In recent days, a lot of us who love the outdoors have been following the Backcountry fiasco.
In case you don’t know what’s been going on, here’s a recap: Over the last two years, Backcountry, a major outdoor retailer, has been filing petitions to cancel trademarks against dozens of businesses using the term “backcountry,” in some cases even resorting to lawsuits. This sort of thing usually happens in the big leagues, with one large corporation pitting itself against another. But what’s different here is that many of the businesses targeted are little guys — small businesses and non-profits — everything from a place that did upfitting on vehicles for backcountry use to a women’s avalanche program. Many of these businesses have had to spend thousands of dollars on legal costs and rebranding.
This s a totally dumb ass move, and it’s made a lot of people very, very angry. Once the story came out, there was an enormous backlash in the outdoor community, most particularly on social media. More than 14,000 people joined the Facebook page Boycott backountrydotcom, and the company has been working overtime to defend its actions.
If you want a fuller explanation, you can go here.
So here’s what I did.
Granted, TheSkiDiva is just a small cog in the Backcountry promotional machine. But even a small cog can make a lot of noise. So yesterday I did what I had to do: I removed all ads for Backcountry and Steep and Cheap (which is owned by the same parent company) from the site. To be honest, I don’t make a lot of money from Backcountry. But really, that’s not the point. In my mind, Backcountry had crossed a line, and I needed to take a stand.
Perhaps it has to do with my personal history. For more than 80 years, my family ran a small clothing store in a town on the Jersey shore. I remember when a mall opened nearby and the big retailers moved in. For a little guy, this was tough. We didn’t have the same buying power as a big retailer like Sears or Macy’s or JCPenney. So I could easily relate to the battle taking place between Backcountry and the small businesses it was pursuing. It didn’t seem fair.
I posted about my action on the boycott backcountrydotcom Facebook page, and the reaction was both immediate and amazing. Within a few hours, my post got more than 800 likes and a lot of supportive comments. And while I appreciated all this, I knew we needed to do more. Being outraged and posting on a Facebook page is one thing. But figuring out where we need to go, as consumers of outdoor equipment, is even more important.
Here’s what you can do.
Right now there’s no way of telling how this whole Backcountry thing is going to shake out. Who knows: they may say they’re sorry and our outrage may go away. For some of us, too, the attraction of huge inventory and good deals may be just too hard to pass up, and we may resume our old buying patterns. But with the holiday shopping season just around the corner, we need to look into this further. Because companies like Backcountry aren’t the exception. We deal with lots of huge, faceless companies all the time (are you listening, Amazon?), and we can learn a lot from the current situation.
I understand that all of us want to save money. Most of us work hard, and we’re willing to do whatever we can to get a good deal. We also want things to be easy. After all, how can you beat the convenience of sitting in your pajamas and ordering something online, only to have it delivered right to your door? But maybe we’ve been heading down the wrong path. Maybe we need to look to our past to see the future. Maybe we need to start supporting our local, independent retailers, many of whom offer the same products we’ve been buying from the big guys.
Could it cost us a few extra bucks? Perhaps. And yeah, we might have to get in our car and actually go somewhere to buy something. But — and this is important — the payoffs are enormous. When we work with a local store, we’re establishing a relationship with someone who knows us, who can help us pick out the best item for us, and who can give us face-to-face customer service when we need it. If we have a problem, we can talk to someone who’s right there instead of dealing with a someone who’s who-knows-where and for whom we’ve been on hold for 45 minutes. What’s more, we’re keeping money and jobs in the community. And that’s huge.
I think about my family’s business, and this is how they managed to keep going even after the big guys moved in. Because buying something is more than a financial transaction. It’s a transaction of trust, not only in what we’re buying but in whom we’re buying it from. If one of those things is missing, we end up angry or disappointed. In many ways, Backcountry has broken that trust, and that’s why many of us are so mad.
Buying local isn’t just for gear, of course. It’s for clothing, hardware, books (shout out to my husband’s latest novel, MARLEY, which has been getting rave reviews everywhere), and much more. For some of us, the temptation to shop at big retailers is so compelling that we’re tempted to use local shops as “showrooms.” We’ll go in, try on an item, and leave to order it elsewhere.
Don’t do that. Just don’t.
Backcountry screwed up big time. But what they did isn’t surprising, nor is it something that’s going to go away. But it is something we can learn from — and something we can respond to meaningfully, one transaction at a time. And that’s up to all of us.
I’m always concerned my local little ski/bike/emergency gear shop will close. I don’t buy gear often enough to balance the good advice they give. I turn down the local’s discount when offered, but I would love to see small shops offer Patreon style options so I can contribute even when I’m not making a purchase.
Turns out all the attention has had an effect. Backcountry has just apologized and has dropped the lawsuit against Marquette. However, this doesn’t help the other businesses who already had to change names and spend money on lawyers and new branding.