Us and them.
A few years ago, I was watching an episode of Dirty Sanchez on TV. They were interviewing one of the cast's bosses at the skate shop where he worked (I use the term 'worked' loosely). The interview took place in front of a wall of specialised skateboarding hardware; as mind boggling and impressive a display of technical kit that I'd ever seen. From that point on, I knew that I wanted to create a climbing shop that was every bit as impressive as that skate shop; technical and specialist of course, but also with a grass roots feel about it too. Finally, 4 years after opening V12, I think we've got there.
There are other strictly independents (stand alone shops) too, like Needlesports and Lakes Climber in the Lakes, Crag X, Inglesport and Leeds Wall in Yorkshire, Hitch 'n' Hike in Derbyshire, Up 'n' Under in Cardiff, etc as well as 'proper' climbing shops that form parts of small chains like our 'nearest and dearest' Joe Browns, Outside in the Peak and Rock On and Urban Rock in the big smoke (there are others - ED). Climbing products and therefore climbers themselves are important to all of these shops and they don't just use climbing gear as 'jewellery' to help bling up a general outdoor shop.
Basic SWOT Analysis
Strengths of Specialist Shops
Well, I'm going to generalise here as there are probably a few exceptions, and any chains out there that want to challenge me on this, bring it on, but I would suggest:
1) Range and depth of product choice – You are more likely to find what you want in any of the above stores than in a chain. Just look at rock shoe selections for instance.
2) Knowledgeable Staff – Staff usually hang around longer, meaning specific product training and experience is more readily available. These are also the people you'll often see out practising what they preach.
3) Gear Freaks - The owners are more interested in the products than the margins generated (within reason of course as we all have to eat) and don't have to answer to a corporate, number crunching accountant.
4) Community - They take an active interest in local climbing affairs, organising bolt funds, crag clean ups, competitions, and (as most staff have a healthy/unhealthy guidebook infatuation) they can give you endless snippets of information on chosen routes.
5) Price – In any other industry, the big boys have the edge on price, based on volume discounts, supply chain management, etc, however in climbing retail, it's often the technical shops that offer the best prices based on loyalty to brands and relationships with suppliers.
Weaknesses of Specialist shops
None – only joking, but the main problems are usually cash flow based. New shops tend to be under stocked and under financed to be comfortable, they don't have 14 shops to drag stock in from, often resulting in being out of stock of crucial products. i.e., if you can only afford to stock 3 pairs of Guide Tennies in a certain size, and over a weekend, they all sell...then you may be out of stock for a couple of weeks as you wait for another delivery, missing crucial sales.
There are only a couple who can afford a centralised warehouse and a web sales department, so, often it is all the work of the core staff (not necessarily a weakness in terms of content, but it does spread things a bit thin on occasion). So, stock levels are not always database perfect or some things may be out of stock for a few days, but we try our best (honest ;).
Mike Ashley (owner of Sports Soccer, Lonsdale, etc) seems to be buying up all the middle of the road outdoor shops that stock 'some' technical climbing equipment, so hopefully he'll fill them with Karrimor school bags and Lonsdale trainers. His accountants will look at the margin on climbing products versus the margin on general outdoor clothing (which can be around 40% different) and they'll get rid of their climbing “department.” We can but hope!
More specialisation: Some companies don't like dealing with the big boys as they can't move on margin (yes things are tight) and thus if certain products are only available through specialist shops, the decision has been made for you as to where you can buy them from.
Online shopping gives everyone the chance to support real climbing shops instead of inner city 'lunchtime visit' shopping sprees. By incorporating local knowledge and product expertise into web sites, you don't just get a straight-from-the-catalogue copy of product descriptions.
Market trends will shift and prices will rise at least in line with inflation. Climbers will have to pay more for an 3sigma rated, ISO 900-whatever controlled carabiner than two coffees in Starbucks, but they could also feel happy that they are not contributing to the 'mass globalisation', standardisation and homogenisation (is that even a word) that climbers have historically stood against.
Mike Ashley may fill all his shops with climbing stuff only...Seriously though, potential recessions and increased interest rates, Foot and Mouth, Global warming (Ice climbing products are important too remember) and other global/social/geographic factors could all have massive impacts on our core business, but they are beyond our control and will effect everyone, even Mike.
People buying from abroad can have a big effect, especially with the dollar being so weak at the moment. So, someone can order a couple of things (certainly not most things) from the States and save a few pennies (if they don't get stung for import tax). This has been true recently, but the exchange rate has been the other way too, making rock shoe prices over £100 from the States. Swings and Roundabouts really.
