Backcountry Pedals Forward

PARK CITY, Utah — Backcountry.com is scoring big with outdoor consumers, and footwear is key to the e-tailer’s strategy.

The Salt Lake City-based company has created a network of e-commerce sites designed to link outdoor enthusiasts, snowboarders, skaters and cyclists with products related to their activities.

Today, the company operates nine sites in three areas: outdoor, action-sports and biking.

Footwear is a significant — if not dominant — contributor to the firm’s sales and product mix. In total, the various sites have offered 4,600 individual footwear styles in the last year, with brands such as The North Face, Keen, Merrell, La Sportiva, Salomon, DC and Etnies being major players.

“Backcountry has been a partner since day one of Keen, and business has been growing steadily,” said James Curleigh, president and CEO of the Portland, Ore.-based outdoor brand. “They’ve understood that success online is the combination of choice, with the best brands and lots of [them]. They understood speed-to-market and service faster than most in that space, certainly in the outdoor world.”

The company, which has been a subsidiary of Englewood, Colo.-based Liberty Media Corp. — now Liberty Interactive Corp. — since 2007, doesn’t disclose sales, but some market watchers put the size of the 700-person business around $300 million. That’s a big step up since its founding in 1996, when longtime friends and fellow ski enthusiasts Jim Holland and John Bresee put up $2,000 to start an online business.

“Year to date, we are up about 23 percent over last year for sales. In just the second quarter, we were up about 28 percent from last year, and right now we are trending to be even higher than that,” said Jill Layfield, who was appointed CEO earlier this year.

Layfield said keeping all the sites distinct in voice and product mix is a major challenge, noting that it’s also important to maintain a specialty-shop feel.

“That’s the place we play and that’s the place we win, that specialty retail experience. [It’s how] we can continue to set ourselves apart from the more mass-market retailers such as Amazon.com or Zappos.com,” Layfield said. “We believe that somebody who buys a premium piece of gear is going to have a better experience, so we want to explain why you would invest in a premium product as opposed to another piece. That’s our job to tell that story.”

That commitment is what makes Backcountry an important account for Merrell, according to Ryan Guay, footwear sales representative for the brand, a division of Rockford, Mich.-based Wolverine World Wide Inc. “Usually our top-selling styles with Backcountry are on the higher-end technical side. They are crushing it with Merrell Barefoot and always sell the Chameleon line well,” he said, adding that an openness to new ideas, especially in the technical space, speaks to their commitment to their core shopper.

Jeff Larsen, VP of footwear for Salt Lake City-based Salomon Sports, agreed: “They’ve got an educated consumer, somebody who is an aficionado, somebody who is using the product on a regular basis,” he said. “Backcountry is an extremely important retail partner for us. Because of the breadth of the product they offer, it’s one-stop shopping for an outdoor enthusiast.”

Looking ahead, Layfield plans to tap into opportunities in the fast-growing mobile arena. “More and more we are seeing traffic and revenue come through mobile, and we are trying to figure out how to innovate and build a user experience that addresses many different kinds of operating systems, many different kinds of devices,” she said.

“We can’t just take our experience right now through desktop and replicate that in a mobile environment. [But] we don’t want [consumers] to have such different experiences that it seems disjointed.”

While addressing all those concerns will take investment, Layfield said it’s full steam ahead.

“We don’t want to be conservative or overly paranoid and pull back, because that’s not the kind of energy we have at this company,” she said. “We tend to err on the side of being a little risky.”

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