Grassroots PErspectives

Little Rock’s Outdoor Home

Ozark Outdoor Supply: A Local Gear Specialist Since 1972.

Ozark Outdoor Supply is a specialty shop that serves as a “home” for outdoor goods in more ways than one. The quaint shop, which is located in a renovated house, is nestled right in the upscale neighborhood of the Heights in Little Rock, AR.

It’s been the area’s home for outdoor gear since 1972. The store’s current owner Jim Frank describes Ozark Outdoor’s early incarnation as a hardcore gear store that had several investors in its early years, but uncertain financial footing before finding its way in the ’80s.

Before his family purchased the store outright in 1986, Frank had already spent time working at the shop in his teenage years when his brother was one of the store’s investors. After attending college in the early 1980s, Frank, whose family had a history in retail, went to work as a computer programmer at Dillard’s. While he eventually made his way back to the outdoor shop, his time at Dillard’s included going through their buyer training program. “So I had some retail training,” he says.

Today the shop that Frank runs caters to an upscale clientele in what he calls an “old-money” neighborhood of Little Rock. The store offers high quality outdoor clothing and equipment, with a stated philosophy “to provide customers with the products, services and knowledge to help them get the most out of all their outdoor adventures.”

Here, Frank shares his thoughts on the store’s strategy and the specialty retail market in general.

How would you describe your community and your customers, and how has that changed over the years?

“We cater to teenagers all the way to 70 year olds gearing up for travel. We see a lot of families come in who are traveling and doing some high dollar trips such as safaris or mountaineering. We’ve had customers doing Kilimanjaro or Machu Picchu.

Our location backs up to some of the highest dollar houses/bank accounts in the state. They are not shy about spending money. In the early days, before the internet, before all the other stores started popping up selling The North Face or Patagonia, we were The North Face and Patagonia dealer — the only one — for 50 miles. Now of course that has changed.”

What’s the merch mix like in your store? How important is the “lifestyle” element?

“Footwear is very important to us. We have played with our apparel mix over the years and tried to ‘solve’ it, but we know that for us the gear and equipment strategy is where we are pretty unique. Women’s sportswear is tough for us. Our women’s business is focused on technical apparel and product you might need on your Africa safari or your Iceland trip — items that customers can’t just run off to Old Navy to buy.”

What’s your online strategy?

“We do not sell online. We made a conscious decision on that because I don’t feel like I can offer the customer anything better than anybody else is already doing online. And I still believe in customer service. That is the one thing we still have that a lot of stores don’t have. We try to beat it home to our employees. My parents taught me that the customer is always right and if you are not sure about it, then the customer is always right. I probably say yes too many times but in the long run I try to pick my battles carefully.”

How do you compete with discounters, big-box stores and online sellers?

“The most important category in that respect is footwear. I don’t think a lot of people want to get online and order three or four pairs of shoes and then send them back. Even as simple and easy as the companies make it for people to return items, it is still a hassle, it still has to be done.  So if the consumer wants it now and if we have the right size — and we bust our butt to keep our stock up — then the customer can get it now.

Human nature is to procrastinate and that has never changed throughout history, and it is never going  to change. We see a lot of consumers wait until the last minute and say ‘Oh my God, I need a new pair of shoes for my trip’ or ‘My rooftop rack for the car needs parts.’ Right now Amazon cannot process those last-minute transactions quickly enough.”

Which products draw people into the store as opposed to them going online to buy them?

“Nobody else in town carries rooftop car racks. It’s a niche we’ve carved out. People wait until the last week or day to deal with buying them. And you can’t rush that thing to your front door. A drone is not going to pick it up and deliver it. So us having rooftop boxes in the store and in stock all the time pays off. Our average inventory is higher than it should be, but when someone walks in and they need it now, that pays off. If you tell a customer, ‘well I can order it,’ hell, they can order it too.

Consumers go online and their brain gets scrambled figuring out what goes on the top of their car. They get the wrong parts or don’t get all the parts. They come in here and we bail them out.  

Packs are also something that you need to touch and feel. And footwear, of course, is very strong.”

Which brands do you feel are doing it “right” when it comes to your specialty business?

“We are very happy with Patagonia. Their message has come on strong. Their story has resonated with the general consumer. People get it. We are doing well with Rab and they take care of us. We look for brands that every other store in town doesn’t have — brands such as Luna Sandals and Bedrock Sandals. And Cotopaxi is coming on strong.”

What is your favorite thing about being an outdoor retailer?

“We had a tech rep come through years ago when I was in college or high school and he did a clinic on sales. It was not about selling a specific brand or a product, it was just about how to sell. He told us not to look at anything as an add-on sale because that feels like someone is putting a sticky note on you. His message was to really communicate with the customer and find out what they need. Ask where they are going. Then you as a salesperson can really think through all of the things that customer will be doing and what they might need. A customer might ask for boots, but if you think through the whole trip they plan to take, then you know they need footwear, socks, waterproofing, a rain jacket, maybe a hat or layers, and ‘oh by the way, this hammock would be great for the campsite, too.’ Think through what would make their trip really enjoyable. You are not just selling them boots. When a customer comes in and wants and appreciates the service you are giving them, that is fun to me.”

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