ack & Paddle opened in 1974 and has succeeded for more than 40 years by constantly evolving. “My mom had a Girl Scout troop and they wanted to get some Grumman canoes. They wanted to get wholesale and one thing led to another,” Pack and Paddle owner John Williams says from his office in the shop, still located in Lafayette, LA. “I was 13-years old and have worked in one way or another in the shop since then.”
He and wife Becky bought the shop from the family in 1999. The nearly 7000-square-foot one-door outdoor specialty shop has come a long way from what was essentially a 400-square-foot Acadian shack on the banks of the Vermillion River.
“We had built an e-commerce site selling hockey equipment and my parents were ready to retire, so we went ahead and bought the shop and doubled down and ran both businesses,” Williams says. In 2006, the couple thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, and two days after returning home, sold their e-com business to their biggest competitor. “After 2007 we made a major reset, we made a lot of changes and it really worked out.”
A major part of the store’s current business is events and experiences. This includes in-store events to encourage and equip people to get outdoors — these events are usually “How to” or “Where to.” Guided experiences that give folks a chance to paddle, kayak fish or hike in a planned group format are also a key part of the business.
“Trips and events are central to what we do at Pack & Paddle because they allow us to be a part of people in our community discovering outdoor opportunities that are here,” says Williams.
Even though the shop was called Pack & Paddle out of the gate, all they sold back in the old days was paddling equipment. “Over the years we added windsurfers, Hobie cats, ski gear and apparel, and there was a bike shop in the store for about 15 years,” Williams says. “What I felt was going to happen when we took it over in 1999, was that to stay relevant, you have to be really important to somebody. We were like every other specialty retailer. We were going to have to pare down.
“We decided to create a really strong event and trip program,” Williams says. “Our idea was that by hosting events and taking people out, we were going to build loyalty and create traffic in the shop. It was like going back to the future.” The shop then went from selling a few dozen boats a year to hundreds of boats a year over a six-year period.
“We had a feeling that even though we weren’t doing a whole lot of business in paddlesports, if we worked to develop the market in the area, we could be successful,” he says. “We took a third of our shop and turned it into paddlesports. it was kind of a Field of Dreams, and we backed up the retail with the experiential.”
This is the approach that many shops used to have, but not many of them do it any more, Williams says. “We went old school. Back in the ’80s we used to have a lot of lessons and events and trips and we went back to that.”
We decided to create a really strong event and trip programs. We took a third of our shop and turned it into paddlesports. it was kind of a ‘Field of Dreams’ and we backed up the retail with the experiential.
To make room for the Field of Dreams, they had to get rid of the bike shop that took up a large portion of the shop for years. “It was making up about 40 percent of our sales, but losing money doing it. You lose volume, but get your expenses in better shape. People don’t have the bandwidth to do everything,” he says.
“Also in 2007, we gained a regional specialty outdoor competitor along with some box store competition,” Williams says. “Faced with that, we knew we would have to focus and be really good at certain areas. We decided to set this focus on paddlesports, backpacking and camping because we felt that the consumer that enjoys these activities would resonate best with our strategy of community building and events.”
Even though they were experts in how to sell online, part of the shop reboot was to not get into the outdoor e-commerce game. “We wanted to put our time and energy into having a community,” says Williams. “I’m glad we didn’t go back into the e-commerce business. I don’t know if we would have made more money, maybe, but we have a better life. Instead of inputting pictures and data into a computer, I’m taking people out paddling.
“We want to put as deep of roots as we can instead of trying to spread wide and shallow roots,” says Williams. And in the ever-changing world of brick-and-mortar retail, he believes that the sales dollars that are the safest currently are the ones that require the most investment in time, energy and staffing.