30 May How did I get here?
“…And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?”
The Talking Heads, “Once In A Lifetime”
And the days go by, and suddenly you find yourself far from where you began, doing things the same way you’ve always done them, because this is the way that things have been done. For instance, when we founded Boulders Climbing Gym in 1996, we deliberately left out a pro shop. Literally, we didn’t even build a space for one.
At the time, there were six shops in town that carried climbing equipment. A couple were very hard core, with pitons and porta-ledges and plastic mountaineering boots, the whole works. We thought that it was better for them to send us members and we would send them customers in return. That seemed like a more than equal exchange–back then.
Besides, I was a rep for major climbing equipment and footwear brands, and one of my former partners owned one of the stores in town. The conflict-of-interest issues appeared to far outweigh the potential upside, so we decided we would only sell energy bars and sodas. And more or less this was how it stayed for at least a decade.
Fast-forward to about 2006, and the Madison retail landscape had changed significantly. By then, there were only three shops in town that sold climbing equipment, and they only carried the basics: Beginner shoes, harness, chalk bags, carabiners and belay devices. Retailers had discovered that the margins and turns were too low to stock expensive cams and ice axes, and so they cut back or eliminated the climbing department altogether.
One of the key retailers in town pulled me aside at a trade show and actually asked me to put a pro shop in Boulders: “We have people come in all the time wanting to buy cams and nuts and high-end shoes, but we can’t afford to stock these things; why don’t you guys take that business, and let us outfit the beginner climbers?” The idea was compelling.
At the same time, we had a young employee who was keen to take on a project. We gave him a small budget and a couple of hand-me-down glass display cases from one of the other shops in town, and our pro shop was born. We stocked it full of cams, nuts, pitons, and even ice screws. Within a few months, dust had settled on everything, and we had our first blow-out sale. And for a long time, this is how we continued: We would buy a bunch of stuff that our young employee was excited about, we would let it sit around for awhile, and then when it sat around long enough we sold it for about cost.
As a rep, I knew that this is not how retail was done. As a gym owner, it didn’t really concern me. Some of my top climbing equipment customers by that time were large climbing gyms throughout the Midwest, and they all did retail right. They dedicated space to their assortments, they merchandised well, they had real buyers, and they trained their staff to sell gear. By contrast, we had small glass display cases in the corner filled with dusty metal stuff. As a gym owner, my viewpoint was that it’s far more lucrative to figure out how to double birthday party business than it is to manage retail in a space that was never meant to support retail business.
It’s not that we lose money. There has always been about a 30% gross margin between what we spend for inventory, and what we sell at retail. Because we pay the rent, keep the lights on, and the gym staffed with memberships and day passes, margin hasn’t been as much of a concern as it would be if we were only a retailer. Frankly, we’ve viewed what little retail we’ve done as customer-service, and a little bonus money.
But the truth is we can do better. And there’s good opportunity, not just for us but for climbing gym pro shops in general. Retail has never been more disrupted than it is today. Specialty stores – particularly climbing shops – are challenged in ways that they never imagined, and there are no easy solutions. Consumers want to touch, feel, and try-on life-safety equipment and climbing shoes before they buy them, but sales don’t support specialty retail stores stocking sufficient inventory of climbing equipment to give customers a decent choice, so too many customers are forced to buy gear online.
What we know now is that climbing gym pro shops have distinct selling advantages over traditional brick-and-mortar and even over online retailers. We’ll examine some of these in depth as we work to improve sales, turns, and margins at the little pro shop that was never meant to be.
Coming up next time: Where we are, by the numbers.