Bringing the Outdoor Experience Indoors

Two megastores in Denver, Colorado illustrate the rise of big box in the outdoor industry. One, the REI flagship store, is a 90,000 foot conversion of a powerhouse adjacent to downtown, built as a public-private partnership with millions in subsidies and intended to be a tourist destination as well as a retail center. The other, Cabela’s is a hunting, fishing, and camping 90,000 square foot store situated alongside the interstate. Cabela’s features mounted animals and fish displays rather than eye-catching brick facades and soaring windows. In the outdoor industry, the rise of the big box stores happened in the 1990s. The shift from mail order to big box to internet sales (for some retailers) reflects a consistent desire on the part of retailers to reach a mass market rather than a specialty one. This might seem obvious, but in fact niche leisure interests were what drove outdoor stores for the first hundred years of their existence. The big box outdoor store only became possible when the outdoor industry reached a resonance that pushed beyond actual participation in outdoor sports. The growth of the chain retail store and expansion to new regions of the country also shows a particular attitude about the shifting responsibility of businesses toward environmental policies. In the 1970s, there was a moment of possibility where consumers demanded political action from their favorite outdoor stores, requesting trash pickups, letter writing campaigns, education about environmental ethics, and more. It seemed for a time that a counterculture business might bring progressive environmental practices into the mainstream. The evolution of the industry from founder-owned niche operations to portfolios of brands owned by multi-national conglomerates shifted the business imperatives towards growth and profits at any costs. In the outdoor world, big box stores are ultimately less about discounts at scale and more about shopping as entertainment and leisure.