Exkursion Outfitters Closes. But Why?

The following is an opinion on behalf of the ASCEND team. For background information on the original story please read this article from the Post-Gazette.

Exkursion Outfitters is coming to an end alongside 2013. The announcement was sudden and upsetting to many. But the devastating news may have been slightly softened due to the enticing closeout sales. Deals so good, even Dean Potter couldn’t rebel.

Fred Gunter, owner of Exkursion, cites a few obstacles that they couldn’t overcome:

        -   Less than ideal location  - Inability to compete with online sales  - Cultural shift

After speaking with Fred about some of the obstacles, it’s clear to us that there is only one driving culprit.

Sure, the location wasn’t ideal for many living in or outside of Pittsburgh, but it wasn’t that bad. I live in Bloomfield and have battled through traffic for well over 30 minutes to reach the REI in Southside, a mere 4.2 miles away. I’ve also smoothly sailed nearly triple the distance to Exkursion in less than 20 minutes. Maybe it’s Pittsburgher’s driving perception, or the legitimate tunnel obstacles, but we often make a choice to seek the closer destination, even if it may not be worth it in the end. (And REI has a gear shop that’s smaller than my kitchen, so there’s really no competition for me there). But, with that being said, people have been driving to Exkursion for quite sometime so I’m not really buying the excuse that it’s too far away. So, what changed?

Online shopping is easy, full of every imaginable product, and is super convenient. Yep, all true. Couple of things though…It was pretty well known that Exkursion could order any product on the market in record time AND they would match any price you could find online. And much more importantly, the staff at Exkursion was willing and way more qualified to advise on gear selections than any manufacturer’s description, customer review, or blog ever could be. And what’s really problematic is that people would solicit this advice and then turn around and buy it online. Yet given the price matching policy and speedy shipping this doesn’t even make sense. Still though, matching prices means shrinking margins on specialty gear sold to a relatively small market.

But, let’s face it. Even though we all love the outdoors and connecting with nature and our spiritual blah blah blahs, we are also consumers living in modern, financially strapped times. Although difficult to admit, and maybe more difficult to escape, it’s true. Even Fred admits occasionally buying items online because, “It’s convenient and the price is right.” But shouldn’t it matter when we buy online versus when we shop locally? Maybe, but that’s a personal decision, and one we make everyday. Like when we choose to buy our produce at Whole Foods, but our Ethiopian coffee at the East End Food Co-op. Or our clothes at Roadie Fashion Truck instead of H&M. We make these choices because in our mind, that one store has value over another, even if the prices are higher or the location moves around week to week.

Exkursion had some serious value. And I know I’m not the only one who believed that. I just wish that Pittsburghers’ value for Excursion could have been able to withstand some barriers. But as Susan Gunter, Fred’s wife and business partner, said of retail business before online shopping became common, “people were different, people would come into the shop and want to hang out and want to talk and swap stories…Before, we could give them our personal experience, whereas people today log onto a blog or a website -- culturally, we've changed."

This one’s on us, Pittsburgh. I’m not trying to point fingers, but I really can’t help feeling that the location or the Internet didn’t cause Exkursion to close. It’s our culture. And ironically, one thing that draws me to climbing is its unique culture. So, I guess my point is, all of the people I’ve met climbing and traveling are absolutely wonderful, but should have gone to visit Exkursion more often.

In closing, thank you Exkursion for everything you’ve done over the past 40 years. You forged the way in the tough gear industry (and I’ll forever be grateful for the knowledge that I’m left foot and right eye dominant through Fred’s fool proof “tests”) and you will be sincerely missed. And it is a goal of ASCEND to help in bringing back some form of Exkursion in the future.

P.S. During the time it took me to write this, I was forced to ignore at least 3 sales on Steep&Cheap.