Last winter's unusually warm temperatures prompted some soul-searching at Gander Mountain Co.'s headquarters in St. Paul.
The balmy weather didn't exactly encourage shoppers to buy winter-oriented sporting goods. "We thought, 'Oh, now that wasn't a great winter. What can we do to weatherproof our business?'" said Steve Uline, executive vice president of marketing for the outdoor specialty retailer.
The answer? Footwear.
Gander Mountain is revamping more than half of its 115 stores to create a more friendly environment for shoe shoppers. The privately held company also is adding 20 new performance footwear brands -- ranging from Keen Utility to Asics. Uline wouldn't disclose the financial numbers behind the initiative, but called it a "major investment."
Expanding Gander Mountain's footwear business involves hiring 400 more sales associates nationwide to support the effort. Employees attend a three-day "Footwear University" course to ensure strong customer support -- a big shift in strategy, as Gander Mountain's footwear department was previously self-serve.
All told, Gander Mountain stores now feature 65 shoe brands encompassing 550 styles for hiking, hunting and outdoor shoes, as well as boots, sandals and athletic styles.
"Everybody is doing more outside than ever before," Uline said. "We figured we could remain true to the core of who we are -- an outdoor retailer for people into hunting, fishing and camping, but those people weren't buying shoes from us. By doing this, it's not like we're cannibalizing our own business."
Gander Mountain's new shoe fetish isn't entirely unprecedented in the $13 billion athletic shoe industry, which grew 4.5 percent last year, according to a report the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. While sales of running shoes rose 7.6 percent to $3.9 billion, the outdoor/adventure category also ended strongly as sales increased 6.1 percent to $640 million.
Piper Jaffray & Co. senior research analyst Sean Naughton says publicly traded competitors Cabela's, Dick's and even Kohl's have been adding more footwear to the mix to meet strong consumer demand. Part of that demand is spurred by increasing desire by the masses to become more physically active.
In addition, athletic and active footwear have become more innovative, as evidenced by the growing popularity of lighter-weight shoes, Naughton said. This was prompted in part by the popularity of the lightweight Vibram five-finger sports shoes, and related copycat products.
Footwear manufacturers are also featuring athletic shoes of varying colors.
"You saw a lot of neon colors at the Olympics," Naughton said. "It used to be you'd just see a plain white sneaker in the athletic footwear section of the store."
The changes could help Gander Mountain attract more women and younger consumers to the a customer base that is predominantly male, Uline said. Next year, Gander Mountain will add more apparel to the mix. However, other outdoors retailers, such as Cabela's, are vying for the same customer, too.
Part of Gander Mountain's overhaul involves freshening up the shoe display wall, which "used to be a sea of brown," Uline said. The wall itself went from spanning 60 feet to 120 feet, and the footwear area of the store increased from 3,300 square feet to 5,800 square feet.
Of the 115 stores nationwide, 67 stores have been retrofitted -- some stores were too small for the expansion. By the end of the year, Gander Mountain will have 120 stores nationwide, and the newer stores will have the enhanced footwear display.
The company has been growing rapidly, but it will not divulge how many new stores are planned for 2013. There are 11 stores in Minnesota.
To kick off the new merchandise strategy, Gander Mountain is featuring a shoe giveaway that will give the winning woman, man and child a pair of shoes for every brand that the store offers, and an additional 354 gift cards to other winners.
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752