Grassroots perspective

The Specialists

Backcountry Essentials, Bellingham, WA

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 happy feet instead of 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 to try it out! When can I test it?’ That’s one of my favorite parts.

One of the most difficult parts is that, as we have learned, you can do everything wrong and if it snows you’ll be okay, but then you can do everything right and if it doesn’t snow, it just doesn’t matter. The thing that is most important as a ski shop is snow and it is the thing we have absolutely no control over. We are snow farmers. It is what it is.”

On the key issues impacting the outdoor retail business…

“Online sales, including Amazon, that’s a big issue. But in some ways part of our advantage as a shop is that we are new enough that we actually missed the heyday of brick-and-mortar retail. We have always had online competition, so we don’t really know any better.

“A lot of customers shop online — but a lot have bought gear online and got burned. I do think people are looking to come back into brick-and-mortar. Our sales are solely brick-and-mortar and from the get-go we have striven to be a part of our community. That is what people are looking for these days. They are looking for a shop that not only has the knowledge and expertise, but also has events for the community. We invite people in for movie nights or slide shows and we build relationships with various groups. These are things that are a benefit to us.”

On beer, gear and movie nights…

“We have a two-story building and the upstairs is our used gear attic. Everything is on wheels up there, so we can wheel the racks into the office up there and we have a projector and a mounted movie screen and a sound system. We have seating for 60 people and standing room for 40. We show ski movies and slide shows. And that goes along with our ‘beer and gear’ thing. Our beer sales could go up 30 percent for the whole month during one movie night.”

On deciding which brands and products to carry…

“I am data driven. I look at sales numbers… we work with NPD to see the info we need to see in terms of category leaders — that’s part of it. We also utilize ski demo opportunities and we test out as much product as possible. So we make our decisions in part via data and in part just based on what we like. We get to be gear geeks and bring in our favorite stuff.

“The GOA [Grassroots] show is the primary trade show for us for the majority of our brands, aside from ski hardgoods, and we have a regional trade show where we see the rest of our brands. We’ve gone to Outdoor Retailer, but for the most part we’ll go there to maybe find a new brand or look at the accessories.”

On his hopes for 2019…

“I’m looking for balance in my personal life between work and family and keeping myself healthy and active. That’s the main thing that I am trying to work on in 2019. On the business side, we have a great store manager and we now have someone who can up our online game, and my primary ski tech is now also becoming a buyer for us, so really I’m just looking to get myself out of their way. You want to get the right people and put them in the right positions to be successful.”

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