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Here’s Why Brands are Still Opening Brick and Mortar Stores in the Age of Online Retail

You can't get a free beer when you order skis online. Or get all touchy-feely with that new roof rack you've had your eyes on all summer.

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Blame it on Amazon. The online retail giant’s ubiquitous “smiling” boxes seem to be everywhere now. Granted, with much of the country under lockdown for the last year and a half, it makes sense that online shopping bloomed rapidly as it was one of the only ways American consumers could get anything from ski jackets to books to groceries.

This is why it seems odd that, while walking down Pearl Street in the outdoorsy city of Boulder, Colo., so many outdoor brands are popping up with their own retail storefronts. Helly Hanson, Nørrona, and Fjallraven have all opened up stores there over the past few years, and Black Diamond, Backcountry, and Stio recently opened their own shops as well.

And it’s not just in Boulder. Some brands, like Thule, are setting up shop in downtown Denver, Colo., and Rocky Mountain Underground is opening a new storefront location in Truckee, Calif.

After online retailers like Amazon just had an incredibly profitable year and more people are ordering things off the internet than ever before, it begs the question of why so many ski and outdoor brands are opening physical stores right now.

“While most of our business is driven through our focus on e-commerce, physical retail has been an integral part of our strategy from the beginning of Stio with our Jackson Mountain Studio opening for business on the same day [the brand launched] in the Fall of 2012,” says Megan Odom, Stio’s Retail Director.

Stio, who makes both technical ski apparel as well as outdoor-lifestyle threads, also has Mountain Studios in Teton Village and Park City. “Our brick and mortar spaces allow us to meet new customers and create experiences we aren’t able to duplicate in a digital format,” says Odom.

“The main goal of our expanding retail presence is to not just convert sales, but offer a communal hub in the locations of the sports that we serve,” echoes Devin Gillette, Director of Retail for Black Diamond. In addition to the new store in Boulder, the skiing, climbing, and apparel company has opened stores in Castle Rock, Colo., Big Sky, Mont., plus Salt Lake City and Park City, Utah. “Having a brick and mortar presence helps serve legitimacy to the brand and helps build trust and a deeper connection to the brand.”

Stio and Black Diamond are hardly pioneering anything by offering in-store experiences that aren’t directly related to selling pants. Patagonia storefronts nationwide are known to host speakers, athletes, and video premieres as a way to get people into the store and bond with the brand.

Related: This Independent Brick and Mortar Ski Shop Continues to Thrive Thanks to Family

Thule Denver
The new Thule storefront in Denver, Colo. Photo: Courtesy of Thule

These non-retail experiences aren’t unique to outdoor brands, either. It matches a broader retail industry trend called the “halo effect,” that writer Peter Maxwell defines as “the idea that brick and mortar spaces contribute often-unaccounted-for sales and brand-building value across other channels.”

“By investing in creating a place where people want to stay awhile, malls and shopping centers can become a marketing platform as much as they are a retail destination,” writes Benjamin Laker in Forbes. “Those that will succeed are those who invest in forward-thinking and organic marketing opportunities by infusing a community aspect to their properties.”

By having a dedicated analog space that is directly connected to a brand’s digital database and tracking system, retailers can see direct returns from having a physical space on their bottom line, even if the store itself isn’t profitable. This is the “omnichannel” approach of combining digital and physical brand building to drive sales and create consumer affinity.

“Our Mountain Studios and our e-commerce business operate on the same platform, providing a seamless, omnichannel customer experience whether they are shopping with us online or in person,” says Odom. “This allows us to continue to improve our fulfillment options and process efficiencies with our inventory across the company.”

“The Thule Store Denver, like many of our other Thule Brand Stores around the world, will be a destination for consumers looking to learn more about our brand, and will serve as an entry point for many existing Thule customers to learn more about some of our other categories and award-winning products,” says Chris Ritchie, Communications manager for Thule.

As Ritchie points out, while in-store happy hours and movie nights might be great experiences to build community, sometimes the retail experience provides customers with an opportunity to have experience with products that might not be best to buy online without getting their hands on first.

“When a new parent is looking for a baby stroller it can be important to come into a store to interact with the product and ask detailed questions to a sales representative,” says Ritchie. “And the same goes for a relative newcomer to rooftop tent camping, where experiencing the benefits of a deployable tent on top of your vehicle can best be accomplished by climbing up into one on display in our store.”

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Rocky Mountain Underground, or RMU, kicks all of these experiences up a notch with their new store in Truckee, Calif., that will complement the brand’s original store in Breckenridge, Colo., and another in Whistler, B.C. The new retail space in Truckee will feature a bar, restaurant, and outdoor patio with live music. The brand will also help with employee housing and coordinate events directly with local non-profits in the Tahoe area.

“Truckee has one of the most impressive ski and mountain bike communities in the world and we’re honored to join and contribute to the progression of the outdoor industry in Truckee,” says CEO Mike Waesche.

Skiers can expect to see more brands opening storefronts soon as the omnichannel trend grows, as well as non-outdoor “digital” brands popping up with analog storefronts.

In fact, down the road from the new Stio and Black Diamond stores in Boulder, Amazon recently opened a 4-Star store. Just a few doors down from the Eddie Bauer storefront on the 29th Street pedestrian mall, Amazon’s boutique store was full of thousands of products that have earned 4-stars or more on the retail giant’s website. There are 33 more stores like this throughout the U.S.A.

Breezing through the Amazon store the other day, I didn’t see any skis or roof racks for sale, but I did notice people checking out were being asked for their email addresses to make it easier to track purchases, just like at Stio.

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