More than 4000 of you voted for 31 outdoor stores, brands and heroes. The competition’s been intense with many outfits racking up hundreds of votes. Here’s who you voted the overall winners:
Outdoor hero of the year – Mal Law
When an average person sets themselves a challenge, they might get their close friends and family to help with logistics and moral support. They may convince a wider network of friends and colleagues to donate money while their loved ones see them off and greet them with a warm hug at the end.
But when Mal Law throws himself into a challenge, a whole army of people throw themselves in to help out. He has sponsors, press liaison officers, cameramen, logistics coordinators. Rather than raising hundreds or thousands, he raises hundreds of thousands – his target being $500,000 for his latest challenge; the High Five-0, which he completed at the end of March.
But Mal believes the fact that he himself is just an average guy inspires people to support him.
“I’m guessing people relate to the fact that a very average athlete is taking on something extraordinary. The example I’d like to set is that there are no limits apart from the ones you place upon yourself.”
It’s a message that seems to have permeated across the outdoor community. The High Five-0, where he ran 50 peaks in 50 days, has not only inspired people to support and donate. It has raised his status to the point where almost 800 people voted for him in this year’s Outdoor Awards.
“I’m totally stoked,” says Law. “I imagine most of the people voting have a good understanding of what I’m doing and going through so it’s great to get recognition from my peers.”
Law’s spent many years raising funds for causes close to his heart. He once ran the seven Great Walks in seven days, climbed the equivalent of Everest in a day and ran the UK’s South West Coast Path (1014km) in a record 17 days.
Funds raised in the High Five-0 will go to the Mental Health Foundation of NZ. “I’ve tried to raise funds and awareness for important causes, particularly mental health, where I’m sure many who voted will know the positive effects of getting outdoors.”
Independent retailer of the year: Living Simply, Newmarket, Auckland
In a climate that sees independent outdoor stores struggling to survive nationwide, Living Simply is managing to compete with, and thrive against, its chain retailer competitors.
The Newmarket-based store in Auckland has a loyal customer-base, 500 of whom voted it the very best in this year’s Outdoor Awards. Managing director Ben Sinclair is delighted that so many people took the time to send their votes the store’s way and attributes success to the technical advice he and his staff offer.
“There seems to be a trend for people buying more technical equipment and clothing with a technical aspect from us,” says Sinclair. “For instance, rainwear is doing very well, as are packs and footwear – anything involving advice or a technical explanation of its construction.”
The store doesn’t sell so much in the way of non-technical items, such as polar fleece, where advice isn’t needed before purchase. Technical knowledge, Sinclair says, is the store’s main point of difference: “Service is everything and a shop that’s controlled at head office can have a major disconnect in communication. At my store, staff are working with the owners of the business on a level playing field. Knowledge gets passed around and we’re constantly building a wealth of information. This can’t be replicated with money – just with time and hard work.”
Sinclair admits, though, that it would be extremely difficult for a new independent store to set up from scratch and compete with the chains, due to the time it takes to build up a reputation and the speed at which technology develops. Even for a well-established store such as Living Simply keeping your finger on the pulse is hard work. “Fortunately, we have people here who are very competent and savvy with technology,” he says. “We’re working hard and we have great pride in our work, but we’re certainly not getting rich.”
The store was set up by Ben’s dad Mark and first opened its doors in 1988. In recent years, Ben has taken over more of the day-to-day running of the family business and new staff are given three months of training in how to fit gear before they serve customers on the shop floor.
Chain retailer of the year – Bivouac Outdoor
Bivouac Outdoor is the only company to have retained an Outdoor Awards title. The store has won Chain Retailer of the Year for the second year running, to the delight of its staff and CEO Wayne Martin.
The irony of winning this particular category is that Martin doesn’t see Bivouac as being a chain store. “We don’t think of ourselves as a chain,” he says. “We’ve just grown slowly over the years, we’re an old-style retailer.”
