Published in Economic Development
Gazelle Sports has found a niche in outdoor recreation by serving runners and walkers. Gazelle Sports has found a niche in outdoor recreation by serving runners and walkers. COURTESY PHOTO

Local outdoor retailers find success in niche market

BY Sunday, March 01, 2020 04:30pm

Retailers serving the outdoor recreation niche say focusing on that specialty has helped them remain viable operations in West Michigan.

As national outdoor retailers like Moosejaw and REI move into West Michigan, the local operations credit their niche branding and community engagement as giving them a leg up in an increasingly saturated outdoor retail market.

“Specialty retailers in general are making their mark and bringing specialized services and direct customer contact back into the world of retail,” said Mike Murray, a senior vice president at the West Michigan office of Colliers International. “People who are very into (outdoor recreation) tend to gravitate toward those stores that are involved in the community.”

MiBiz spoke with West Michigan-based outdoor retailers about how they have worked to grow amid challenging times for retail.

Bill & Paul’s Sporthaus 

Grand Rapids Charter Township-based Bill & Paul’s Sporthaus recently began work on an expansion, dubbed Beyond Bill & Paul’s, at 551 Settlers Drive in Ada.

The shop, which was founded in 1961 with a focus on skiing, plans to open the more than 3,600-square-foot store as part of the sweeping Ada village redevelopment. Bill & Paul’s also underwent a renovation in late 2018 at its flagship store at 1200 East Paris Ave. SE, which involved gutting and redesigning the interior of the store. 

Jon Holmes, director of e-commerce and marketing for the company, has been with Bill & Paul’s for 27 years. The store has grown steadily because of Michigan’s ties with recreation, Holmes said. He also hypothesizes that’s why more national outdoor retailers have located operations in West Michigan in recent years. 

“The types of people moving into Grand Rapids are starting to find those activities, so it’s natural that there would be more retailers taking advantage of that,” he said. 

Specialty stores that focus on outdoor recreation benefit from low-cost, big box stores going out of business, because “customers need to go somewhere,” Holmes said. Customers at these specialty retailers are usually quite invested in the activity for which they’re shopping. 

“The people who are going to buy the least expensive products are going to shop online,” he said. “But those that are invested in their activities will still want to come talk to people who know what they’re representing and look at the gear before they spend money on it.” 

Remaining viable in the outdoor recreation retail business also involves communicating with customers and paying attention to their evolving wants and needs, as well as keeping staff educated on new equipment and trends, Holmes said. 

“You can’t just be stuff in a box anymore and expect people to come buy it,” he said.

Gazelle Sports 

First founded in Kalamazoo, Gazelle Sports has been catering to walkers and runners for the last 35 years. 

Since opening in 1985, the company has expanded to Grand Rapids, Holland, Northville and Birmingham and has about 200 employees.

“We definitely lean hard into running and walking, and living a healthy lifestyle,” said Chris Lampen-Crowell, co-founder and owner of Gazelle. “For us, that is really critical. We’re not only thought of as experts, but we build relationships with people who are going for that same kind of life.”

Lampen-Crowell also serves as a member of the Michigan Outdoor Recreation Advisory Council, where he lends his voice to efforts that enhance the outdoor recreation experience in the state.

Even though Lampen-Crowell enjoys lots of other outdoor activities like kayaking and biking, Gazelle has found its niche with the running community, which helps when it comes to building a loyal customer base, he said. 

Cara Zerbel, community engagement manager for Gazelle, said each store location has specialized events and camps for that specific running and walking community. Gazelle also helps to foster interest by helping runners train to achieve their running goals. This engagement strategy has provided the company with a leg up on national retailers, she said. 

“Our focus on what we’re best at, on what our area of excellence is, helps us to stay focused and ensure we’re addressing the needs of that community directly,” Zerbel said. “While the other larger national retailers have such a breadth of offering, we have the opportunity to dig really deeply into what our community is really looking for and the needs of that community in each of our locations.”

Switchback Gear Exchange

Switchback Gear Exchange, located at 2166 Plainfield Ave. NE in Grand Rapids, sells gently used outdoor gear and bicycles.

Ryan Olthouse, an owner of the shop, said Switchback has no desire to be a “new, boutique-y, spend-y” retail outlet because of the company’s commitment to sustainability. 

“There’s a lot of (gear) that just ends up making its way to the corner of a garage,” he said. “We try to get the word out and intercept that as much as possible.” 

Switchback was founded in Marquette in 2010, and opened its Grand Rapids shop in 2014. The Grand Rapids location has expanded multiple times to make room for more retail space and a bike shop. 

Switchback sources bikes from around the country to sell in the shop, and will buy gently-used outdoor gear from people who visit the store. The business also offers Outdoor School, which provides hands-on educational opportunities in outdoor recreation activities such as backpacking, hiking, camping and biking. Switchback will also help people plan outdoor experiences.

In the time Switchback has been in business, Olthouse has observed the customer volume getting larger. Nationally, he perceives people are becoming healthier and more aware of the benefits of outdoor recreation. In West Michigan, that is underscored with the investments public bodies have made in recreational activities, like bike trails. Switchback is involved in advocating for these investments with the International Mountain Bicycling Association or Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition.

“Grand Rapids is getting more recognized,” Olthouse said. “With what I see, Grand Rapids is becoming more and more healthy and more and more outdoor-oriented,” he said. “That’s a goal we like to participate in.”

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