Krisha’s house was jam packed with friends for her holiday open house. The breakfast bar in her open living room groaned with goodies, dips, chips and oreo cookie concoctions. By seven pm it was hard to find a place to stand.
Krisha is my best friend’s daughter, a 39-year-old school principal and active outdoors woman up here in Spokane. This Eastern Washington town is the largest city between Seattle and Minneapolis, perfectly situated close to Canada, Glacier National Park and a host of rivers and mountains perfect for outdoor lovers.
Since I’ve known this family, Krisha and her older brother were both climbers, before the sport had taken off like wildfire. When she gives me a Christmas gift, it’s almost always a present having to with gear or adventures. One year she gave me a gift certificate to Mountain Gear, Spokane’s premier locally-owned sporting goods store. I bought a pair of gaitors. They’ve since been up a lot of epic mountains all over the world.
Tight Climbing Community
Tonight, a small contingent of Mountain Gear’s climbing community was at the party. All climbers like Krisha. The small, tightly-knit group had gathered by her tree. She brought me over to meet Phil, the store’s event manager. Since Krisha knew my background in adventure sports she thought we’d have a lot to discuss.
It took about twenty seconds for two of Phil’s friends to excuse themselves from our conversation once they learned that Krisha was not my climbing partner. I was left with Phil, who reluctantly continued the conversation.
Not for long.
I was curious about Mountain Gear’s events, which he only mentioned briefly. As a travel writer I was potentially interested in doing a story. He asked if I’d ever been to Banff, and I explained that I’d be there in March for a conference of the Adventure Travel and Trade Association where I’m a media member.
As soon as I said that I did some travel blogging Phil got angry. He pointed out that between big sports retailers (like REI, which has a store in town) and Amazon, Mountain Gear is struggling. I’m aware of this problem, and was curious about the store’s strategies. I mentioned that Krisha had said that Spokanites were very loyal to 25-year-old Mountain Gear. He ignored the compliment.
Then he said with some force, “It’s because of people like you, who do gear reviews, that people just come in, look around and then go buy stuff on line.”
Then he stalked off. I was flabbergasted. I sometimes do gear reviews. I primarily write articles. And I love supporting local stores. Phil didn’t stick around long enough to find that out.
You Dumb Gumbo
Within five minutes of conversation this man had decided I was the enemy, knowing nothing of my intentions or interests, and not being the slightest bit interested in how I might be of help. I have assisted a number of small companies and operators get on the map by writing helpful reviews, but there was no way Phil was even willing to hear about that. I’ve shopped at Mountain Gear myself. I like their home-grown story.
However to Phil, I was an outsider. Not a member of the club. A gumbo (non-climber). And therefore, part of the problem.
Phil didn’t bother to find out that my big brother had written six ground-breaking books on climbing in the South Platte of Denver, and was something of a legend. I’ve climbed. I’m no idiot about the sport. It’s not my thing, but that wasn’t the point.
Business is hard enough without making enemies right off the bat. Rather than gain an ally who would have been happy to help Mountain Gear get some good publicity, this man effectively spat in my face. The tightly-knit climbing community here in town is quirky. Tribes can be very insulated at times, but being outright rude is no way to win customers or supporters.
The Problem with Sport Elitism
With behemoths like Amazon and REI shouldering into a small market like the Inland Northwest, it can put a lot of pressure onto stores like Mountain Gear. However that means that to survive, outfits like these have to be come even more savvy, reach out even more, and establish a niche brand that nobody else can possibly beat. I’ve worked with small businesses on niche marketing. Might have had something to offer. But not if I’m dismissed out of hand.
When I was actively skydiving in the early 1990s, jumpers had a derisive term they used for those who didn’t choose to leap out of airplanes. We called them “Whuffos”, for “Whuffo you jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” We thought of ourselves as terribly adventurous, and, natch, holier than the spectators. That attitude is still prevalent in nearly all adventure sports. Those who develop a level of expertise become elitist and make fun of those who are just starting out, or even just curious.
Our smug stance cost us lovers, wives, friends and business. Rather than be welcoming, educational and engaging, people justifiably felt insulted and walked away. Skydive Colorado eventually picked up, moved elsewhere and remade itself. That’s what can happen when you deride potential customers.
The Cost of Arrogant Tribalism
Arrogant tribalism isn’t a good business model. Insulting people you’ve just met and making them the enemy before you bother to explore who they are and what their interests might be is a good way to ensure that your business will continue to suffer. This is especially in the increasingly competitive outdoor sports world, where treasured local brick and mortar sports stores have almost completely disappeared.
Outside Online recently highlighted Wilson’s, one of the last of the great local sports stores in Bishop, California, much like Boulder’s Neptune Mountaineering. These small outfits have managed to weather the Amazons and REIs. I’ll bet you that their business model is to include and educate everybody, which is how to engender loyalty. Resorting to tribal elitism sends gumbos, whuffos and anyone else new to a sport scuttling to friendlier pastures. That’s revenue irreparably lost, as those of us who have bad experiences share that story.
Those business people who understand that each person we meet is a potential customer and treat them with interest and respect are always going to be successful. Elitism of any kind is no friend of sales, whether they are fighting Amazon or Amway. Making your business hard to like is a good way to go broke.