The company ethos is to retain a relaxed, friendly atmosphere in stores. “We try to employ outdoor people,” says Martin. “And, if not, then people with a good personality who can learn. We want people who are interested in the products. We don’t want them to just take money, but to say ‘hi’ to customers, to find out what they need and to help them.”
Bivouac has 11 stores nationwide and hopes to have a few more down the line. But the firm is entirely New Zealand focussed and has no plans to head across the ditch.
“Australia’s a very different market,” says Martin. “It’s more camping orientated and with our style it would be difficult to operate both sides of the Tasman.”
The store is almost unique in New Zealand as being a chain store predominantly featuring brands other than its own. The likes of Osprey, Outdoor Research, Exped, Merrell, Marmot, Arc’teryx, Jetboil, Petzl, Patagonia and heaps more are all sold there.
One of the tricky things about selling these products is remaining competitive with the web. “Retail’s hard work,” explains Martin. “We have to match world pricing. For instance, with an Osprey pack, we need to be competitive with pricing in the US.”
Martin says due to the New Zealand dollar weakening against the US dollar, the cost of outdoor gear is likely to rise by around five percent in the coming months. “But people will find it’s also more expensive to buy on the internet so it’s swings and roundabouts.”
Web retailer of the year – Torpedo7
It’s been a big 12-months for Torpedo7. This time last year it was just an outdoor web store. Now it has 10 bricks and mortar stores nationwide, having acquired R&R Sport and opened three new stores of its own.
The risks of such a rebrand are high, but Torpedo7’s success in this year’s Outdoor Awards suggests the website is continuing to provide a service to satisfy the outdoor community.
The company’s chief operating officer, Aaron Greene, says it’s good acknowledgement of the hard work put in.
“We’re always looking at how to make the website easier for the customer to find what they’re looking for and minimise the steps at checkout as much as possible,” he explains.
“The website has a refreshed look and feel and one of the biggest changes in recent years is making someone accountable for user experience.” Greene himself checks the transaction process on other websites to see if there’s anything out there that can work better. He encourages his staff to do likewise.
The firm has tried to ensure the bricks and mortar stores complement the website. Greene says ‘click and collect’ is gaining in popularity, where customer purchases online then heads to their nearest store to pick it up. “We’re building a multi-channel business and it’s great to see recognition for the work we’ve done on the web store,” he says.
But Greene knows the company can’t stop moving. He says there’s still a lot of work to do and, though delighted to have won the web retailer award, he adds: “We’re gutted not to have won the physical retailer category too, but we’ll work on that for next year.”
Outdoor brand of the year – Icebreaker
For many, the Icebreaker brand is synonymous with that very kiwi material, merino wool.
When owner and founder Jeremy Moon began developing products from the wool 21 years ago he was the only one doing so. This gave Icebreaker a tremendous head start, developing into a global brand. But since then, other brands (more than 200 worldwide) have started accommodating the fabric into their own range, putting pressure on Icebreaker to remain at the forefront.
And the brand’s victory in this year’s Outdoor Awards confirms to Icebreaker’s general manager, Greg Smith, that the product is still relevant and still performs to the high standards required by walkers and trampers.
“I can’t imagine it would have won if it just looked good,” says Smith. “For us it’s important to have validation from our users – it’s all we care about in fact – it’s a big honour.”
Smith says initially the plan was to produce something functional, not fashionable; but over time, demands changed. “Slowly but surely people started saying ‘I
can wear this for a hike, then go out for dinner in it and it still smells OK.”
The increasing urbanisation of New Zealand, Smith says, has led to people wearing the same product in numerous environments – a trend the brand is keen to continue.
“We want to be the brand people choose for whatever they choose to do. The customer wants that choice – it’s not a product for just one thing. They might wear the same thing mountain biking, then for a surf, then once it’s dry, wear it for a hike.”
The pressures to change are always there. Other brands, Smith says, combine merino with synthetic fibres, often to make it cheaper. This isn’t a direction Icebreaker wants to go.
“A product may be called a merino brand even though it has less than 50% wool,” explains Smith. “This is something we’re wary of so we do blend, but only to make it perform better, not to make it cheaper.”