According to the 2021 Outdoor Participation Trends Report produced by the Physical Activity Council, in 2020, 53% of Americans ages six and over participated in outdoor recreation at least once, the highest participation rate on record. With interest growing across North America, the outdoor recreation category brings increased sales and customer engagement opportunities to operations that invest in the department. Hardware Retailing spoke with Alex Westerberg, owner of American Valley Hardware in Quincy, California, about the outdoor recreation category and what it takes to succeed.

Identifying a Need

Looking for a change of pace and a new adventure, in 2020, Westerberg and his wife Alida purchased American Valley Hardware. Located a few hours north of Lake Tahoe, the 15,000-square-foot store had been serving the small community of about 1,600 residents since 1983. With local events like mountain bike races, music festivals and farmers markets drawing seasonal crowds and hiking trails, hot springs, campgrounds and historical landmarks peppering the surrounding region, Quincy, California, is a flourishing tourist destination.

“RVing, fishing and horseback trail riding are extremely popular activities in this area,” Westerberg says. “Our area is also growing into a popular mountain biking destination.”

With the closest large city a little over 80 miles away, and the only local competition being a smaller building supply store that primarily carries lumber products, American Valley Hardware serves a central role in its community. The lack of competition, the popularity of outdoor activities and the drive to become a one-stop shop for locals and tourists led to the focused expansion in this category, Westerberg says.

Procuring Products

Once he identified a need, Westerberg took action. After acquiring the store, the outdoor recreation category was expanded by 396 square feet, Westerberg says. Avid outdoor enthusiasts themselves, the Westerbergs had some idea of what expanded offerings they initially wanted to add to the operation.

“As soon as we took over the store, I started reaching out to vendors to build new relationships so we could expand our outdoor recreation offerings,” Westerberg says.

Westerberg made efforts to build relationships with manufacturers who provide products such as mountain bike parts and equipment, horse feed, fly repellent for trail riding, RV replacement parts and equipment and camping equipment.

“In my previous life, I worked operations for startup food businesses,” he says. “I learned to be the squeaky wheel when it comes to vendors. If I see a product I am interested in, I keep engaging the vendor until they agree to supply the product.”

As Westerberg grew the outdoor recreation category in his operation, he began to utilize customers as a primary source of inspiration for product selection.

“Our customers were really excited when we took over and started expanding the outdoor recreation department,” Westerberg says. “They began giving recommendations, and we continue to listen to their suggestions and input from our employees, many of whom are lifelong residents and outdoor enthusiasts as well.”

The staff of American Valley Hardware not only provide their own product recommendations but also play a major role in collecting product suggestions from customers.

“I encourage our employees to ask our customers what products they would like to see in the store when they are assisting them,” Westerberg says. “That is a large part of why our fishing selection has become so extensive. We have a lot of fishing guides stop in and say, ‘It’s so great that you have this product, but I wish you could get this one now.’”

American Valley Hardware offers specialty fishing products not found in many big-box stores or anywhere else close by, Westerberg says. The store carries a wide variety of rods, reels, combos, flies and waders.

With additional products, there is a need for increased knowledge. Most of American Valley Hardware’s product training and knowledge comes from employees taking the initiative to learn and sharing their knowledge with each other, Westerberg says.

“I do 90% of the purchasing for the store,” Westerberg says. “When I bring in new products for each department, I sit down with the department manager and go through the information I receive from the vendor, and they pass it on to other employees inside and outside of their department. It’s a train-the-trainers cycle that is aided by employee initiative and passion.”

Westerberg also empowers his employees to take ownership of their departments.

“I strive to find the interests of the individual, and then I put them in the best place to succeed,” Westerberg says. “I try to discover what gets an employee excited so they can take the initiative to learn and expand their knowledge base.”

Engaging and Interacting

Stocking products customers want and are excited about is an important segment of any successful category. Exceptional merchandising is also a key aspect of an operation’s prosperity.

“We set up interactive displays with tents, furniture and all kinds of different products,” Westerberg says. “These displays allow customers to get a tactile feel of the merchandise and understand the quality of the products. All of our fishing rod and reel combos are out on display so customers can test them out and feel the weight before purchasing.”

With many outdoor recreation products, being able to feel, hold and test out the merchandise can increase the chances of a purchase. A robust e-commerce program and an easily navigable store website also boost sales and increase foot traffic.

“Within the first three months of ownership, we worked in conjunction with our co-op to build an entire e-commerce system and a website,” Westerberg says. “We’ve seen steady growth in terms of capacity utilization for placing orders online.”

The online presence also acts as a hub of information where people can visit and learn more about the products the store carries. With an increasingly large tourist customer base, having product information readily available and easy to find allows visitors to know where they can purchase the items they need, which ultimately brings more foot traffic through the operation and increases sales, Westerberg says.

Customer engagement has not ended there; American Valley Hardware actively supports its community through the sponsorship of local activities like Little League, Westerberg says. American Valley Hardware also holds community engagement events like its Halloween raffle, which is promoted on social media. The store primarily utilizes Instagram, and some Facebook, to share new products, sales and other store information with customers, Westerberg says.

“The local age demographic currently leans on the older side, but with the pandemic and the continuing growth of awareness for our area online, there has been an influx of younger people in our community,” Westerberg says. “This has made Instagram a very useful marketing tool that creates awareness online and in our community; we are able to show our diverse offerings, most of which customers can’t find anywhere else nearby.”

outdoor recreation spendingSoaring Success

When a need is filled and best practices are followed, operations typically find success.

Since the expansion of the outdoor recreation department, American Valley Hardware’s revenue from that category has almost tripled, Westerberg says. With the development of other departments such as crafts and outdoor living and the continuation of hardline categories, American Valley Hardware has become a much-needed go-to shop for its community.

“COVID-19 has piqued interest in outdoor recreation, especially with millennials,” Westerberg says. “People want to get back out in nature. Stocking these products and having the product knowledge turns your store into a gathering place for your community.”

5 Popular Outdoor Activities

When adding outdoor recreation products to your operation, take into account the most popular outside activities according to the 2021 Outdoor Participation Trends Report produced by the Physical Activity Council.

  • Running, Jogging & Trail Running
  • Hiking Trails
  • Freshwater, Saltwater and Fly Fishing
  • Road Biking, Mountain Biking & BMX
  • Car, Backyard, Backpacking & RV Camping

Source: 2021 Outdoor Participation Trends Report, Physical Activity Council (PAC).

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