The imminent opening of outdoor giant REI Co-op has other outdoor retailers determined to stay in their lanes and continue delivering high-end gear, personalized service and trail beta.

The co-op’s decision to open up a big store in a valley already bustling with specialty outdoor shops is a head-scratcher for some residents. Decades ago the co-op eschewed mountain towns to avoid crowding them out, but since REI opened shop in 2002 in Boulder, Colorado, four specialty shops went out of business, according to Marc Peruzzi in Outside Business Journal.

For every person dreading the opening of a large corporate store in Jackson that could harm homegrown shops, there’s another celebrating the ability to try on gear. One 6-foot-tall woman is looking for outdoor clothing that doesn’t leave her back exposed to winter cold. Another just wants to shop for women’s hiking shoes larger than size 10.

On Nov. 5 the dreamers and dreaders will wait no more: REI will open a 15,000-square-foot store in Powderhorn Mall (the former site of Lucky’s Market, and before that, Jackson Whole Grocer, née Jackson Food Town).

There are plenty of REI fans living here, as well as thousands of daily visitors year-round. REI’s customer data team counts more than 4,600 Jackson residents who have become a lifetime member, a mind-boggling 42% of the population. The $20 co-op membership earns people a patronage dividend, usually of 10%, paid back each spring along with a 20% off coupon and other perks like ski waxing or flat tire repair. In Wyoming about 31,000 residents count themselves as REI members.

REI store manager Jason Priest moved to the valley in July to assimilate. His love affair with the outdoors has taken him from northern Michigan to central Oregon, where he started with REI in Bend. He followed the company to Tucson, Arizona, and Huntsville, Alabama, before getting the nod to move back West and open the Jackson store.

When he arrived this summer, Priest toured the valley’s outdoor shops to introduce himself and offer his friendly competition philosophy.

“We want to come into a town and focus on getting everybody outside,” Priest said. “We are all here to do that. A lot of shops carry high-end gear. Teton Mountaineering is one of longest-running outdoor shops in the nation. We want to not compete with them, but work with them. With 40,000 people who come through this town every day in the summertime, we need all the stores.”

He’s quick to say that REI’s bread and butter won’t be the gearheads, expert climbers and backcountry skiers who frequent the valley’s specialty shops, but the middle-of-the-road visitors, families and residents who need basics.

“We try to really be inclusive of everybody who walks through the doors,” Priest said, from children’s gear to plus sizes. “We’re not looking for the expert, the superfit people. We want the people just getting into it who may not know what they need to get outside.”

The curious can peruse REI’s offerings during three grand opening days, Nov. 5-7. The first 250 people into the store will get a free water bottle filled with a prize.

Priest, for one, cannot wait.

“I’m just so amped up ready to invite our community into the store,” he said.“We want to be a part of this community. It’s a completely different store than we’d normally build, and I think it represents Jackson really well.”

The member-owned cooperative was launched in 1938 when a group of 23 climbers in Washington wanted to source affordable, quality ice axes. Today there are 168 stores in 39 states, and 20 million members.

Downtown at Skinny Skis, owner Scott O’Brien is most worried by another retailer competing for his most valuable resource: talented employees.

“I’m sure they’re struggling for staff,” O’Brien said. “We’re doing OK, but I think everybody in town could use more employees.”

At Teton Mountaineering, owner Rex Hong said employee hiring and retention has taken far more energy this year “than worrying about REI,” and he’s noticed a small wage battle being mounted between the outdoor shops.

Priest said he has 30 employees on the payroll now, and anticipates being in a constant state of hiring, given the valley’s high cost of living.

To compete for retail sales, Hong, who has managed Teton Mountaineering since 1984, said there’s only one way to do it.

“We’re going to be more true to ourselves than ever,” Hong said, with climbing, backpacking and alpine touring gear. “That’s the only way we can be. We have a pretty incredible staff. That has been and will continue to be our strength. Call it toe to toe or whatever, that’s what we’re going to go up against them with. It’s going to be a matter of who knows that product better, and also our local knowledge, expertise. Our kids are all pretty active, they know the Tetons really well and all the activities involved with the Tetons. We’re going to lean on that.”

Founded in the late 1950s as The Outhaus by climbers Barry Corbet and Jake Breitenbach, Teton Mountaineering has been the valley’s climbing shop for decades. Hong purchased it in 2019 from longtime owner Chuck Schaap.

“Our history is worth something,” Hong said, “but I’m not so sure when it comes down to dollars and cents, if there’s a 5% discount, they’re not going to buy it at the historic mountaineering shop, they’re going to go save 20 bucks.”

Hong predicted that REI will eat into some of the valley’s gear dollars typically spent with Rendezvous River Sports, Wyoming Outfitters or Fitzgerald’s Bicycles, but also the mass-produced down jackets peddled by Eddie Bauer.

Skinny Skis owner O’Brien echoed Hong’s strategy.

“We’re pretty confident in who we are as a business,” O’Brien said, “the level of customer service we can provide.”

The community will continue to rally around the small shops that give back to valley residents, O’Brien said, as Skinny Skis has for 47 years.

“It always seems like we’re planning some sort of fundraiser,” O’Brien said. “We’ve got one coming up this next weekend for the Ski Club, there’s Avalanche Awareness Night that we’ve been hosting 30-plus years. Our customers know that we’re very engaged with our community and familiar with what their needs are.”

With Gart Brothers sports and Sports Authority all distant memories in the valley’s retail history, Kmart shuttered and Target not yet open, there are gaps REI can fill, O’Brien said.

That niche could be parents looking for an inexpensive first bike for a child or visitors looking for their first tent.

As part of its cooperative structure and business plan, REI also gives back, Priest said, a $20,000 donation each year. In its opening year that money was split between three valley nonprofits: Friends of Pathways, Coombs Outdoors and Friends of the Bridger-Teton.

(This version of the article has been edited to correct the patronage dividend percentage to 10%. — Ed.)

Contact Johanna Love at 732-7071 or jlove@jhnewsandguide.com.

Editor in Chief Johanna Love has covered the Jackson Hole community as part of the News&Guide staff since 1998. She took the helm of the newsroom in 2017. She fields story tips and kudos as well as criticism and questions.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Please note: Online comments may also run in our print publications.
Keep it clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Please turn off your CAPS LOCK.
No personal attacks. Discuss issues & opinions rather than denigrating someone with an opposing view.
No political attacks. Refrain from using negative slang when identifying political parties.
Be truthful. Don’t knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be proactive. Use the “Report” link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with us. We’d love to hear eyewitness accounts or history behind an article.
Use your real name: Anonymous commenting is not allowed.
.
The News&Guide welcomes comments from our paid subscribers. Tell us what you think. Thanks for engaging in the conversation!

Thank you for reading!

Please log in, or sign up for a new account and purchase a subscription to read or post comments.