Five Rules for Retail Success

By Avery Stonich May 11, 2015

In a landscape where many outdoor specialty retailers struggle to survive, we still find some shining examples of thriving independent businesses—like River Sports Outfitters in Knoxville, Tennessee. What started decades ago as a 700-square-foot watersports shop has blossomed into a go-to resource for everything outdoor, with a bustling retail store, climbing center and two seasonal rental locations adjacent to some of the city’s finest biking, climbing and paddling.

After more than 30 years in business, River Sports Outfitters owner and OIA board member Ed McAlister knows a thing or two about how to run a successful retail operation. What it boils down to, he says, is positioning his store as a hub of the community, developing meaningful relationships with his customers, and working really hard.

Here are McAlister’s tidbits of wisdom for how to run a rock-star outdoor store.

1. Know your customers

“The goal is to match the customer with what they want for the price they can afford to pay. That’s part of qualifying the customer.”

McAlister doesn’t believe in selling something just for the sake of making a buck. He truly wants to help his customers by asking the right questions, listening and figuring out what people need. He argues that outdoor retailers tend to overcomplicate their customers, focusing on elite outdoor enthusiasts who climb technical mountains or charge hard down rapids. “That’s just a fraction of the real customer,” says McAlister. According to OIA ConsumerVue research, 72 percent of outdoor consumers think of outdoor recreation as simply being outdoors.

To learn more about its customers, River Sports Outfitters asks for contact information whenever someone makes a purchase. But McAlister wants to take it a step further, so he’s teaming with OIA to put a kiosk in his store to survey his customers on their attitudes and opinions about the outdoors. He’ll also use the online survey at events to collect data from people who don’t necessarily go into the store. This will help him understand who his customers are and how he can serve them better by classifying them into one of seven outdoor consumer segments from OIA’s ConsumerVue research data.

2. Engage the community

“We’ve been connected with the community since the day we opened the doors.”

The River Sports Outfitters calendar is packed with events that engage the community and build relationships with customers. A fulltime events coordinator organizes social paddles, ladies’ climbing nights, bike rides, trail runs, climbing classes, GoPro clinics, climbing lessons for people with disabilities and demo days to entice customers to get outside, have fun and meet new friends. A full fleet of rental equipment makes it easy for people who want to sample new sports. And monthly pint nights attract hundreds of folks who donate $5 a beer to support local charities. All of this adds up to cultivating a community of customers for life.

3. Balance product selection and inventory

“We try to have a very large selection for our customers and not put all of our eggs in a few baskets.”

Anticipating what customers want and managing inventory are constant challenges. McAlister carries a huge selection, and frequently brings in new product to keep customers returning to the store. In addition to carrying the major brands, he also looks for emerging brands. His membership in Grassroots Outdoor Alliance helps him tap into trends. He also relies on his salespeople to listen to what customers say they want and write it on a “needs clipboard.”

Of course, placing big orders and buying broadly carries risk. Products expected to be top sellers can end up tanking. McAlister cringes at having extra inventory and finds creative ways to keep it moving—such as sales that offer whimsical discounts based on current events, such as if the groundhog sees its shadow or how much the temperature rises that day. He avoids offering a lot of sale items because he doesn’t want train customers to expect discounts.

4. Be bold with marketing

“Events might be our most effective marketing, but you can’t measure them. You just take your dollars and spread them out and hope you spend them right.”

McAlister strives to maintain customer awareness in a town crowded with competitors. River Sports Outfitters does a little bit of everything: direct mail pieces, social media, email blasts, radio and newspaper ads and lots and lots of events. The store even partners with the University of Tennessee to offer noncredit classes, tapping into 27,000 students just 2 miles up the road. In addition, McAlister says it’s critical to have a web presence, even if online sales aren’t a huge part of your business.

McAlister also seeks innovative ways to partner with local businesses. Recently he teamed with a restaurant to create t-shirts the servers wear, thus creating walking billboards that promote local shopping and dining.

5. Try new things

“Sometimes if everything is going OK, you get in a habit and don’t venture out and test new things. You have to think outside the box continually.”

McAlister stresses the need to constantly innovate and not get stuck in a rut. Over the years, he’s proven that he isn’t afraid to test the waters, so to speak. Some experiments are small, like hosting a happy hour. Others take a lot of guts, like opening an indoor climbing center next to the store—which River Sports Outfitters did in 1997. It’s been a tremendous success, creating a spot to hold classes and engage the local high school climbing league.

The store also ventured into rentals, opening two seasonal locations with a fleet of hundreds of boats, bicycles and standup paddleboards. The rental business is going gangbusters, with revenues up roughly 35 percent last year. Most recently McAlister partnered with the Ijams Nature Center to bolt a new climbing route at a quarry in town and also plans to help build a handicapped-accessible dock on the Tennessee River. Suffice to say that River Sports Outfitters makes regular deposits in the bank of goodwill, which doesn’t go unnoticed by Knoxville locals.

Live your passion

It’s clear that McAlister loves his job. In fact, the River Sports Outfitters tagline is “Live Your Passion.” Passion for his business infuses everything McAlister does and spreads to his customers. When asked what has kept him in business all this time, his answer is simple: “The absolute fun of hooking people up with something they’re going to enjoy. What we sell is fun.”

While McAlister says it’s tough to pinpoint exactly what generates the most positive results for his business, he must be doing something right. Last year was his best sales year to date, despite fierce competition in Knoxville, including a large retailer who recently opened down the road. “We’ve worked extremely hard and never taken anything for granted,” says McAlister.