Discounts – we once had a man refuse to pay £40 for a Wallrope that was already reduced from £45 because he could get 15% AMI discount or something at Cotswolds in Betws y Coed (making it £38.25), so he got into a 2 year old Nissan 4x4 and drove 12 miles up there and back (probably around £2.50 in petrol) in a huff because I wouldn't price match. Supporting Belgian rather than local business, eh?
So, all in all, the 'personal touch' sums it up: individual shops offering individual selections of quality products at keen prices for your perusal. Unfortunately, I've also had good service and advice on general outdoor stuff from a couple of chain stores too, like the aforementioned Cotswolds in Betws, but I've found them to be an exception rather than a rule, however credit where credit is due I suppose. I also once used up my whole hour of product training for DMM explaining to shop staff in a key multiple why climbers use ropes and how to use belay devices rather than brand specific training!
The Current State of Affairs.
This last year has been a challenging time for the trade in general. Now, I'm not going to play a fiddle and say that times are hard, but let's just say it hasn't been an easy time for most. In real terms, climbing products have never been so cheap, meaning real contribution to retailers (and manufacturers) is at an all time low. Carabiners are now cheaper than 20 cigarettes or a gallon of petrol and climbing shoes that are hand made in Spain or Italy are cheaper than they were 20 years ago (Boreal Ballets were £72.99 in 1988 when I started climbing – their nearest contemporary the Joker is now £59.99). Harnesses average out at around £50 for something that will last most people at least the recommended 5 years (£10 a year's not bad) and yet all of these products could mean the difference between life and death.
This problem is compounded by lack of stock from suppliers – they charge lower prices to increase turnover, yet are out of stock for a large part of the year as they can't afford to replenish stocks or invest in more production, so everyone loses revenue. This is basic Supply/Demand economics and failing to price and stock things properly was one of the major contributing factors to the final demise of Troll, HB and Mountain Technology brands last year. This leaves us with DMM, Wild Country and Zero G as the UK based hardware brands. They vary vastly in their domestic manufacturing, from DMM with almost all of it, through to Zero G being mostly inline product available direct from other brands under a new marketing banner.
So how can these prices be held down and companies still trade? The answer is often in the manufacturing processes – some companies like DMM and Boreal invest vast sums of money in more efficient manufacturing techniques in their own facilities, whilst other companies like Wild Country and Five Ten have shifted most of their manufacturing to Taiwan and China, and Black Diamond make their harnesses in The Phillipines. Issues such as where a product is made, its carbon footprint, local politics and quality control may not be as important as price for some, but with so much 'crossover' in product targeting, perhaps these factors will become more important for climbers (it's an important deciding factor for me with regards stock in the shop – I know which brands I'd rather sell, but the market dictates that other products must be made available). Companies have cut right back on marketing, so you needn't think they're being extravagant. Magazine advertising and athlete sponsorship have decreased. Often people who enjoyed the glory years of sponsored climbing in the late 80's and early 90's are now in positions of power in the industry and can't support their successors in top end climbing.
Retail too has had a funny old year. Old stalwarts Rock and Run have decided that a 'bricks and mortar' shop is not the way forward and have decided to go down the internet only road. This has eased the strains of funding and staffing a shop during quiet times and has probably reduced their business rates dramatically too. It's too early to see if their internet sales will be enough to keep everyone happy, or whether climbers prefer to support shops that allow them to fondle gear or try on stuff first – how many people actually buy rockshoes over the internet for instance? On the flip side, Planet Fear, went down the other road and opened a shop in Sheffield – this had the disastrous effect of forcing a healthy 'web only' company into receivership. So, if Rock and Run's business model is successful, should we all just close up shop and sit back and let the money roll in or is a balance of 'bricks and mortar' and virtual shop always going to be preferable. Add into the mix 'bedroom' dot coms who snipe at a small market with cheap prices, yet don't stock or deliver the goods, and established reputable independents who sell stuff online for RRP-20% but don't in their shop – this smacks of ripping off loyal customers to me.
Is this too much information? I would like to think not, but some factors are always going to be more important to someone in the trade as opposed to the end-user. Does the fact that Cotswolds is now owned by a Belgian holding company or that Sports Soccer now own a high percentage of Field and Trek make any difference to the consumer? Or does the fact that I've just had my third kid, or that Shane from Planet Fear is now out of business, or that Outside have kept on all the staff from the Hathersage Nevisport shop, even though it hasn't re-opened yet, mean more? Or will we all be buying our climbing gear from Tescos and Amazon soon anyway? The choice is yours...