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VOL. 121 | NO. 122 | Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Outdoors Inc. Helps Enthusiasts Tame the Great Outdoors

By Eric Smith

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GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM: Outdoors Inc. employees Andy Drake (left) and Andrew Ray move sea kayaks outside the company's Poplar Avenue store. Outdoors grew out of the paddling addiction of founders Joe Royer and Lawrence Migliara, who began the company in 1974. One of the company's signature events is the annual Canoe & Kayak Race, which has been part of Memphis in May for 25 years. -- Photograph By Eric Smith

Whether it's canoeing on the Mississippi River or cycling through Shelby Farms, one of the most well-known places to launch your off-road activity is Outdoors Inc., which has been equipping and educating adventurers in Memphis for more than 30 years.

And though motorsports continue to gain popularity, the folks at Outdoors hold true to their original mission by serving people who bike, paddle, climb and run - in other words, people who use their own muscle, not some machine, to propel themselves across land and water.

"Our expertise is outdoor human-powered recreation," said Outdoors president and co-founder Joe Royer. "That's our passion. We're not going to get distracted with other sports."

Up the creek - with a paddle

In the early 1970s, Royer and friend Lawrence Migliara became avid paddlers. But there wasn't a place in town that sold canoes or kayaks or any of the sport's accessories, so both men began selling gear out of their houses.

Royer owned West Tennessee White Water Supply and Migliara owned South Central Canoe Base. In 1974, the pair combined their efforts and their merchandise into one operation, which they opened on Cleveland Avenue as The Great Outdoors.

The store only was open Tuesday and Thursday nights from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., but it quickly drew crowds as word spread that high-quality paddling goods - and highly knowledgeable paddlers - were gathered in one place.

"It sort of became a place for enthusiasts to go and talk about the latest gear and equipment," said Migliara, the company's vice president.

Royer and Migliara soon expanded into other outdoor sports, such as backpacking, skiing and climbing. As they added new gear, they also added new customers.

"It just sort of caught on," Migliara said. "People were really receptive to it."

Outdoors Inc.
www.outdoorsinc.com, 767-6790
Founded in 1974 by Lawrence Migliara and Joe Royer
Four locations: 5245 Poplar Ave.; 1710 Union Ave.; 833 N. Germantown Parkway; 405 Vann Drive, Jackson, Tenn.
Sells high-performance outdoor gear, including bicycles, boats, backpacks and everything in between

The Great Outdoors was renamed Outdoors Inc. in 1975 (www.outdoorsinc.com), and the co-founders moved from their Cleveland Avenue digs to a former art gallery on Poplar Avenue. Over the years Outdoors experienced steady growth by offering the city's denizens performance outdoor gear they could use locally and globally.

"Memphians are climbing, they're kayaking, they're doing phenomenal trips," Royer said. "We can outfit 'em."

The great Outfit

Outdoors has stores in Midtown, East Memphis, Cordova and Jackson, Tenn., and now an outlet on Summer Avenue near its warehouse. Migliara said he and Royer are considering the possibility of opening in a mall.

Migliaria recently bought a 15,908-square-foot, two-story office building at 2076 Union Ave. near Diana and Florence streets, according to a Daily News report Tuesday (www.memphisdailynews.com), but it appears the space might be leased when renovations are completed in about a month.

"Methodist (Healthcare Wound Healing Services) already has the downstairs and they've expressed some interest in possibly taking the upstairs too," Migliara was quoted as saying.

Outdoors employs about 55 people, though that number dips to about 47 during the summer months, Migliara said. The owners take great care in training their employees, often sending them to specialty schools and training centers to hone their skills and help them provide better service.

"They're learning how to stay warm, how to use ropes, what works and what doesn't," Royer said. "They can come back and say, 'This boot works' or 'This bicycle works.'"

Of course, all that experience and expertise can lend itself to a certain air of superiority, and the store's management makes sure its employees don't disparage customers just because they haven't skied double black diamonds or paddled Class V rapids.

"That's one of the worst things they can do," Migliara said.

Aside from a knowledgeable staff, Outdoors further differentiates itself from rivals - namely big box stores - by carrying top-of-the-line clothing and equipment, including popular and respected brands like The North Face, Patagonia and Mountain Hardwear.

The company's stores sell everything for the great outdoors, from compasses to carabiners, which are metal rings with a spring-hinged side that are used in mountain climbing. They even sell winter gear such as fleece and down jackets, garments not typically associated with Southern cities like Memphis. But name-brand outerwear isn't just for the backcountry anymore.

"Most of the stuff we sell becomes town wear," Migliara said. "Even though we don't have extreme weather, people that live in the South are very concerned about not being cold."

Footwear represents 25 percent to 30 percent of the store's sales, from sandals to climbing shoes to hiking boots, Migliara said.

That's what brought Dr. Randy McCloy into the Poplar store recently. He was buying boots for a coming trek in Colorado because his old ones were worn out. Even though McCloy doesn't consider himself a regular, he figures a few more trips to the Poplar Avenue location - even with its notoriously small parking lot - are in store before he walks into the wild.

"I'm sure I'll be back before the trip starts to find more things I need," he said.

Extreme sports or not

Paddling remains Outdoors' signature sport, evidenced by the racks of kayaks and canoes lined up outside the company's stores, but mostly from the famous Canoe & Kayak Race, held as part of Memphis in May for the past 25 years.

In this ever-changing retail world, in which shoppers are using the Internet more and more, that old-school race has remained a constant. So has Outdoors' goal of offering customers something they can't get online.

"What we focus on is giving people personal service," Migliara said.

That means helping customers find the right clothing or equipment or guidebook, no matter what the trip.

Backpacking Alaska or climbing the Matterhorn isn't the only reason to buy quality gear and head outdoors.

"So is taking your son hiking in Shelby Forest," Royer said. "It doesn't have to be extreme."

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