EMS: Turnaround on Track

NEW YORK — The country’s economic woes may have forced some firms to put plans on hold, but as far as Will Manzer is concerned, the overhaul of Eastern Mountain Sports that he and his investors began in 2004 is still moving ahead.

“We’re very pleased with what we’ve accomplished,” the CEO of the Peterborough, N.H.-based chain of 66 outdoor stores told Footwear News. “We’ve got roughly 18 new concept stores up and running and we still expect to end with about 90 stores at the end of 2012 or 2013.”

Having spearheaded the transformation of the Eastern Mountain Sports stores in look, merchandise and location, Manzer said his new priority is to cut costs to better position the company for growth post-recession. “We’ve emerged from the first stage of the turnaround, and we’re ready to grow the company,” he said. “When this whole economy thing is past, we’ll have an opportunity to be even better. But we need to be very good at running our business.”

Retooling the retail experience has been on top of the CEO’s agenda for the past several years. Manzer said that to win back the core outdoor adventure-seeker, especially the climbers who had been the chain’s original target, the company has refocused on performance gear. And footwear has been key to that, representing 20 percent of the overall Eastern Mountain Sports business. “As footwear goes, so goes the brand,” he said.

To that end, Manzer added, the retailer has put more emphasis on technical shoes, with The North Face, Salomon, Asolo, Vasque, Ugg, Merrell and Keen leading the way. Private-label footwear, a category the chain had thought could be a big winner, was eliminated in 2006. “As we fine-tuned, we decided we didn’t want to play in a space where we couldn’t lead,” Manzer said. “I won’t say we’ll never go back to it, but there are too many experts there.”

A major element of the turnaround has been a radical shift in the store base. Manzer estimated that when his group bought Eastern Mountain Sports, about 60 percent of the locations were in malls. Today, only 12 stores are in malls, and that number is expected to drop. “We should be out of malls by the end of 2010, unless there are a couple of lease stragglers,” Manzer said. “But certainly, our goal is to be out of malls completely by 2012.”

Instead, the chain has focused on strip centers and lifestyle centers, with an increased emphasis on standalone locations. And to further improve the sales-floor experience, stores have been divided into four major formats: residential stores (which represent almost half the formats), urban shops in big cities, gateway stores located on the way to outdoor destinations, and shops at major outdoor destinations.

Despite the economic slowdown, Eastern Mountain Sports will open three more shops in 2009: A large urban store in New York’s Soho neighborhood is slated to bow in April with 55 feet of footwear space, and other stores are planned in Collegeville, Pa., and Annapolis, Md.

Staffing also has been a focus for the chain. Manzer said that finding sales floor associates who can speak knowledgeably about mountain biking, climbing, hiking and backpacking, as well as seasonal priorities such as boating and snow sports, helps engage customers and differentiate Eastern Mountain Sports.

Sales also have been boosted by the retailer’s “foot gurus” (staff members who attend special training to learn proper fitting).

While Manzer is optimistic about Eastern Mountain Sports’ future, he’s not resting on his accomplishments. His business plan includes measures to create cost efficiencies in sourcing, renegotiate prices, reduce the marketing spend and even adjust office supplies. And while it may be inevitable, he said, “We’re doing our very best to avoid major layoffs.”

Another initiative is working with vendor partners and being as “transparent” as possible.

Hal Ellms, Northeast sales rep for Vasque, said the outdoor retail chain has made communication a priority. “They’ve given us excellent forecasts, and we’ve done our part to make adjustments as needed,” he said. “It’s a give and take — everyone has to work together to keep the shelves stocked. It’s challenging for everyone right now, but these guys have a lot of experience at the top level, and when it gets down to the product level, their guys are very good.”

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