Death of a salesman

Posted by Ken Campbell June 16, 2010 5 Comments 1749 views

I suppose I’ve always known it would happen. With new gear arriving every day and an optimistic feeling that maybe the economy is on the rebound, I wasn’t really expecting it to happen right now but when things end, I suppose it’s always a sudden rush.

Backpackers Supply, the only privately-owned gear shop left in Tacoma and my place of employment for most of the last 18 years, is closing its doors. By the end of July, I will be officially unemployed, along with a dozen other people and, if you want outdoor equipment, you’ll need to find somewhere else to get it. And don’t be surprised, wherever you do end up, if that place is gone before too long as well. Eventually you’re likely to find what you need online, not by choice, but simply because there won’t be anywhere else to turn to.

Of course, finding something online is at the root of why we have come to this situation. Over the past 3 or 4 years, we have essentially become a fitting room for our online competition. People would come to our demo days and try kayaks and spend hours quizzing staff about the relative merits of one particular boat over another. Then, their questions answered and their decisions made, they would sit down at their terminals and order their boats and gear online, because it cost less. Their loyalty to their wallets was their main concern, and they didn’t see any reason to pay for all the information and experience that their local store had provided.

“Climbers” would come in for what would amount to in-store clinics on the use of specialized pieces of protection, asking the person behind the counter about what gear to use, how it worked and where they could go to use it. They would walk in knowing nothing – and I mean nothing – and they would leave with a solid understanding of what they needed. But they wouldn’t actually purchase it from us; why should they, when they can get it online for a few dollars less?

I remember when Tacoma had a half-dozen outdoor specialty stores. As of the end of July, it won’t have any. I’m sure there were different reasons for each business to fold, but in the end, it was the customers who chose to go somewhere else that made the ultimate decision a reality.

I’ll be the first to admit that, as a store, Backpackers Supply could have done more. I think that significant buying decisions were poorly made, and our selection of kayaks, canoes and paddleboards did not keep up with the way the market was headed. For the most part, however, I think our biggest shortcoming was that we did not adapt quickly enough to the changes in the way that the consumer actually consumes.

Manufacturers bear some of the responsibility as well. If the people who make the stuff wanted to stop the online undercutting of their dealers, they could do so. But when you have the makers of a product wanting to sell as many as they can, and the buyers wanting to spend as little as possible, it’s the guy in the middle that suffers. For those of you who just wanted to “cut out the middle man,” that’s exactly what you did. I hope it was worth it for you.

For those loyal customers that I have come to know over the years, the ones who shopped with us because they knew they were getting value they couldn’t get elsewhere, I am grateful. I will miss you all and I wish you all the best. I know I’ll still see you from time to time, out there, where we belong.

On a personal level, this development throws the trip I have planned for this summer into limbo. I should probably be out pushing a resume instead of a kayak or a paddleboard. I haven’t made a final decision at this point about exactly what I will do but I’m going to give it some thought over the next week or so. I was supposed to have started one month from today but that may change.

As a final note, for those of you for whom price is the only concern, you’ll be able to get some screaming deals once the inevitable clearance sale kicks off. That’s some sweet irony, eh? We’re going out of business, but you’ll still be able to squeeze that turnip right up till the end. You know who you are.

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