This specialty outdoor sporting goods retailer understands that to keep its customers happy, it must live the lifestyle it’s selling. Hudson Trail Outfitters is in a class of its own as the oldest privately held retailer in the Washington, DC Metro area. The trick to staying alive in one of the strongest retail hubs in the country, said General Manager Sandy Cohan, has been to not use tricks when dealing with the company’s target audience of specialty outdoor sporting goods consumers. It is also important to make sure your offering is relevant to your customers and that you offer them nothing but positively outrageous customer service.

“Positively outrageous customer service is more than a belief in our company; it’s a way of life here,” said Cohan. To ensure that mentality stays strong at each of the company’s locations, Hudson Trail developed a 10-point employee credo that all employees, from trainees to corporate executives, must live by. The first point: I will provide every customer with a unique, one of a kind, powerful, mind blowing, extraordinary, magical experience that will be both transparent and authentic. 

In a specialty business, Cohan said, authenticity is of the utmost importance. Each of the company’s 300 employees lives the active outdoor lifestyle. And if they’re not participants in what the company represents and aren’t passionate as is indicated by number four on the list (I will not “sell gear”—I will outfit every customer for a happier, healthier, and more active lifestyle), they are probably not a good fit for Hudson Trail. 

“Everyone that works for this company is empowered to make the customer’s experience as perfect as it can be,” said Cohan. “We’re selective in who we let work for us, and as we’ve been at this for 40 years, we feel confident in the way our company is set up.”

Listen, respect, suggest

Second of the points on the employee credo: I will respect the rights of every customer to look around and to be inspired by their surroundings. Cohan said too many gear shops lose the impact of their merchandise by putting items out onto the floor without spending enough time on merchandising and presentation. 

But not Hudson Trail Outfitters. The company spends a great deal of time planning the merchandising and even practicing on the merchandise. “We are big believers in being an experiential retailer,” said Cohan. “It’s not just having great products and educated staff members that makes you successful, it’s also striving to be a sticky store—one that gives customers a reason to stay.”

Which goes along with numbers six and seven, respectively, on the list: I will listen to every customer, and I will make expert suggestions; and I will be energetic and electric, and my passion for the active outdoor sports lifestyle will be worn on my sleeve like a badge of honor. 

Throughout the year, employees go to more than 40 paid training and product testing events. In addition, the company sponsors group rides, group paddles, and climbing events that employees are paid to attend. Hudson Trail includes its vendors in these training exercises because just as with employee selection, vendor selection is an extremely discerning process. “Because we can’t bring our employees to the factories, we bring the factories to the employees and intimately involve them and our vendors in group rides, training programs, paddling trips, camping trips, and hiking trips,” said Cohan. 

In-store, customers will find stove test centers, rain rooms, climbing walls, and places to test footwear, all staffed by experienced and emphatic employees. Said Cohan: “It’s an essential part of the business to have those vendor partners involved, whether in the store or in the field.”

Fulfilling a promise

Whereas retailers used to put most of their focus on expanding their brick and mortar presence, many have switched to enhancing their presence online. Hudson Trail does pay attention to its online presence, but it has no interest in trying to translate an active outdoor lifestyle onto a computer screen. 

Which aligns with number three on the employee credo top 10: I will fulfill the company’s promise to be the absolute best, and I will earn the opportunity to serve every customer. 

“More and more vendors in our business are selling direct, which is not the best for any specialty business because you’re removing the specialty notion,” said Cohan. “Our goal is to remain a brick and mortar-based company first and foremost because we have to make sure we’re rendering that positively outrageous customer service.”

Paying close attention to what happens in its stores prevented Hudson Trail from crashing and burning during the worst part of the Great Recession. In the middle of 2007, the company noticed the data it tracked, including units per transaction and average ticket sales, were starting to change. 

“We studied those numbers so intently that we actually saw during the spring and summer before the 2008 stock market collapse that while our average ticket sales remained about the same, our units per transaction were rising,” said Cohan. Hudson Trail was proactive in how it stocked its locations, making sure smaller ticket items were always in stock and focusing more on value-oriented products. 

“People were still buying $500 worth of goods, but rather than buying a $500 bike, they were buying six items for $500 to improve the experience on their old bike,” Cohan said. So while many retailers were struggling to react to changing customer habits, Hudson Trail responded, adjusted its inventories, and stayed in stock with items that were getting a return. “We were just incredibly focused.”

Remain relevant

One of the greatest challenges for Hudson Trail is remaining relevant to its customers. Because of the governmental and political attraction to the Metro DC area, it is possible to have millions of people rotate through the area every three or four years. 

For those new customers, 40 years of history don’t matter; what matters is that Hudson Trail lives up to what brought them into the store in the first place. 

The company began as a hard-core gear and climbing shop. The focus has changed a bit since, as active outdoor sports have become more of a lifestyle choice. To differentiate itself from its competition, Hudson Trail focuses on illustrating a culture of health, happiness, and active outdoor participation around every corner within every store. 

The company also gets involved with numerous community events throughout the year as a way of staying in touch. “People have so many options about how they can choose to spend their leisure time,” said Cohan. “You have to remain relevant in their minds and in their lives.”

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