This story first appeared in The Outsider, Jason Blevins’ premium outdoor newsletter. Become a Newsletters + member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Current Members, click here to learn how to upgrade)
It’s a typical Thursday night at the Southern Sun Brewery on the south end of Boulder and it’s packed with people dining and drinking craft beers.
It’s a local joint, which means it’s a place people often hang out after a trail run, climbing session, hike, or bike ride, always dressed in their sport-specific outfits. sweaty and dirty. Amid the clinking of glasses, casual conversations, and healthy-looking people, it gives off an oh-so-Boulder vibe – especially at the outdoor patio tables which offer sweeping views of Green Mountain, Bear Peak, and the peaks of the iconic rock walls of Flatirons.
Soon, however, there is noticeable energy in the retail space next door, as people show up in droves and start entering the outdoor specialty retail store Neptune Mountaineering. With roots dating back to 1973, it has long been one of the country’s oldest mountain sports shops, but it has gone through a whirlwind of change in recent years amid the tumultuous storm that has hit brick retail stores. and mortar in the digital economy.
Three years ago, the store was at an all-time low and was going badly in bankruptcy court. But a new owner, a major renovation and a few innovative ideas reinvigorated the store and made it more successful than ever.
“We might have been crazy – or just plain stupid – but we thought we could do something to save the store and revive it,” says Shelley Dunbar, who bought the failed store with her husband, Andrew, in 2017. “Brick-and- Retailing mortar is a tough game, so we knew we had to do something different.
Founder Gary Neptune had operated and developed the business for 40 years, but when he was ready to retire in 2013, he sold it to Backwoods Retail, a Texas-based company that owned 10 other outdoor stores. . It was a time of national and local retail conglomerates – around the same time Boulder Running Company was sold to an Indianapolis-based subsidiary of Finish Line and only a few years after Boulder Ski Deals was launched. rolled up with dozens of other ski shops and sold at Vail Resorts.
These stores were modernized and thrived under a new owner and Neptune hoped Backwoods would help his store do the same. But it didn’t work. Things rushed, and in November 2016 Backwoods filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. With the store owed $ 68,000 in past rents and a lot of money to its branded suppliers, the doors were locked. and it looked like Neptune Mountaineering was going to disappear.
“It was sad to see it sparkle like it did,” Neptune said on a recent weekday morning in Boulder. “But tell me, how could I run it for 40 years with no money and no experience, and then a business that had all these other stores and experience take it over and go bankrupt in four years?” It still doesn’t make sense.
Here’s the Dunbars, who for 20 years operated a wholesale business that distributed Sea to Summit camping, hiking and adventure travel gear to outdoor stores across the country, including Neptune Mountaineering. They bought the store out of bankruptcy in 2017 and invested in immediate changes – including a million dollar renovation – all at a time when e-commerce was drastically cutting bricks and mortar sales.
“We knew Amazon and all the other online stores that sell what we sell were not going to go away. And honestly, you can’t fault a customer for wanting the convenience of buying online, ”said Shelley Dunbar. “But what we knew, what we had to do, was give the people of the Boulder area a reason to come back to Neptune Mountaineering. Walking into a retail store has to be an experience, something you will never be able to purchase online.
Following a small but growing national trend in bike, running and outdoor stores, the Dunbars made the bold decision to open a cafe in the newly renovated store to serve coffee, craft beer, sandwiches. and locally produced pastries. Part of their inspiration came from the Full Cycle bike shop across town, which was transformed a few years earlier with a cafe, bar, and flat-screen TVs for watching cycling events.
“Coffee has a way of building community, and the trend of having cafes in stores like this is to give primary customers a place to come in and out and feel comfortable as well as new ones. customers a reason to enter, ”Kurt Hans, Founder and CEO of Boulder-based Ampersand Coffee Roasters, which helped both stores start their coffee businesses. “It’s great to see Neptune so energized again, because he’s such a Boulder landmark.”
Dunbars also expanded Neptune’s equipment and apparel offering to broaden the store’s appeal to customers, including adding new categories like rafting and bike packing, without reducing its footprint in the rock climbing, mountaineering, camping, ski touring and Nordic skiing. They also invited Colorado Mountain School’s guide service into the store and expanded the store’s scope and weekday event schedule. Equally important, they tried to keep as many store employees, many of whom had worked for the store before it first sold.
Despite a dark period for specialty brick and mortar retail, the Dunbars transformed the store surprisingly quickly.
In a nutshell, what they’ve done is cleverly blend old-school authenticity with the selection of amenities the store has always favored while taking risks with new features and working hard to reconnect. with the community, both long term customers and new ones amid Boulder’s growing population.
“Without putting any numbers behind it, I will say the store is doing very well and selling more gear than it has ever done before,” said Andrew Dunbar. “And that’s largely because customer traffic has probably tripled since we first picked it up. But it’s not just about selling equipment. I think with the cafe and the events what we have done is create a hub for people to come and share their knowledge and passion or just their outdoor experiences.
There is no better indicator of the Dunbar’s initial success than the crowd that gathered for the store’s Thursday night events. While the store has been hosting Thursday night events for years, most typically attracted between 30 and 50 people. In the past year, in-store events – which often take place on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings – typically draw 150 to 200 people. Recent topics have included rock climbing in El Dorado Canyon, Colorado 14ers trail running, canyoning in Mexico, hiking along the John Muir Trail in California, the rise of “volunteer” travel and, more recently, the popular van lifestyle trend.
“I go to these events a few times a month,” says Jim Anderson of Boulder. “It has become my favorite store in Boulder, and I’m not a climber and hardly ever go camping. I just like the shows, have a beer and hang out here.
In August, Neptune Mountaineering will unveil Neptune LAB, a new experiential section of the store dedicated to new gear curated by crowd-funded startups. The August 7 launch will feature a happy hour and roundtable discussion with the entrepreneurs behind several new products.
“We want to continually inspire our customers with something new,” says Shelley Dunbar. “You’ve offered customers something different all the time, even compared to what you did the week before if you want to compete with online stores, which are changing all the time. We think Neptune LAB is another way to do it.
As for Gary Neptune, he could not be more delighted with the store’s revival. At 73, he still skis a lot and climbs a little. He turned down the opportunity to be put on warrant, but he still visits the store several days a week to chat with the employees, keep abreast of the rock climbing scene, help out where he can and help himself. look after his famous personal climbing museum.
In the store’s darkest hour of 2016, he could be seen hastily removing the thousands of artifacts from his collection, including the frozen toe of his climbing buddy Malcolm Daly, and putting them in his garage. When the remodel was executed, the Dunbars not only made room for the museum, but also ensured that Neptune displayed it however they saw fit. The equipment is prominently displayed on the walls, in special display cases adjacent to the merchandise, and under the glass top of the large community coffee table.
“It was a disaster and I’m sorry to all the people who stiffened up, but hey, I also stiffened up and I’m never going to get that money,” Neptune said after putting the finishing touches to an exhibition of historic ice cream. axes. “But yeah, it’s really great to see the store thrive again.”