More on the World of Retail

Over on the TGO website Cameron McNeish has picked up on the piece I wrote about exploring the gear shops of Betwy-y-Coed over the Christmas break.

On a recent trip to Kendall Cameron had found much of the same discounting but, thankfully, their is more diversity here and many of the smaller, independent stores seemed to be well sticked. (Sometimes I wonder what would happen to the local economies of Kendall and Ambleside if the outdoor stores disappeared).

In his piece Cameron celebrates the work of the small, independent store. While the big boys, such as Cotswold, have a lot to offer there is something special about the independents, and Cameron is right when he urges us to make a point and continue to support them. If we as hikers don’t support them we’ll be the ones who loose as they begin to disappear.

But there’s more to consider here.

I’ve talked about this before but living in Birmingham (once of the biggest countries in the UK) I simply don’t have access to an independent store. Locally I have to rely on Blacks, Snow and Rock and the new branch of Cotswold. Much the same is true of the other major cities. Manchester used to do rather well but recently their stores have begun to close including their branch of Stanfords Bookshop. And I can hear many of you in other areas pointing out that at least we have these stores – they simply have to rely on Blacks or Millets.

I suppose I have two ‘local’ independent stores. Stewart Cunningham, in Betwys, is my favourite outdoor shop offering great service with a smile (if not a fair degree of eccentricity). Cunningham’s success rests on their Paramo dealership, Paramo being a company that truly understands the needs of the independent retailer and as a result looks after them properly. My other ‘local’ independent is ‘Itchy Feet’ in London’s west End. Itchy Feet survive not only because they have a massive population to serve but because they have set out to create a real sense of community in their stores (which they have achieved admirably). Of course, neither Betwys or London are really local, they are simply places that I visit regularly.

Independents and specialist groups (such as the old YHA stores) have disappeared as high street retail trends have changed. Yes we do need to support local stores but this is not quite the same as supporting, say, the local butcher or green grocer. In the outdoor world it seems to me that the trade – the manufacturers – have much to answer for.

Increasingly the policies of outdoor manufacturers are designed with little thought for the small retailer. Consider one of our major tent manufacturers who will only supply small stores if they order across the full range of their product, including tents that they will never sell. As a result these tents are almost never seen in small stores. Yes, you may find them in the big chains but I guess they manage this by discounting the rest of the range heavily on websites and by selling on ebay. I’m also thinking of another significant UK company that produces award winning clothing, much of which I use quite happily. I have never seen a good collection of this company’s products in a store. What I do see is a kind of dumping effect – on any one occasion , for example, I can find lots of trousers while, on another, it might be all wind proof jackets.

It seems to me that it is the practice of the manufacturers – as much as the tendency of customers – that makes life almost impossible for the small, independent, operator. If these wonderful companies are to survive then we need more companies like Paramo, who recognise their worth. Of course, Paramo is a company that produces a product that is very different from the mainstream. They have realised that there’s is a premium product that needs careful promotion with retailers who are careful and considered enough to spend time with the customer.

But let me finish be considering the issue of locality again. Living away from the hills my time in mountains is very precious and I don’t want to spend too much of it in gear shops. I don’t get to the Lakes that often and so don’t have the benefit of all of those stores. In fact, in some ways, the saturation of the main Lakeland towns with gear stores makes the towns themselves less attractive as places I want to linger in; there is simply not enough diversity here.

For me e-retailers such as Hike-Lite and are my local, independents. They offer great customer service and are happy to spend time with their customers. And – if customer service is a consideration – I could even think of, ULA and Mountain Laurel as fine, local, producers. These USA companies are just as accessible to me as many a store – more in some ways.

While TGO are right to urge us to support the independents perhaps they might want to consider an on-going campaign aimed at manufacturers? We would all have cause to be grateful for this. The very policies that make life difficult for independent stores also make life difficult for the e-retailers, most of which tell a similar story. As specialist consumers we rely very much on the e-retailers these days and I certainly wouldn’t like to see these disappear although this may well happen if current trends continue.

Back in Birmingham I have little local choice beyond the brands of Berghaus and Rab. Stores like Snow and Rock and Cotswold may well carry a large range of specialist gear such as packs and tents but increasingly these are only available on the web. However, both they and the manufacturers use the shop frontages as an excuse to differentiate with e-retailers and small independents. I’ve mentioned before how some manufactures simply won’t supply to those who do not have a range of store-fronts even when those stores only sell these products over the web.

I feel we need our specialist independents whether they be local stores or are internet based. They need our support. But I do get the feeling that it is the policies of manufactures that are more of a concern to them than the attitudes of their customers.


  1. I’d like to put in a good word for Nottingham’s Castle Mountain & Moor outdoors shop. They kitted me out for my recent 9 week trek in France & Spain. Their patience was exemplary. And they stock a lot of North Face gear which held up well.

