The five sewing machines clattering away in the cramped factory just off Interstate 8 in Mission Gorge are one trick of the trade that Mic Mead uses to "stay special" in the fiercely competitive world of specialty retailing.
By winter's end, the machines will turn out 5,000 of the "bomber hats" that Adventure 16, Mead's wilderness outfitting stores, will retail for $29.95 to skiers and cold-weather hikers.
Competitors offer less-expensive versions of the hats, and Mead acknowledged that Adventure 16 could trim costs by manufacturing the hats in nearby Mexico, where labor costs are low. Plus, Adventure 16 could use the factory space to augment its retail and wholesale businesses.
But the San Diego-based chain will continue to manufacture hats--and tents, backpacks and other outdoor gear--whenever jobbing out means "losing control over the quality that we and our customers want," Mead said.
In Horton Plaza
One of the Adventure 16 retail outlets is the Wild Horizons shop in Horton Plaza. The firm has four other stores, which are known as Adventure 16. Two are in the Los Angeles area and the others are in Solana Beach and Mission Valley.
Adventure 16 will open a sixth store early next year in Irvine. The company also has 2,600 wholesale customers who buy everything from altimeters to water bottles, mainly through a mail-order catalogue.
The privately owned company, which has about 170 employees, grew from a garage operation founded by an Explorer troop in the early 1960s. The Scouts manufactured hard-to-find hiking gear for their own use, and subsequently began selling equipment to other troops.
Mead, who joined the company in 1971, pins the wilderness outfitter's survival to its ability to "move quicker" than larger companies.
During recent years the chain's Los Angeles-area stores have doubled their sales volume every two years. The San Diego stores have doubled their volume every three years, according to Mead.
Most of those items are carried out by backpackers, mountain climbers, campers and other outdoors types who turn to the chain for specialized hardware and clothing. Adventure 16's mailing list, which offers product information and news of upcoming clinics and trips, includes more than 70,000 names.
But Mead also recognizes that armchair adventurers can help Adventure 16's revenue stream grow.
"Rugged outdoor clothing . . . (had its) biggest growth when it was discovered by preppies some 10 to 15 years ago," Mead said. "It was a phenomenal wave but it's not as 'in' anymore, so you have to learn to adjust."
Adjusted to Demand
Mead pointed to Banana Republic and Eddie Bauer as two chains that are not afraid to adjust to meet customer demand. "Banana Republic is moving more toward colors and Eddie Bauer has moved away from khaki," Mead observed.
Specialty retailers who sell woodsy apparel have also found that the competition includes other players from other niches. "Dollar for dollar, Banana Republic is our biggest competitor at Horton Plaza," Mead said.
Mead went head-to-head with Banana Republic two years ago when he opened a "Wilderness Adventure" retail clothing store at the downtown shopping center. The store caters to "those of us who read National Geographic and put ourselves into (the outdoors) but who don't necessarily go up the Amazon River," Mead quipped.
It showcases the same quality clothing and outdoors ambiance--including an audio system that fills the air with the sounds of chirping birds--found at Adventure 16's full-line stores. But it does not feature the extensive--and often, expensive--collection of sporting hardware that is the trademark of Adventure 16's other stores.
Wary of Franchising
Mead has "thought about" franchising the Wild Horizons concept, but is "afraid that we'd lose control."
Adventure 16's most effective quality control device is its personnel, according to Mead, most of whom are "very familiar with the product because they use it all the time." Adventure 16 employees regularly conduct clinics--some of which pay for themselves--in wilderness photography, backpacking and mountain climbing.
That kind of in-store expertise is important because "outdoors customers are pretty smart," according to Denise Friend, a merchandise manager for REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.), a 50-year-old, Seattle-based cooperative that sells sports hardware. "You'd better have credibility or they're not going to come back."
To that end, Sport Chalet hopes to use its status as one of the nation's largest scuba school operators to attract customers to its stores. The La Canada-based chain is building a 40- by 60-foot diving tank that will sit next to the 30,000-square-foot sports emporium it will open next month near the Sports Arena.
Shopper Can See Scuba Lessons