It’s no secret that the outdoor industry is thriving, and Backcountry is making the most of the moment.
The digitally-led retailer made several key hires throughout the year, recruiting talent from the likes of NTWRK, Nike and GameStop to fill roles, including its new chief product officer Colby Black.
Also, the company entered into several partnerships and launched initiatives that should inform its future. For instance, Backcountry became the premier event sponsor for the mountain running event Cirque Series in June, and launched its Breaking Trail Program in April, which was designed to enact positive change in the outdoor industry as part of its commitment to fostering an inclusive community.
Although digitally-led, Backcountry opened two physical stores this year — a door in Park City, Utah, and another in Boulder, Colo. — with more to come.
These moves were made under the watch of Melanie Cox, a fashion industry veteran with stints at Rue21, Wet Seal and Urban Outfitters, who assumed the Backcountry CEO role in June 2020. Below, the executive reveals how the retailer won with outdoor enthusiasts in 2021 and offers a look into its plans for 2022.
Who is the Backcountry consumer?
Melanie Cox: “The Backcountry consumer has always been someone who is a very passionate outdoor enthusiast, and they make choices in their lives both where they live or where they vacation based on their outdoor pursuits. Performance has always been the cornerstone and they’re willing to pay for performance. But it’s interesting, I’ve been in the fashion industry the majority of my career and I’ve always looked at the outdoor industry from the outside being an enthusiast and wondered why people can’t figure out how to make a good looking hiking short for women. If it functions, it can still look good. I think what’s happening today, thankfully, is that people are merging the two and demanding that ‘I want performance, but I also want to look good doing what I’m doing.'”
What are consumers buying today?
MC: “We’ve seen COVID push people outside because they’ve been stuck inside, and even before COVID we started seeing trends toward a lot more traditional outdoor activities, whether it be camping or going to national parks or even climbing — and the ski industry has been quite strong. During COVID, it was it was an outlet for fun for everyone, and we made a decision early on to really lean into a broader group of activities, and they’re all performing well. We saw our water business perform exceptionally well during summer, and the snow season hasn’t kicked off but the customer is definitely planning to get out and recreate in the snow, so we’re super happy with what we’re seeing right now.”
How have your past experiences in the fashion space informed how you lead at Backcountry?
MC: “We’re the sum total of all of our experiences. We learn as much about what to do as what not to do along the way. I’ve watched the fashion industry evolve from very distinct seasons that were shipped, there were four seasons and then there were five, and then you saw people sort of do continuums where there weren’t such dramatic seasons, and along with that you saw the supply chain have to improve because the closer we are to making the decisions about what the customer wants, the better the decision is going to be. Fashion has gone through this evolution where style has always mattered, and in some cases mattered more than function. The reverse is true in the outdoor industry. I think they’ve been a little slow to respond to the supply chain opportunities, and they’ve been stuck in a two-season universe, which isn’t conducive to multiple shopping trips if you’re only delivering two seasons a year. I’ve taken what I’ve learned in the fashion industry and said, ‘Hey, there’s opportunity in the outdoor industry to infuse new ideas throughout the season to provide a shoulder season wardrobe and to improve the speed at which we make decisions and the speed at which we are able to respond through the supply chain.’ Having that perspective is helpful. Also, I love fashion, I love studying trends, I’m a cultural anthropologist. I watch how people come to the mountains and I watch how they want to show up. I think all the time about a 30-something that is going on a date for a weekend trip to the mountains, and both people want to look good, so I put it in that lens and I’m like, ‘How do they want to show up?’ That’s how how we deliver what we deliver.”
How have supply chain issues impacted the Backcountry business?
MC: “It’s very difficult. I would say the whole experience during COVID has been one of the most difficult things to plan that I’ve ever seen in my career because there are so many unknowns and there are so many things that are outside of your control. I would say that we definitely have not got the supply that we’ve needed in certain categories. When we started experiencing, I think our team has done a great job staying in communication with their vendors and getting up to the minute information, but the one thing that none of us can control and even predict is when the containers are coming off the cargo ships in Long Beach Harbor. No one can tell you that, and that’s very frustrating for our vendor partners who have merchandise technically stateside, but they can’t get access to it. What we’ve really tried to do is partner really well with everyone and just communicate about what we’re thinking and about how we are going to respond with all the new bits of information and pray — when all else fails, you just hope that your vendor partners can get the merchandise off the freighters in time for the season not to end because it can be very difficult for people if they can’t.”