  2. Perhaps we should set up a listing of recommended independents?

  3. Andy, I think you may have taken how a retailer (especially a e-retailer!) has been treated buy one or two manufactures as to much of a general trend. As i also think Cameron and yourself may not realise how valued the independents are to manufactures, very few majors buy into the marginal brands and some or the more wacky innovative products on the market until they see it’s selling well in the independents. I’m sure if you added their total turnover together and compared it to that of the multiples there wouldn’t be a massive difference, they can not be discounted as a serious customer by any manufacture. I would argue that it is more the general consumer who is abandoning the smaller independent retailer to buy discounted product either in some multiples or on-line. Look at the forums on OM, trail etc. This is also a general trend across retail and is having a huge impact as people (especially the uneducated (for want of a better word) buyer) are more price orientated than service or quality.

    I think if anything the manufactures have been naive in regards to the internet and who they traded with early on, not realising how global the impact would be. If a small independent in town A discounts a product, it’s usually because he needs to shift it, not sold or is last years model. In this case often the shop in town B, 20 miles away, is unaffected. With the internet you can sit at home and put virtually any product into a search and find the cheapest one out there as there are to many people all trying to get their slice of that cake and inevitably someone decides to reduce price and you get a price war. (i’ve had long chats with paul @ hike light about this). In an ideal world everyone stuck to RRP people would buy of service, delivery costs, time and shopping experience (yes this is not good for end users but sometimes they should think of the poor retailer who’s got to get a living out of it, rather than complain about people raking it in, outdoor products, if your lucky have a 100% margin, fashion 2-400% mark-up, give the guys a brake!).

    The problem is, it is virtually imposable to control what happens on the web (good old competition law!) and that virtually everyone has an e-commerce site operating from their bricks and mortar shop which is where the manufacture sells the product, obviously once the shop has the account and bought the product, he can do with it as he pleases, it’s not easy to stop supplying people! Often you will find that your pure e-retailer is far more responsible about pricing than ‘shops’ with internet sites, ie. Gear zone and there are quite a few more…. A good example of how a brand is being affected by online pricing is your trusted Paramo, a lot of small independent shops are very upset as they cannot get RRP for products due to what 2/3 retailers are now doing online.

    Interestingly manufacturers are now registering bands with google so they can control who can use their trade mark to advertise….

    Another issue is the ever increasing cost of retail space (I’m not sure if you are familiar with Lichfield and a shop call Force (once an ski/outdoor shop latterly more lifestyle) they closed last year as their rent was due to increase by £25,000), the rates on top and rules imposed by landlords, I know of one shop who would not open Tuesdays as he never makes any money on that day but the lease stipulates that he has to open 7 days a week, oh he also has to have is front door open at all times too, have they heard of global warming? So all this on top of the above comments about internet price’s, customer’s loyalty, buying power of the multiples and the current economic climate adds to a really tough time and an interesting year ahead.

    I better stop or I’ll go on for ever… I’m a bit of a hypocrite as I do buy on-line often cheapest price………

  4. Good points Rob. I wasn’t especially thinking about e-retailers – after all independents have the same problems and more as they have to keep higher levels of stocks and pay the rent!!!

    All of this conspires to show how difficult it is for the independents to survive. I’d love to support them more but can’t as they’re not where I am. This was why I found Betwys so disappointing.

    One final thought, I no longer worry about the lowest price and kind of keep urging others to follow suit. Customer service is important whether in a shop, online or over the phone.

    In essence I feel we the customer have a small role in this – manufactures and dodgy cut price sellers drive change.

    I need time to digest all of your stuff – no doubt I’ll come back to the subject.

    It’s a fascinating debate this and I’m glad its happening somewhere if it can’t seem to happen in the mags!

  5. Shuttleworth says

    I`d love to support the small guys, I`ve got a lot of info from their websites which helps me decide what I buy. However, money is very tight, I only buy when I can afford to do so, so spend a lot of time looking to make sure I not only buy the right thing, but get the right price. I got a Titan kettle from ebay USA for half the UK cost, but also I saved about a quid on a headtorch from the USA too.
    Unfortunately price sells, as Rob says look at the posts on OM, I contribute to these a lot. Unless there is a good deal to be had, I`m not parting with my money. I`m sure I`m not alone.

  6. Of course you’re not alone – you can only do what you afford to do

  7. John Brown says

    Well after reading your comments a few years after you put this on your blog maybe you should take a further look at how Paramo are treating their retailers. Paramo now sell direct via ebay in direct competition with the poor guys who they have sold their products to. Wonders how retailers of Paramo can sell at full RRP when Paramo’s ebay site is selling at 20% off. How very ethical of Paramo……..not. At full RRP the margin for the retailer is not exactly generous, so the choice will be to either try and compete and make very little or drop the brand and focus on something else. Paramo have been the backbone for many independants and unless they diversify into other brands their business will be at great risk. Retailers worry about a new shop opening on their doorstep when in reality its their suppliers who are doing the dirty on them. We all like a bargain, but next time you visit a store to try for size / pick the salesmans brains and then head off to the internet to find it cheaper consider that if this continues then shops will cease to exist.

    • John, I know this stuff goes on although didn’t realise Paramo were up to it as well! At the weekend I was in Cunningham’s in Betwys and they had as good a display as usual. Still, what you argue is pretty worrying and it is no wonder that the high street is suffering,

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