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Campers looking for comfort change outdoor retailing

Posted: Wednesday, August 23, 2000

DENVER (AP) -- The view from the Pinnacle is sweeping: A panorama of campsite espresso makers, solar-heated outdoor showers and nylon chairs complete with cup holders and recliner-style footrests.

The Pinnacle is a 45-foot-tall artificial climbing rock inside Recreational Equipment Inc.'s new Denver flagship store. It towers over 75,000 square feet of gear for Spartan or spoiled campers, everything from climbing ropes and candle lanterns to plastic wine glasses and herbal medicine kits.

Seattle-based REI was founded 62 years ago by hard-core climbers who pooled their money to buy high-quality European gear when it wasn't available locally. Now, with 1.7 million members, the cooperative caters to comfort-seeking nature lovers as much as to the daring rock climbers pictured on its catalog covers.

''With the demographic change, you see a lot more families camping, and a little more demand for comfort camping,'' said Robert Voles, 43, manager of the Denver store.

''It used to be everybody was into rock climbing and ultralight backpacking. Now they have families,'' Voles said.

Figuring its typical customers are between 30 and 50 years old and married with children, REI's Denver store accommodates them with a Starbucks coffee bar and a children's play area, in addition to the climbing rock.

As with REI's other flagship stores in Tokyo, Seattle and Bloomington, Minn., customers can test hiking boots on an indoor trail, fiddle with water purifiers on an artificial rock outcrop, or test parkas in a cold chamber.

REI customer Victor Coppola, 36, of Denver, said he and his wife do ''the easiest kind of camping possible.'' He used to go in for more strenuous trips, but ''it's too much work. I've just gotten lazy in my old age.''

The Coppolas plan to spend about $1,000 on gear this year, mostly for basics, but with some extras. ''We pick up whatever yuppie gear we can find,'' said 27-year-old Melissa Coppola.

REI spokesman Mike Collins says there's no dissimilarity between REI's rugged image and the actuality of its customer base.

''I guess, if you look at the images we have (in REI catalogs), generally you see a person in a very beautiful place, and they're usually doing something active but not doing something extreme, like skiing an avalanche chute or BASE jumping (bungee jumping) or rappelling a big wall. Generally, it's all pretty accessible, and that's what we're really about, saying to people, 'You can be in this place, you can do this.'''

Outdoor gear has become a $1.8-billion-a-year industry in the United States. Sales of all sports equipment, including clothing and shoes, total an estimated $46.5 billion. But REI's spokesmen said that doesn't mean campers can't see the forest for the gear.

''I think even the espresso-maker customer -- they're buying it to go outdoors, not to use it in the back yard,'' Collins said. ''I think they see themselves as an outdoors person.''

REI, with 55 stores, including one in Anchorage, and $621 million in annual sales, would not break out its revenues, but said basics such as tents and stoves outsell comfort gear by a wide margin.

Nevertheless, Collins said sales of comfort gear have been growing.

L.L. Bean, the mail-order and Internet retailer in Freeport, Maine, has witnessed a similar trend.

''Over the last few years, we've sold more large tents, products like (camping) furniture and grills and grill systems,'' said Fred Prescott, 37, director of outdoor equipment for the privately held, $1.07-billion-a-year company. ''They're larger, more elaborate, more comfortable setups.''

The new wave is also noticeable in computers and electronics. Terry Root, a contributor to the Colorado Mountain Club's Trail & Timberline magazine, said readers are thirsty for tips on outdoor technology, such as two-way radios, computer-generated ''smart maps'' and hand-held Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers that use satellite signals to pinpoint a location.

The gadgets don't dilute the outdoor experience, Root said. ''The technology just makes it safer for people. I think they're all good developments.''

Ray Jardine, 55, a longtime backpacker and a crusader for simple but efficient outdoor gear, cautioned against over-reliance. Jardine prefers lightweight and self-manufactured gear when possible.

Still, Jardine could not resist buying some silicon-impregnated nylon clothing, explaining: ''I don't enjoy suffering or being uncomfortable.''

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On the Web:

REI: http://www.rei.com/

L.L. Bean: http://www.llbean.com/

Colorado Mountain Club: http://www.cmc.org/cmc/

Ray Jardine's Adventure Page: http://www.rayjardine.com/



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