Dom Alhambra

March 8, 2021

On the used section at outdoor gear shops.

I grew up north of Seattle for a bit, and always thought about the city for three reasons: Pike Place Market, Trader Joe’s, and REI Co-op. The flagship REI had a rock-climbing wall, mountain bike path for testing, even a tiny restaurant on the first or second floor. REI turned the outdoors experience into a Rainforest Cafe-style fantasy land of shopping, and I loved it as a kid. In fact, I would seek out REIs in cities I’m visiting just to see what they’re like. I didn’t realize that REI Seattle was an exception, not the rule.

After years of shopping at REI as an adult, I somehow know the stores so well that I recognize what they do and don’t have, whether in store fantasy features or products. This is when you know you’ve been around too long: I feel the sting of something missing, even though I have no entitlement to its existence in the first place. This is one of many petty things a shopper like myself will feel when we grow tired of that which was so inspirational. Like a fading romance, REI has turned into another chain store. But whatever, it’s still more fun than going to Academy Sports!

The Outdoor Gear Exchange in Vermont stood out for a couple good reasons: First, it’s not an REI. Second, it stocks a good bit of gear manufacturers that I’ve never heard of. Third, OGE has a basement of used gear and books. The used gear can be surprisingly high end (I guess it’s not a Goodwill, so why should this be surprising). I found a tan fishing shirt I’ve been searching for at a quarter the price. The book prices were very reasonable, and the selection is on par with an okay Half-Price Books (pretty good!), so I stocked up on winter camping and Alaskan memoirs.

This is the candy shop I’ve been looking for since those fateful days in Seattle. It feels nice that a store can have that small piece of “organic economics”—that used gear and book section. While the new gear shelves remain stagnant with the season’s staples, the used gear section remains a mystery at any given moment, during which small and unknown treasures might reveal themselves.

The proud consumer and new products

Proud consumers—the ones that will go out of the way to toil on their reviews and discuss on social media their views on purchased products—like turn their shopping into a story of discovery: For new items, they will spend hours or days over product reviews and YouTube videos to see if this items is truly for them. Once they are locked into the product, they will order it for delivery, or pick up in store.

If they go to the store, they might have half a mind to check out the rest of the store before they go straight to picking up their locked-in product. This decision is fueled by a few factors: 1) The locked-in product, feeling already “purchased” in the consumer’s mind, did not yet fully satisfy them with the purchase action. This gives them mental space to stack extra items on the same check out. The consumer’s reasoning behind this: “Since I’m here, I’ll scan the store’s products to remind me of what else I might need.” 2) The locked-in product, while tirelessly examined and studied prior to arriving at the store, can now be physically compared to the other items. Perhaps there was something the consumer missed in their research, and a better alternative, might be right nearby. The consumer: “Did I really make the right decision?” Once they turn into the store, they can also participate in the factor number 1. 3) They simply like going to the store, so might as well burn some time window shopping, even if they are fully locked-in on their pre-purchased product.

Used gear and the proud consumer

The proud consumer can also find a story of discovery in used gear. Used gear inventories are typically not posted online; this shopping expedition will be physical, into shops with used gear. The fun of used gear is that you don’t know what to expect when coming up to its racks and shelves: It might be a waste of time and full of frayed junk. Or it will have the exact size and fit and brand that you’ve always wanted. You just have to be there to see your success. The story of used gear discovery is journeying to the store, walking around, checking out unique pieces of gear and pulling out your phone to see what others might think about it. If it’s unique enough, and there’s absolutely nothing online about, you might find that it’s worth purchasing as a statement of fashion.

A used gear section adds unpredictability to a shopping experience that is typically painstaking and methodical. It rewards the consumer for entering your shop without having to dangle discounts and loyalty rewards. Whereas all the new products can be staunchly MSRP, the used gear section provides the consumer solace that they might find a good deal anyway.

Random suggestions for those with used outdoor gear shops.

Keep your used section away from the internet. Attract customers to your physical location because their wallet is much looser on-location. REI instituted this as a way to cope with the pandemic, but it’s no good local businesses. Every insight into your store is that much less foot traffic inside.

Provide notifications over your social media hinting at what additions might have come during the week; the consumer can be attracted by the brand, but they can’t feel entitled to the brand’s availability in the used section, and will just look for other items once they find that it’s gone.