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Local Outdoor Gear Stores Compete Against Online Giants

Store owners work to convince customers not to "showroom"

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When a customer walks into Benchmark, on Vista Avenue, Emil Hutton is prepared to spend hours helping that person.

"That's not even an exaggeration," he said.

But not every customer that Hutton helps—whether it's for a few minutes here or there, or hours on end—will buy the product from him. Local outdoor retail businesses are seeing customers visit their brick-and-mortar shops, try on products, get details from the sales associates and walk out the store only to order the product online from their iPhones in the parking lot for cheaper. The practice is called "showrooming."

Hutton said it's a trend he's watched get worse since the recession hit in 2008. Some consumers justify it through bigger selections online, others have "pro-deals" and others want or need to save the money. For Hutton, there are no good arguments for not buying local.

"America has lost its soul for how it gets money," he said.

Hutton's outdoor shop has been in the Treasure Valley since 1985. He's a graying, soft-spoken person, but a tough businessman and a pretty hardcore luddite. Zipped up in a black Mammut jacket, he's baffled by his HP laptop and has little patience for technology in general.

Hutton opened his first store as a 23-year-old in Arizona back in 1970, and called it a "real adventure." Since then, the climate of local economies has changed drastically—and not for the better, he said.

"You would shop in your community, and your community is where you had your job and all of that commerce made that community work," he told Boise Weekly. "Today, you can shop anywhere you want through technology. It's convenient, but the cost is astronomical."

Convenience, Hutton added, is the most expensive word in the English language.

"You would have a big brown truck with a [carbon] footprint the size of Owyhee County drop off a pair of socks at your house that you may have saved $2 on, but it's convenient," he said. Then it gets delivered, but you're not there to sign for it because you're busy living your life and driving past the store you could have bought it at for close to the same price, he added.

Lori Wright co-owned Newt and Harold's, a skate and board shop near Boise State University, for almost 30 years. Toward the end—the shop closed its doors this past summer—Wright said she got tired of "educating" consumers on the importance of supporting local business over websites like Amazon, The House and The Clymb, which offer deep discounts on outdoor gear.

"We employed people locally, we helped out with all kinds of events. It's not like The House is doing anything for Boise," she told Boise Weekly. "Sometimes it just got old. It's like, 'Really, do I have to educate everybody?'"

Wright and her business partner Lori Ambur made the decision to close the shop after battling the recession and online competition for four years. Combined with that was the fact that they were "getting a little older," Wright told BW at the time, but it wasn't without a slightly bitter taste in their mouths—about online shopping, specifically—that they closed up shop for good.

"Like, really, does it always have to be about price? Isn't there something more, like [supporting] our fellow man?" Wright said. "Amazon doesn't care. They're shipping you an item. They don't care what's in there. They just care about that little tiny profit they're making on you."

But Wright admits her business model should have shifted.

"We really needed to do Internet stuff. We didn't make that change and we really should have," she said. "That's maybe the biggest regret I have."

Chris Heise, on the other hand, rebels against the Internet. He's owned The Boardroom on State Street for nine years—though the shop has been open for close to 20 years.

He saw the trends and decided to start an online store last spring, but shut it down by the middle of last summer.

"You cannot have a brick-and-mortar shopping experience with the click of a mouse," he said.

He's created incentives to get customers in the door—and actually spending money in the store—through warranties and perks, such as every new snowboard including unlimited tuneups throughout the first season.

"Whatever deals they're thinking of when they're shopping online, they lose when they have to pay for maintenance on the product," he said.

He has another way of enticing customers into his store: he carries products not available online at all. Stuff manufacturers don't even put in their catalogs.

The Boardroom is part of a group called The Commission, made up of 11 small snowboard shops around the country that receive products from vendors and manufacturers made only for in-store purchasing. He gets merchandise from Union, ThirtyTwo, Burton and Lib Tech.

On Nov. 20, he received 12 "Super Banana" snowboards made by Lib Tech and sold three of them before closing for the day.

"It's a way to keep small stores healthy by driving people in," Heise said. "It's [the manufacturer's] way to combat [showrooming]."

Back at Benchmark, Hutton gears up for another holiday shopping season, but it's clear he spends a lot of time thinking about losing his business to stores that don't even have a physical address.

"People will come here and consume time," Hutton told Boise Weekly. "I don't care about that. Come here and find out everything you need to know. But support me. I support you."