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Outdoor retailers fear oversaturated market


By Ashley Boncimino
ashleyb@scbiznews.com
Published Dec 24, 2013

With dozens of outdoor retailers already in the area and retail giant Cabela’s ramping up to open next spring, some outfitters are wondering how much more the market can take.

“In outdoor equipment, it’s becoming hard to turn a profit,” said Sunrift Adventures owner Bo Terry, whose business has been at its current location in Travelers Rest since 1994. “To me, it’s an oversaturation. I think Greenville is an over-marketed area.”

The Greenville area is home to a host of outdoor retailers, including big-box names, regional stores and independent shops, such as Sunrift Adventures. (Photo by Ashley Boncimino)
The Greenville area is home to a host of outdoor retailers, including big-box names, regional stores and independent shops, such as Sunrift Adventures. (Photo by Ashley Boncimino)
Greenville is home to a host of outdoor retailer stores, including independent stores, such as Sunrift Adventures and Appalachian Outfitters; big-box names, such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, Academy Sports and REI; and regional stores such as Mast General Store, Half-Moon Outfitters and Great Outdoor Provision Co.

Those don’t include sport-specific stores such as TTR Bikes, Pedal Chic, Carolina Triathlon, Merrimack Canoes Co., Palmetto State Armory and Fleet Feet Sports, among many others in Greenville alone. Spartanburg sports its own host of outdoor retailers, including the recently opened The Local Hiker.

“You begin to wonder how many more outdoor retailers the Greenville and Spartanburg market can actually support,” said Appalachian Outfitters owner Jonathan Welsh, who established his store in 1994 with his wife.

Sunrift Adventures, which Terry opened in 1980, has benefited enormously from Swamp Rabbit Trail traffic in Travelers Rest, though it has significantly felt the effects of big retailers coming into the market, Terry said. The store employs a staff of experts and sells outdoor apparel and equipment for paddling, backpacking, biking and climbing.

“There’s been some ups and downs, but we’re still not back at the level we were at before REI,” he said.

REI opened its first Greenville store in November 2011 on Woodruff Road, joining the Academy Sports that opened in 2009 and Dick’s Sporting Goods.

“REI’s ultimate goal is to collaborate with other retailers to increase the amount of people enjoying the outdoors; this benefits the entire industry,” an REI representative said in an emailed statement. “Other outdoor retailers and REI can thrive in the Upstate together by serving the needs of outdoor enthusiasts and helping to grow this group of people. We also recognize ways we differ from other retailers, including being a member-based co-op and often in product assortment. Because of this, if REI cannot fulfill our member or customers’ needs, we can refer them to the best location to do so.” REI would not comment further.

A spokesman for Cabela’s, which is slated to open in spring, said the company’s 50-year history as a direct mail business means they have a wealth of hard data about where they should set up shop.

“We have a good idea of where our customers live and what they buy,” he said. “When we looked at the Greenville market, we saw a deep, loyal customer base, not only in Greenville but across that region.”

Welsh said his sales, which dipped after REI opened, have picked back up now.

“I’m sure when Cabela’s opens there’s going to be that 60-, 90-, 120-day window where we see some slowdown because customers have to go in and see what it’s all about,” he said. “I think that’s the natural flow of the retail environment.”

Welsh said he and his wife attempt to meet or beat prices at big-box stores. He said smaller retailers can also remain competitive by hiring staff with outdoor expertise.

“We’re on a very small boat on a very large ocean, and I have to focus on what’s going on in my boat.”

— Beezer Molton, Half-Moon Outfitters

Half-Moon Outfitters owner Beezer Molton agreed, saying customer service and product knowledge are where stores set themselves apart.

“We pride ourselves on understanding the sport well and being able to explain it well and having a product to serve that,” said Molton, who operates eight stores across the Southeast.

Another avenue stores have taken is providing a specific product mix built on market consideration, he said.

Molton said he’s more worried about online retailers, such as Amazon, than he is about Cabela’s and REI.

Ordering from fulfillment centers means money is pouring out of communities rather than supporting the local economy, causing brick-and-mortar stores to go out of business, he said.

“I don’t blame someone for shopping around. I like the best price I can get, too,” Molton said. “But I do, however, keep into consideration, am I buying local, or am I buying independent? Is my money staying in the community? And we can certainly tell that our money is staying in the community more than other shops.”

While the Greenville market may be full, Welsh said that more stores simply means retailers will have to further diversify, specialize and differentiate through customer service.

“The slices of pie do get smaller and smaller, as these retailers come in.” he said. “We’re on a very small boat on a very large ocean, and I have to focus on what’s going on in my boat.”

Reach Ashley Boncimino at 864-235-5677, ext. 103, or @ashleyboncimino.

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