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Public Lands President Todd Spaletto on What Makes Dick’s Sporting Goods’ New Outdoor Concept Different

Outdoor adventurers of all experience levels will soon have a new shopping destination to visit.

Public Lands, the highly anticipated outdoor arm of Dick’s Sporting Goods, will open the doors of its debut store in Cranberry Township, Pa., on Sept. 24. With an aim to appease all outdoor enthusiasts, the store will deliver products for those interested in hiking, bicycling, climbing and much more, and will stock the latest in footwear and apparel for each activity.

At the helm of this new venture is Todd Spaletto, a 25-year outdoor industry veteran who has had stints at some of the outdoor market’s biggest names, including The North Face and Wolverine World Wide. Spaletto was named president of Public Lands in December 2020.

The industry vet is leading the new specialty retail concept at a time when outdoor activity is booming. At the start of the month, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association revealed in its “State of the Industry” report that overall outdoor sports participation rate among active people in the U.S. was 52.9% in 2020, a climb from 48.4% five years earlier. What’s more, the SFIA reported there were 57.8 million people who hiked last year, putting the activity at No. 2 on the report’s top 25 list of sports and activities by participants, representing a 16.3% change over the year prior.

With the Public Lands grand opening in Pennsylvania just days away, Spaletto spoke to FN about the retailer’s plan to capitalize on that momentum and create a welcoming experience for all.

What in your 25 years of outdoor industry experience has prepared you to lead Public Lands?

Todd Spaletto: “I’ve known Dick’s Sporting Goods for about 20 of those 25 years, and I’ve always respected that this company operates like a family and that they’re incredibly competitive, but they’re fair. Especially during my years at The North Face, I got to know [executive chairman] Ed Stack really well. Ed would ask from time to time, ‘What do you think about an outdoor specialty concept?’ It’s something that he’s had on his mind. In addition to the great amount of respect I have for Dick’s Sporting Goods, this opportunity to create something we’re passionate about, which is what an outdoor experience could be, motivated me to create something new with a great team of people, leveraging Dick’s Sporting Goods’ track record of success and capabilities, and do something that is pretty cool and different.”

What gap does Public Lands fill in the outdoor market?

TS: “There are a lot more people getting outside right now, and what’s really neat about it is not only are we seeing people get outside, but their outdoor experiences are different than what we’ve seen in the past. You’ve got more women getting outside, you’ve got younger people getting outside, you’re seeing more diversity in people who are going outside, we’re seeing people participate in outdoor activities closer to home so outdoor participation in urban areas is on the rise, and we’re seeing people at a slightly lower income bracket getting outside. I have worked in the outdoor industry for over 25 years and we’ve always put people into one of two buckets: you’re either core or you’re cool. If you’re core, you’re someone who can survive perfectly fine in the woods for three weeks on your own, but you probably wear dorky baggy pants, some dorky looking shoes, a floppy hat with binoculars and a wooden stick. The other person has the latest kit, awesome new shoes and the best brands’ new gear, but they’re a poser. The reality is that’s just not true. People we’re seeing in the outdoors are absolutely true to the activity, and at the same time they care about how they look. Public Lands has this element of absolute technically legitimate gear that is equally unapologetically style-forward, and we think that that’s a big white space.”

 

Public Lands
A women’s apparel selection inside Public Lands.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Public Lands

Recent surveys suggest new enthusiasts may not continue outdoor activities post-COVID. How concerning is this?

TS: “It would be a huge missed opportunity by the industry [if that happened]. People are stepping into a new experience, and what creates a reality to where it sticks is recognizing that the experience goes beyond the physical activity itself. We in the outdoor industry are pretty good at speaking to the physicality of the outdoors if you’re hiking, climbing, skiing, running — all the advertising experiences [speak to this]. For some, that’s been inspirational. For others, it’s intimidating, or maybe it’s created a unique experience, but not necessarily a repeatable experience. I’m a big believer that what creates this change in lifestyle is recognizing that for many people, their outdoor experiences are physically challenging, but they’re also emotionally restorative. They get above the tree line and they decompress from a stressful life. I also believe that it’s a cultural, inclusive experience. Everybody is welcome on the trail, anybody can go hiking, it does not matter what your background is, what your preferences are — everybody’s welcome in the outdoors, it’s culturally inclusive. Lastly, it’s a creative space. Most companies’ most powerful social platform is Instagram. Why is that? It’s visual. Outdoor spaces are beautiful. And photography, cooking, painting are all elements that we think are the ancillary creative experiences of the outdoors. We have paintings, prints, notebooks, journals, markers and pens, and people are taking these things into the outdoors. [In the stores], we’re highlighting local artists whose art is inspired by the outdoors, and we have a local market in the back that has coffee, biscotti, granola, syrup. The catalyst toward not creating a one-and-done moment, but instead creating a pivot to people’s lifestyles, is celebrating that these outdoor experiences are physically challenging, emotionally restorative, culturally inclusive and creatively inspiring.”

