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North Bay Business Journal

Friday, February 7, 2014, 7:00 am

Santa Rosa outdoors store to relocate, focus on clothing, footwear

37-year-old Sonoma Outfitters headed for Montgomery Village

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    Sonoma Outfitters store floor on Third Street

    Sonoma Outfitters’ new store in Montgomery Village shopping center will be half the size of the current store, shown here. (photo credit: Jay Knick)

    SANTA ROSA — Sonoma Outfitters has been on the same corner of Railroad Square for a quarter century, but the boats, backpacks and other outdoors recreational equipment won’t be making the voyage this spring to the new location in an upscale-oriented shopping center on the east side of the city.

    By May 1, the 37-year-old retailer (707-528-1920, sonomaoutfitters.com) is set to move from the 15,000-square-foot store at 145 Third St. to occupy four storefronts totaling 7,200 square feet in Montgomery Village, an open-air “lifestyle” center on Farmers Lane at Sonoma Avenue.

    No longer will the store be selling canoes, kayaks, rock-climbing gear, backpacks, tents and other equipment, according to co-owner Jay Knick, 66. Instead, the focus will be on higher-margin specialty outdoor clothing and footwear as well as accessories for travelers and day-hikers. Key brands include Rohnert Park-based Marmot, The North Face, Ecco, Keen, Merrill and Ugg.

    So, there’s no need for a large warehouse to store the boats preseason to get better manufacturer terms and store space for an indoor climbing wall.

    “Last summer we had a good boating season and sold a lot of boats for the first time in several years, but when we figured out what we made it was not worth it,” he said.

    The location on the east side of Magowan Drive in Montgomery Village better fits the target shopper for Sonoma Outfitters, according Mr. Knick.

    “Our customers are a little older and love to hike and love to travel and are willing to spend a extra dollars for better clothing,” he said. “It’s difficult to get people to come down here.”

    When the store moved to Third Street from Fourth Street in 1990, it attracted shoppers driving from a wide area to buy specialty equipment, Mr. Knick said. But sales have fallen off with the arrival of larger competitors in the market and e-commerce as well as ebbing demand for backpacking gear.

    Then Washington-based outdoors gear chain REI expanded to Marin County then Santa Rosa. That led to the contraction and eventual closure of equipment-focused chain Marin Outdoors several years ago. Having a wider selection of footwear helped Sonoma Outfitters compete with REI, but the arrival of Dick’s Sporting Goods stores in Petaluma this past fall and Santa Rosa set for this coming fall is stepping up the competition for outdoors gear, according to Mr. Knick. Some of these bigger competitors carry items similar to Sonoma Outfitters online but not to a great extent locally.

    “Once upon a time, you wouldn’t find something like this in at big-box stores,” he said. “Now, the outdoors are in, and big guys are moving in with every category of items.”

    He said a longtime manufacturer representative told him there once were 300 outdoors clothing and equipment dealers on the West Coast, and now there are about 90, including many more larger stores.

    Sonoma Outfitters was active in e-commerce from the early days of the technological revolution. Such sales peaked at half of store receipts by 2006. That required six people to mind the virtual store and fulfill orders. The store had a purchase-now icon on manufacturer websites, posted among such icons for a half-dozen to dozen major retailers such as Nordstrom, Dick’s and REI.

    Then the number of virtual outdoors retailers proliferated and manufacturers started shifting to more of their own Internet sales.

    “Sales dropped dramatically, except for Christmas,” Mr. Knick recalled. He declined to state annual store sales. “Unless you have a product that is very unique, it is very tough because you are competing with thousands of sites.”

    Thus, the pressure to discount has been huge, and knockoff products at far lower prices abound. Once-no-cost inventory listings on search engines now cost money for incoming clicks, and online advertising costs more for significant placement. But such efforts do bring in significant traffic to Sonoma Outfitters’ Web store. Yet now, it’s just down to Mr. Knick maintaining the Web store and his stepson Greg Peterson, 42, fulfilling and shipping orders.

    Mr. Peterson, who handles footwear orders, started working at the store at age 15 and returned after college. His mother, Debra, handles store finances and orders for clothing.

    Montgomery Village general partner David Codding has been angling to get Sonoma Outfitters in the 276,000-square-foot shopping center for nearly two decades, but the Knicks were under a long-term lease for the Third Street store. As the lease was expiring, the Knicks called Mr. Codding.

    The lease leaves the center with just the 3,000-square-foot former Shogun restaurant location to fill. But four existing tenants in the spaces Sonoma Outfitters will occupy are being shifted, according to Mr. Codding.

    On the move are FY Bliss, moving into the former Bling space next to Sur La Table; Reverie Baby, next to Hopscotch Shoes in a cluster of children’s clothing and toy stores; and Marga’s Intimate Apparel, making its fourth move in 25 years and going to its original location on Midway Drive.

    Rainsong Shoes, which has stores in Healdsburg and Fort Bragg, plans to close its underperforming Montgomery Village location, and Marga’s is set to start a retirement sale in coming months, according to Mr. Codding.

    Sonoma Outfitters started on Mendocino Avenue in 1978.

    “I don’t want to sell the business,” Mr. Knick said, noting how he enjoys working the sales floor. “I don’t see myself retiring, but I may take more time off.”

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