Talking Shop with Trek Stephens, Owner of The Toggery.
In 1947, Frank and Jessie Stephens opened the doors of Frank’s Shirt Shop in downtown Whitefish, Montana — at first, the Stephens’ priority was selling quality men’s clothing. After acquiring a neighboring clothing store, the entire operation was renamed The Toggery.
The family business was passed on in 1970 to Frank’s son, Gary. Over the course of 30 years, Gary broadened the store’s scope to offer both men’s and women’s clothing, and footwear. This family tradition continues today, as Gary’s son Trek Stephens and Trek’s wife, Rene, currently own and operate The Toggery in Whitefish and Kalispell, Montana.
As for Trek Stephens, he says he “initially didn’t have any interest in working in the family business,” but after graduating from Montana State University, he decided that Whitefish, Montana was “the only place I could live.”
“The proximity to rivers, lakes, Glacier Park, and a ski resort made it difficult to be anywhere else,” says Stephens. “I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to take over the business and have a career in a resort town. My wife, Rene, joined me six years later and brought the shop another level of passion for retail. It could not have been a better fit for the both of us.”
Known by brands in the industry for its elevated product curation and creative merchandising, The Toggery combines its legacy of 50-plus years of retail with some modern retail magic. Here, Trek Stephens talks shop with us.
Outdoor Insight: How would you describe the communities that the stores are in and the customers that you serve?
Trek Stephens: “We have two locations 15 minutes apart, but they are very different communities. Our main location [in Whitefish, MT] is in a resort town. Our second location [in Kalispell, MT] is located in the county seat and the largest city in our valley. We are very proud that our local following in our resort town is very strong. We have always viewed the resort tourism to be a bonus part of our business. Our second location in Kalispell is primarily local business. Our typical customer is a professional, active in the outdoors and highly social with a fashion interest. We focus primarily on clothing and footwear and light outdoor packs and hiking footwear. We also have added a sizable selection of unique accessories and locally made products.”
Your stores are in unique physical spaces — historic, renovated buildings. Can you tell us more about that and the benefits and challenges of your amazing store spaces?
“We have a lot of pride in our buildings. They are both historical brick buildings in the center of downtown. We know this is our store heritage and will never change that part of our image. Rene and I both enjoy going to work because of the atmosphere. I couldn’t imagine showing up at a strip mall for work. We hope this feeling transcends to our customers. Really the only challenge of our spaces is our Main Street location in Kalispell. It’s the classic story of a downtown that was sucked dry by strip development outside of downtown. However, there has been a highly fueled resurgence in downtown Kalispell with many new breweries, restaurants and retail. We took the risk and renovated an old building on the very early cusp of this resurgence. It was a risk, but we felt really good about the timing, location and how it fit our image.”
How important is the aesthetic of the store to you?
“In our opinion, store aesthetic is equal to customer service and product selection. The three things together hopefully create a place people want to shop. We have recently highly invested in remodels of both our locations. We haven’t spared any expense or taken shortcuts on what our vision of retail is. We have taken inspiration from our favorite peers in the industry, especially Gordon Seabury and Ponch Membreno at Toad&Co. Instead of accepting the typical branded racks from our suppliers, we have spent many hours finding antiques and discarded large items that could be customized into retail racks and displays. It has actually become a hobby of ours. Like taking half the cab of a 1920s rusted out truck and making it into a shelf display. It is rewarding and fun to see the finished product.”
What are the main categories you carry? And what are some of your top and hottest brands at the moment?
“Our main categories are clothing and footwear. Our top selling brands are common to most shops in the industry. Kuhl, Toad&Co, prAna, Mammut, Sorel, Chaco. However, we are quick to take a risk on new and less distributed brands. We love Howler Brothers, Forsake, Cotopaxi among others. We also have found great success in fashion brands like Gentle Fawn and Free People. Our surf brands have also been solid performers in the summer months. We are proud that our selection often changes because of the risks we are willing to take on products outside of our comfort zone.”
How do you decide which brands and products to carry, or which new brands to bring in?
“We have always believed that your gut feeling is the best guide in buying. Even more than reporting on historical data. Things change and you have to change with them. If it doesn’t ‘feel’ right, it probably won’t sell. Trade shows are highly important. We emphasize shopping shows as much or more than just appointments. We often travel to shows outside the outdoor industry because we may find uniqueness and creativity elsewhere. We will buy anything we think is unique, fun and different. We are willing to take risks and have fun with it. We are not focused too much on the numbers.”
What do you see as the top opportunities and challenges right now for specialty retailers?
“I think the opportunity is to be the best in customer service, store décor and product selection. Hopefully it will set us apart from homogenous retail and set us up to be successful in a challenging era of brick-and-mortar retail. The challenges are the same for all of my retail peers: How to navigate in the world of online retail. We truly believe humans will always have a need for experience that is impossible online. We are trying our hardest to create an experience that is desirable for our customers.”
What is your favorite thing about being an outdoor retailer?
“Easy! The passion and energy of everyone in the outdoor industry is contagious. Life is first, work is second. It’s evident in everyone we are proud to have developed relationships with over the years. We can thank many of them for their guidance, excitement and forever friendships that make our career fun.”