We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?

An old ice pick, a vintage pair of cross-country skis and a wood-framed Trapper backpack hang high on the wall of Sonoma Outfitters, a testament to the years the Santa Rosa shop has been in business and the changes it has undergone to adapt with the times.

The kitschy throwbacks, relics from co-owner Jay Knick's backcountry adventures from Connecticut to Colorado to California, are a contrast to the high-tech outdoor gear and clothing he stocks on the store's shelves.

Now, the shop that gradually expanded into a lofty store and warehouse space with more than 14,000 square feet in Railroad Square is adapting again by downsizing. The store will move to Montgomery Village to a space roughly half its current size May 1.

Competition from online retailers and big-box stores chipped away at the retailer's bottom line to the point where it no longer made sense to have the huge store, said Knick, who owns Sonoma Outfitters with his wife, Debra.

"It's time to change. It's time to adapt," Jay Knick said. "And that's what we've been doing over the last 37 years."

The store needs more foot traffic than what the Railroad Square location provides, and David Codding, owner of Montgomery Village, has been courting Sonoma Outfitters for a while, Knick said.

So Sonoma Outfitters is doing away with what has been a core part of its business — equipment sales and rentals — in favor of clothing and shoes, which are quicker to move off the shelves.

It's not that Knick, a self-professed "tech weenie," doesn't love gear. But with increasing competition from online retailers and shoppers who surf the Web for the best deals, selling and renting equipment that people would buy maybe once a decade was no longer penciling out. The store will continue to sell day packs, but not the bigger equipment like kayaks and sleeping bags.

Customers have been supportive of the store's plans to move to Montgomery Village, but some were unhappy to see the gear go, Knick said.

"But I say, &‘Come on, when's the last time you bought a pack from me, or a tent?'" Knick asked.

The fact that pressure from online retailers contributed to the decision to downsize is a turn of events for Sonoma Outfitters, which was an early entrant to the online retail scene.

The store opened its first 600-square-foot store at Mendocino Avenue and Cherry Street in 1978. It moved to ever-larger spaces until it landed in its current Third Street location. At its peak in the 1990s, the store spanned about 23,000 square feet, Knick said.

"That was the '90s, and everyone was busy back then," Knick said.

An early adapter to technology, Knick bought the store's first computer in 1988 and started its website a decade later.

In the early 2000s, about half the company's sales revenue came from the store's website, Knick said.

"For years, that really kept us going," he said.

Back then, manufacturers like Marmot and Columbia Sports offered retailers "buy buttons" on their websites. Instead of selling products directly to consumers through their own websites, the manufacturers had "buttons" that were essentially links to retailers, including Sonoma Outfitters.

"There were probably 10 shops with buy buttons," Knick said. "We're talking REI, L.L. Bean, big companies, people that had multiple stores. And I was up there with them."

Every day Knick would arrive to work and find 50 new online orders waiting to be filled, he said.

The peak came in December 2003, when Oprah Winfrey touted Uggs on her show and Sonoma Outfitters was inundated with orders for the cozy boots.

Before Winfrey's comments, Sonoma Outfitters sold one or two dozen pairs of Uggs every year. After that one TV episode, orders flooded in for 800 or 900 pairs of boots within a matter of days.

"We didn't even have to unpack those things," Knick said. "They went out the next day on FedEx. That's how crazy the Internet could be."

But over the past eight or nine years, manufacturers shifted to handling their own online sales, and the buy buttons that boosted Sonoma Outfitters gradually faded away.

"It just kind of watered down, because it's more and more people, more competition," Knick said. "We still have a website, and that does OK, but it's our local customers that really keep us going."

Keeping Sonoma Outfitters alive while many independently owned retailers faltered has been an exercise in adaptation. Knick credits his early days as a Boy Scout and his cross-country adventures for his ability to change with the times.

In this case, making the decision to change was easy, because it's a matter of survival, Knick said.

"When you see the numbers just keep on heading down, you know the only thing you can do is adapt," Knick said. "So you start throwing things against the wall and see what sticks."

<CW-10>He uses his store's website, Facebook page and email blasts to let customers know about deals like the recent steep discounts on the equipment that's now mostly cleared out.</CW>

Among the remaining big-ticket items in the store are a kayak that Knick bought for his daughter and a map stand stocked with dozens of sprawling topographic maps depicting the Sierra and remote stretches of the North Coast. A rock climbing wall that stretches 16 feet high and just as wide is also on sale, and is featured on the store's Facebook page.

Far from using Facebook just to advertise deals, Knick uses it as a place to market what he's really passionate about: adventure.

A video at the top of the store's Facebook page shows Knick slicing through fresh powder on skis alongside snow-topped evergreens in the backcountry in British Columbia. As he comes to a stop, Knick smiles at a friend with a camera.

"Was that nice, or what?" the videographer asks.

"Oh, it was beautiful," Knick says.

Show Comment