In the scramble to find the right influencer to plug their product online, the perfect instagrammer with the most powerful reach to the right consumers, brands are missing an opportunity to connect with original influencers: Specialty retailers.

    Specialty retailers are the #originalinfluencers. And they can be a brand’s most effective partner in finding success. The folks in the outdoor stores and the ski shops and the surf shacks that have a loyal, captive audience built from trust and shared passions – these are the influencers that brands want to be courting.

    In this series, we will be sitting down with specialty retailers all around the nation and asking them a few questions about what makes their store tick, what are the hottest brands, and how they build communities for their customers.


    To kick things off, we’re lucky enough to chat with Bill & Paul’s Sporthaus, right here in our hometown of Grand Rapids, MI. Since 1961 Bill & Paul’s has been providing it’s community with the equipment they need to get outside, events and educational opportunities, and a place to talk about the latest gear. Winner of a plethora of awards over the years, Bill & Paul’s is a local favorite, and an original influencer.

    Q: What are some of the ways you’ve helped a shopper in your store recently in terms of a recommendation or education?

    As a specialty retailer who concentrates on brick and mortar, we see education as one of our greatest tools to help grow the outdoor industry. We have several opportunities to educate our customers:  in-store during the buying process, hosting classes and events, and through communication channels like email and social media.

    Our in-store customer experience relies heavily on recommendation and education. These two aspects of the sales process work together to provide an excellent post-purchase experience for our customers. We look to go beyond simply selling a product and attempt to match the correct products with the wants and needs of a customer. This includes teaching customers how to properly use and maintain the gear they purchase while out in the field. One customer may need a full tutorial on how to use their new water filter while others may only need a few pointers and tips.

    No matter how much you attempt to educate customers in the store, this may still fail to overcome some of the obstacles that will be faced as our customers hit the trail/water/snow. Because of this, we see our classes and events as an incredible opportunity to further improve our customer’s experience outside! For example, each winter we host an event called “Meet the Slopes.” This day-long event provides customers with a guided introduction to skiing and snowboarding. Each guest is grouped with ski instructors as well as Bill & Paul’s employees to help transform a potentially intimidating entrance to the sport into a comfortable and accommodating experience. We find that this guidance encourages our customers to continue participating in and enjoying the outdoors!

    • Post purchase
      • Sharing videos/articles/posts pertinent to skiing/hiking/paddling as well as general environmental sustainability practices (i.e. principles of ‘Leave No Trace’)
      • We look to be continuing to provide our customers value long after their initial purchase

    Q: What are some of your favorite new brands or products that are really connecting with your shoppers right now?

    Patagonia - Patagonia continually excels at employee education, which is passed on directly to Bill & Paul’s customers. For this reason, Employees remain excited and knowledgeable about Patagonia products from season to season. Patagonia continues to have great brand recognition for their ethical sourcing, sustainability, and social/environmental initiatives. Customers continue to see Patagonia as a brand with a purpose, instead of just recognizing it as another clothing company in the space.

    Mountain Hardwear - Mountain Hardwear renewed their commitment to innovation and gear. They have recently conducted a complete overhaul of their gear line. Mountain Hardware is re-establishing their roots in the technical and high performance gear space, after venturing out into apparel for some time. They have prioritized employee education to make this happen, with extensive two-hour-long employee clinics. This has resulted in exceptional sell through with their products.

    Free Fly Apparel - Is a new and innovative brand in the apparel space. Free Fly is a top seller because customers love the product and can feel the difference from the first touch. It looks great on display and feels even better in the customer’s hands. It has become one of the employees’ top recommended products for this summer. The sustainable bamboo material, and additional UPF protection, are a fresh take on sustainable apparel. These features offer an alternative to many products in the apparel space currently being made out of recycled plastics.

    If we look at these three brands, we can see that this all points to the realization that employees must connect with a brand’s’ values in order for customers to connect. The majority of customers come into the store with relatively little knowledge regarding brands’ selling points and features, especially when it comes to newer brands. Primarily, it is the responsibility of the sales staff to communicate a brand’s values effectively, so the brand can have solid recognition moving forward.  

    Q: Do you have any upcoming events that brands are participating in?

    We host a number of events throughout the year that look to connect our customers to the brands we support. This often takes the form of inviting brands to participate in events, sales, and classes. During the summer we host an intro to kayaking class where brand reps help to teach customers about how a kayak’s design and materials impact the intended use and therefore performance of kayaks.

    We love the activities we sell at Bill & Paul’s, but we understand the importance of developing an appreciation for environmental sustainability.

    We also collaborate with brands like Patagonia to host our Gravel Bottom Paddlefest. We love the activities we sell at Bill & Paul’s, but we understand the importance of developing an appreciation for environmental sustainability. Before the paddle event, Patagonia representatives speak about the importance of improving the health of our watershed through environmentally considerate stewardship of our natural resources as well as provide a generous donation to LGROW.

    • Events where reps interact with/sell to customers
      • Ski team week – reps help fit and sell ski equipment as well as provide clinics on gear maintenance, waxing and more
      • Beer, Bites, & Backpacks – An event used to promote backpacking through GWP promotions and gear being raffled off. Mystery Ranch, Gregory, and Osprey along with a number of camp food companies provide support through product contributions, giveaway swag, and more.
      • ‘Your Turn’ – A women specific ski event that is sponsored by Elan and Leki poles skis. A day long event where intermediate to advanced women are encouraged to demo women specific skis while receiving instruction from top instructors and ex-professional ski racer Lisa Densmore Ballard. Elan reps help get women in a ski that will help them to rapidly progress in their skiing.

    Q: Have you experienced growth in your business in the past year and how’d you do it?

    • We continue to shop and add unique products that complement our current focused but specialized selection. 
    • recently completed a store wide renovation to freshen up the space as well as create a more customer friendly shopping experience. Store flow as well as merchandising were greatly improved.
    • Strategic increase in marketing especially in digital realm. Allows us to target select and focused customers all while sharing our story.


    Thanks to the folks at Bill & Paul’s for taking the time to chat with us!  Stayed tuned for more as we talk with specialty retailers all over the globe about what it means to be an #Originalinfluencer.

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