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Through a researched approach and with some reorganizing, which included closing and relocating one of his store locations, Graham and Outdoor Source have survived the REI invasion, a little battle-weary but much the wiser. And Graham is not hesitant to credit his resilience to the support and advice he received from his fellow Grassroots Outdoor Alliance members.

The Outdoor Source’s story began in 2003 when Graham launched the Columbus store in a 3000-square-foot space. After experiencing surprising growth in the first six months of operation, Outdoor Source doubled its space by moving into a 6000-square-foot location at Kingsdale Center, a large mixed-use shopping center in Upper Arlington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, where it remains today. In 2013, the retailer added a 3500-square-foot additional location on Polaris Parkway on the northside of Columbus, approximately 15 miles from the original Kingsdale store.

The new store had less than one year under its belt when REI announced it would open its first location in Columbus in May 2014. Later that fall, REI opened a second Columbus location. REI, an active member of Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), has been aggressively growing its retail footprint over the years.

The Polaris store found itself nearly dead center between the two new REIs. Consequently, Graham made the decision to begin the process of relocating the Polaris store to a more strategic location. This past weekend, the Polaris location doors closed, but Graham and Outdoor Source have lived to fight another day.

Outdoor Magazine: What advice can you offer other outdoor specialty retailers who are facing an REI invasion?

OM: How did your membership with Grassroots Outdoor Alliance help you “prepare for the storm”?

AG: Being a part of Grassroots was extremely helpful. When I found out REI was coming, I reached out to other members who had already dealt with it. I was able to get their take and to gain insight into how their stores were affected.

OM: What specific preparations can retailers make?

AG: Make sure you have things dialed in, in terms of buying and in terms of basic business 101. You also need to prepare your staff and keep them focused on customer service.

OM: What suggestions do you have regarding buying?

AG: If an REI is coming to town, the most important thing is to be sure you know what is going on with your store. You don’t want to spread yourself thin, but you don’t want to be heavy on product. This is something I heard when I talked to other stores, too. Some of them had too much inventory. It’s important to be able to quickly adjust to stay on top of everything. You also should work with your vendors to let them know, “Hey, depending on sales, we may be cutting back.” Our vendors and sales reps were really great. They were prepared and extra willing to help us out. A lot of my reps were not happy because they don’t deal with REI, so that was money out of their pockets.

OM: Were certain categories more heavily impacted?

AG: At our Polaris location, it was across the board with everything. Our other location, Kingsdale, took a hit, but it was nothing like Polaris. We definitely noticed certain categories more than others. We noticed accessories, tents, larger backpacks, the bigger purchases were often where we took the biggest hit. Of course, everyone is different, but other retailers who had experienced an REI moving in told me they weren’t affected in clothing as much as they were in hard goods. I found that to be true.

OM: How did you prepare your staff?

AG: The other stores had warned me that it’s really depressing for the staff to take the hit motivation-wise, so we made sure our staff knew what to expect. It is also important to be sure staff is well-trained because your future is going to be all about customer service.

OM: What distinguishes a local independent specialty retailer from REI?

AG: Customer service is what really separates an independent specialty retailer from REI. It’s all about customer service. The number one complaint I get from customers about REI is that they went in and the REI employees weren’t knowledgeable and helpful. In general, REI’s customer service is typical of big box stores. Also, you have to keep the events and outreach going. Give customers a reason to still shop with you over the big boxes.




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