are innovative, tell a story and see the value of supporting shops like ours. We think heritage shops have created the bedrock upon which the industry exists and as such place a high demand on their support. This comes primarily through financial support of events… and is reflected in our purchasing. If you are a brand aggressively selling direct to consumer or one who chooses not to support our events, we buy less from you. If you support us financially, we buy more. We also seek to do business more closely with brands that are Grassroots Outdoor Alliance Members.

For retailers, I’m always brutally honest that I think there’s a lot of average-at-best retail out there. I encourage people to do it for the right reasons and the rest falls into place. After your team, the customer is the single most important factor in your business and everything you do should come back to benefit them. I also think we need to do a better job of increasing diversity and working diligently to protect our public lands. The current administration is frightening to say the least and it’s my hope their obtuse approach will continue to galvanize our industry.”

On the shifting balance between passion and business in the outdoor market…

“It might be because I’m getting older, but I think the industry has become less about the passion driving the sports and more about the financial componentry. It’s a big, competitive and saturated market, which in some instances drives some inevitable chasing of the not almighty dollar. Don Fyfe, the original owner of Alpenglow Sports, said it best: ‘We used to go to OR to get fired up on the product. Now we go to talk business.’ The growth and maturation of the industry has of course provided opportunities but I think balance is key.”

On community and retail…

“I feel a tremendous loyalty to give back to people who have supported the shop for nearly 40 years. The mountain shop, in my opinion, should be the hub of their community. Providing great advice on equipment and where to have fun is a given, but shops should also serve to be versed in the best local espresso, slice of pizza, etc., and arguably be in tune with the political, social and environmental issues that have direct impacts in the community. I believe in the utopic concept of outdoor/ski shops as the go-to resource for everything in each community.”

On the innovation in the ski/snow business…

“We’ve seen tremendous growth and traction in the ski touring hardgoods category. Bindings like the Salomon Shift and game-changing ski designs from DPS and Elan are allowing resort-backcountry hybrid skiers to really push their limits in both realms — using one setup. It’s no secret that ski touring is the only viable growth segment in snow sports (hello ski resorts? Why don’t you have an uphill policy?!?!) and we appreciate the R&D that has been pumped into the category for the ultimate performance benefit. I also like how people are becoming more tuned into spending their dollars with brands that stand for something and give back, and don’t just make money.”

On standout brands that are supporting specialty retail…

“Salomon, DPS Skis and Outdoor Research — all three [of these] companies see the value of supporting our events financially, but also the integrated tie-in of the retail component. Most importantly this benefits the end user with a fantastic experience, whether it’s a first-time backcountry skier or an aspiring Skyrunner.

“By catering to the community, the holistic benefit is that people turn around and support you back. We’ve had double-digit record months through the support of the above companies, all while keeping events free for the consumer and stoking the community. I firmly believe that companies have a responsibility to support heritage brick-and-mortar shops that are progressive in nature and encourage other owners to vote with their dollar. We’ve created custom skis, fun co-brand apparel and desirable sales incentives for the consumer through the help of those three progressive brands.”

On the value of trade shows…

“Trade shows are extremely valuable. The reality is we need them all in order to lock up sponsorships, see new product and enact marketing initiatives. Grassroots Outdoor Alliance (GOA) is tremendously important for us and the brands showing there understand the importance of such a specialty-centric buying group. OR is important for marketing meetings, sponsorships and celebrating the industry twice a year. I think all the shows have their place, but am also cognizant that isn’t the right answer for everyone in the industry. I’m not sure if there is a right answer here and I’m grateful I’m not in the position of figuring it all out.”

On finding new brands to carry in the store…

“We try to align with small brands that extend themselves in a GOA membership capacity. We used to find them in the outside tents at the OR Show and still do to some degree in the new format in Denver, but also do a fair amount of sleuthing online. Many times we try to look outside of the industry to surf and skate for more progressive trends.”

On what he’s hoping for in 2019…

“To be a better husband, friend, employer, owner. I always want to raise the bar personally and professionally in every single thing I do. I’d also like to get our podcast Afterglow into the ears of more people and grow our Mountain Festival into an internationally recognized event. The final hope would be to grow our Donor Party into a $250,000-500,000 anonymous philanthropic pool that holistically benefits Lake Tahoe non-profits making a tangible difference in our community.”

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