This Holiday Season Let’s Send a Message to the Outdoor Industry: Local is Better
By Matt Niswonger
“Four companies dominate our daily lives unlike any other in human history: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. We love our nifty phones and just-a-click-away services, but these behemoths enjoy unfettered economic domination and hoard riches on a scale not seen since the monopolies of the gilded age.” — Scott Gallowy, Esquire Magazine Feb. 8, 2018As I’ve shared in previous articles, nowhere is the ethic of supporting small, locally owned businesses stronger than in the outdoor industry. Right now outdoor enthusiasts are boycotting Backcountry.com after it was revealed the Utah based internet retailer was using a team of lawyers to bully and intimidate small companies who were using the word “backcountry,” as if owning an outdoor store on the internet gives Backcountry.com the right to control a cherished word long used by the outdoor community.
Without the funds to fight off Backcountry.com’s legal team, small companies are being forced to give up their perfectly legitimate use of the word “backcountry,” and it has been revealed that Backcountry.com is now becoming a gear manufacturer arrogantly looking to own the entire “backcountry” concept and all commercial opportunities that come from the word. As outdoor enthusiasts began to blow the whistle on Backcountry.com in late October via social media, a boycott group started on Facebook and quickly ballooned to over twenty thousand members. Backcountry.com had been exposed as a predatory big tech company that was unfairly threatening the livelihoods of many small businesses in secret.
Unknown to many, years before the internet store Backcountry.com existed in Utah, a store with the same name was operating in Truckee, California. This store was called “The Backcountry.” When owner Mike Schwartz went to purchase the URL for his Truckee store so he could build a website in the mid 1990s, he was told it would cost him $75,000 to own “thebackcountry.com,” even though his store was already a legally established business using that name as a trademark. These were the crazy days of the first internet bubble, and domain squatting–where someone could buy www.mcdonalds.com and then force the fast food corporation to buy it’s own name for a small fortune—was common.
“Years later I found out that the people who eventually started Backcountry.com had bought up all the .com URLs using any combination of the word “backcountry” and were just sitting on them. I eventually settled on “thebackcountry.net,” even though it wasn’t my first choice,” Mike told me during a recent phone interview.
If you type “www.thebackcountry.net” into your internet browser you’ll find that Mike’s online store carries much of the same gear that is available for purchase at the same standard prices used by Backcountry.com. Given the same or similar pricing why wouldn’t most online shoppers support the original Backcountry store in Truckee instead of the predatory dot com known as Backcountry.com that started years later? The reason is that the vast majority of outdoor enthusiasts who surf the web looking for information about outdoor gear never learn about Mike’s company. Backcountry.com in Utah pays it’s SEO team to suppress Mike’s Truckee business by keeping Backcountry.com front and center when people use search terms like “backcountry gear” in Google. Backcountry.com also has a large marketing budget that pays for Google and Facebook ads pointing online users to its website. This is how predatory dot coms operate and it’s why small businesses have such a hard time competing online.
Coined in the 1960s, “Black Friday” refers to the day after Thanksgiving that marks the traditional kickoff to the holiday shopping season. The “black” in Black Friday symbolizes stores turning a profit for the first time during the year. For thousands of small, “mom-and-pop” businesses in California, this means after eleven months of breaking even or running a negative, it’s finally time to put some money in the bank account. This holiday money allows mom-and-pop companies to survive another year, and hopefully make enough money to save for retirement.
People who purposely shop at local retail stores to support small businesses know that sometimes you pay a little bit more and sometimes you pay a little bit less but at least you are supporting local families who keep your money local, instead of the millionaires and billionaires that run the predatory dot coms and often pay little or no taxes. Local shoppers also appreciate the advantage of being able touch and feel the outdoor products they are interested in. Being out in public with friends and family, saying “hi” to members of your community, and keeping your dollars local are all additional benefits of traditional “in-person” holiday shopping vs. virtual shopping.
Some people reading this might say, “Price is everything and brick-and-mortar stores just can’t compete with internet discounts.” The fact is, sometimes this may be true and sometimes not. That’s why during holiday shopping season we should get out of the house and go see what the local shops have to offer. While there we can feel free to pull out our phones and do some price checking, but at least see what your local community has to offer before supporting the predatory dot coms.
Here in Santa Cruz I can buy climbing gear from my local climbing gym, a new wetsuit at any of several local surf stores, bike tools from a number of bike shops, or a Patagonia jacket at the Patagonia outlet across town. I can also find used Patagonia, Vans, Quicksilver and other popular outdoor brands at the local Goodwill used clothing store. My teenage kids love shopping for used clothes and I wouldn’t think twice about giving used outdoor clothing to my kids for a Christmas present. Buying used gear aligns with our environmental values as well. In general, I like the outdoor store environment, I find it inspiring, and if I have any questions a face-to-face person will help me. Possibly the worst effect of big tech in America is the lifestyle change that comes with it: constantly inside and glued to our phones instead of connecting with our community in person. This lifestyle change seems especially pronounced with teenagers.
Backcountry.com is taking this boycott seriously because they are vulnerable. Like all internet retailers they are simply middlemen. They could disappear completely and their customers would just buy the same products elsewhere. That’s why this boycott must continue through the holiday season. We must send a message that predatory dot coms don’t belong in the outdoor industry. If the boycott doesn’t result in a serious blow to their holiday revenues they will simply return to business as usual, and other large companies in the outdoor industry will be emboldened to similarly use lawyers to bully smaller companies.
This holiday season the outdoor community is sending a message loud and clear to Backcountry.com and other predatory dot coms. If you game the system, bully mom-and-pop businesses, and arrogantly try to own the rights to words we all cherish, then we will take our business elsewhere. During the holiday season let’s try to shop in person from local stores. If we must shop online, let’s do so in support of smaller companies and stores like The Backcountry in beautiful Truckee, California.