When do you believe the supply chain issues will start to subside?
MC: “It’s hard to predict with any precision when it’s going to end, but I certainly believe that it will continue to impact at least the first quarter to the first half of next year.”
The outdoor retail landscape is ultracompetitive, with newcomers and industry giants competing for the same consumer. How does Backcountry differentiate itself from the competition?
MC: “I don’t think that we think in terms of the others. I think that we think in terms of ourselves and our customer and how we service our customer. We have a customer who demands performance, in some cases on the highest level, and they’re willing to pay for it. They also now are demanding style. We can service the person who is going to climb Everest as well as the person who is going to set up their first tent in their backyard for a backyard overnight. We have an incredibly broad catalog that is highly curated for our customers’ performance needs, and we are focused on the pre, during and post activity, not just what you’re wearing when you’re on the mountain. We think about what you do when you come off the mountain, going out for beers at Lespri [in Park City] and you take your jacket and boots off, or what you’re going to put on your feet when you whip out your solo stove and roast marshmallows and pop a beer. We care about that. But we also have a highly-regarded expert team of gearheads to make the complex simple. If you’re a first time skier and don’t have a clue what you need to take a trip, our gearheads are all qualified in at least two sports, they go through really good training, they’re completely approachable and they can spend hours with you talking about the ski setup or how to put together a custom bike or help you put together the things you need for an epic camping trip. This is a differentiator for us. Our gearheads have been invited to customers’ weddings. They build relationships and these relationships last. In essence, we are taking what you would get in a high-end in-store experience with an expert and we’re we’re having that happen online.”
What message does Backcountry having a woman at the top send to both women interested in a career in the outdoors and the greater industry?
MC: “I think often when I’m out hiking or out skiing that everyone’s the same out in nature. Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate between male or female. I feel incredibly fortunate to be in the position that I am in. I hope by having this position that it signals to other women that they absolutely are welcome in the outdoors and everyone from all walks of life, race, creed, color, sexuality — doesn’t matter — they’re all welcome here at Backcountry. We very much care about diversity and inclusion in the outdoors, and we make that part of the pillars that fall under the do the right thing message that I speak about all the time. It’s nice to see women cropping up in a lot of places now, and I think as a woman, it’s my responsibility to role model for younger women that it is possible and we have extraordinary opportunities and we just have to go out and put our mind to it and grab it.”
How can the outdoor industry best cultivate women talent?
MC: “It starts with recruiting. When you look at your entry-level positions, you want to find balance, and you want balance across all levels. For instance, we had interns this past summer and we had a 50-50 balance between male and female, but we also had tremendous balance from every level of diversity. That was an imperative as part of the program because if you bring people in and you have a good mix of people that have different voices and contribute from their perspective, you’re going to have a better company and you’ll have the opportunity to mentor those people and help them grow in their career and help them succeed. If we all did that, then over time you’re naturally going to just have a great balance. That’s the best place to start.”
Digital has risen throughout COVID, but as restrictions loosen people are returning to stores in droves. Where will brick-and-mortar and e-commerce settle out?
MC: “For us, we are beyond lion’s share digital. We will [soon] have 10 stores, but that’s not going to be incredibly material to our overall business. I have never believed that brick-and-mortar was dead. I think that bad brick-and-mortar is dead, but our stores are pretty experiential, and we wanted them to be that way. We merchandise the stores in a way that’s slightly different than most of the outdoor retailers, and we do that very purposefully. We do it the way that we think the customer wants to see it and show up. We’re really excited about our brick-and-mortar. I think for others, they probably saw their e-commerce business penetrate at a higher level and at a faster pace than if they didn’t have COVID, and there are certainly going to be some that are going to see their e-commerce business retreat in favor of brick-and-mortar, but there is a reason for both.”
What are your expectations for 2022?
MC: “I’m really excited about 2022. We have a lot of exciting things happening. We leaned into a broader group of categories, and we’re super excited about how that’s working. We have launched catalogs within the last year and we’re able to tell a story and put our gearheads front and center, and we’re super excited about that. We opened two retail stores in the last year, those are performing better than we expected, and we’re going to open five to seven more next year in major markets, so I’m excited for the customer to be able to experience Backcountry in a physical way beyond the digital space. We put together an incredible team of people and everybody here has been contributing on many levels, and we got a lot of new customers over COVID. We love seeing people get outside and enjoy themselves and connect with nature, and we love making them comfortable and able to perform on the level that they want to perform, but also look good.”