Public Lands
Local art inside the Public Lands store in Cranberry Township, Pa.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Public Lands

Dick’s Sporting Goods already carries outdoor product. How, if at all, will you work to avoid overlap?

TS: “The overlap is going to be about 20-25%, and I think that’s good. There are a lot of consumers who would expect to find some of those brands in both doors. The assortments are also different within the brands that coexist. The stores are organized around eight different specialty shops: There’s an immersive cycling shop, a fishing shop, climbing, backpacking, camping, running, and we have a really dynamic footwear [space] that’s 3,500 square feet. It’s a really large footwear department that goes anywhere from lifestyle shoes like the Vans Ultra Range and others that are style-forward to technical product from hiking brands like Merrell, Oboz, La Sportiva, Scarpa, Lowa and running shoes like Hoka, which is doing really well in the store in both hiking and running. The price points are going to be better-best, though we will support this new consumer who is looking for something that’s a little bit more accessible.”

The outdoor market has a retail giant in REI Co-op. How will Public Lands separate itself from the competition?

TS: “We don’t focus a lot of our time and energy on a specific competitor. We obsess about the consumer. We are laser focused on this new emerging outdoor enthusiast who loves technical gear but wants a style-forward aesthetic and embraces multidimensional experiences that are creative, inclusive and restorative. The experience that we’re creating at retail and the way our brand is positioned is unique not because of a specific competitor, but based on our consumer insights.”

What is the Public Lands plan for brick-and-mortar?

TS: “All we’ve really confirmed is these two stores: Cranberry and then Columbus, Ohio, which will grand open at the end of October. We also just [last week] turned on our website, [which is] a great shopping experience. And the content that’s on there, showing inclusive outdoor experiences and providing classes and tips and events and ways to get involved in protecting wild places, [offers] a really nice balance. Certainly we think that this opportunity is bigger than two stores, but we haven’t defined a specific path because we’re focused on getting these open and learning from them.”

Public Lands
The rock climbing wall inside the Public Lands store in Cranberry Township, Pa.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Public Lands

How will Public Lands address topics today’s consumers are most concerned with, such as sustainability and racial and gender equality?

TS: “I do believe that more consumers are putting their trust in like-minded brands, whether that’s a manufacturer or retailers. We think shared values is the foundation of creating a connection with consumers. Our brand purpose is to celebrate, protect public lands for all. There are three key words in that: celebrate, protect and ‘for all.’ We think that outdoor experiences are more than just physical, they’re also emotional, cultural and creative, and that’s all part of the celebration. Protecting is the second area where we have shared values with our consumers, and that centers around conservation and sustainability. The last is ‘for all.’ There’s a big push around capitalizing on the opportunity to bring more new participants into the outdoors. At times, those are going to be things we do on our own with classes and events, and at times we’ll partner with some great brands, whether it’s Patagonia on environmentalism or The North Face on participation. We’re already doing some neat programs that are going to hopefully make a big difference for our planet and people.”

What keeps you up at night?

TS: “That this huge opportunity we have for people to get into the outdoors goes away. I do not want us to wake up a year or five years from now and say, ‘Do you remember that year in 2020 or 2021 when everybody went outdoors and then it went away?’ I really want to make sure that our stores feel welcoming and warm. There’s a perception that outdoor specialty stores are intimidating, that people don’t feel welcome, that they’re too elite. What would keep me awake at night is if we don’t create a warm, welcoming experience, and if we don’t do our job in terms of protecting our public lands and these wild places.”

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