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Outfitter Overload?

Cold weather gear is hot in Burlington


Published October 3, 2006 at 8:11 p.m.

In coastal tourist towns, every corner seems to sport a beachwear shop. In downtown Burlington, you can barely walk a block without bumping into yet another cold-weather outdoor outfitter. There are now at least eight specialty shops downtown that sell parkas, designer ski pants, gloves, and hats; some of them also sell skis, snowboards, ice-climbing gear and insulated hiking boots.

Mike Donohue, co-owner of the Outdoor Gear Exchange on Cherry Street, believes that concentration makes perfect sense. "Almost everyone in Vermont skis or snowshoes," he says. "If you're going to be here in the winter, you're going to have to do something outside or you'll go crazy."

But how can they all survive in such a small town? Donohue says the competition is not nearly as keen as it might appear. "On some level, we're all selling coats and gloves to people who want to stay warm in the winter," he observes, "but on another level, our clientele is different."

It's an observation repeated by workers at nearly every outdoor shop in town. "Less educated consumers might see us as the same," says Adam Wilson, assistant manager at Climb High, "but we're all kinda different."

Few stores illustrate that better than OGE and Climb High. Both carry similar inventory - some of the same brands of jackets, boots, sleeping bags, climbing helmets and carabiners. They have even shared the same address, though not at the same time; Climb High, which also has a store on Shelburne Road, expanded into OGE's former Bank Street digs three years ago.

But step inside and it's immediately clear that they're not after the same niche. Climb High's Burlington store boasts a new foosball table, sleek silver espresso maker, and wall-mounted flat- screen TV in front of minimalist black benches. The typical fare? Videos such as "Extreme Unicycling Across Burma." Wilson describes it as "kind of Euro" - a testament to Mammut, the Swiss manufacturer that owns the store.

By contrast, Funky OGE is decorated with flyers advertising environmental events such as the recent OGE eco-fest. Dogs belonging to employees and customers often wander throughout the store.

And though the two stores may sell some of the same brands, they're not selling exactly the same products. Customers at Climb High can expect to find only the newest, top-quality goods. "We're trying to get some of the best stuff on the market into the store here," says Wilson.

That includes a full line of Mammut clothing and accessories; the company's mastodon logo appears ubiquitously throughout the store. But Climb High also sells brands like Arcteryx, which makes ski and snowboard jackets with embedded Recco reflectors, to help rescue workers find the wearer in case of an avalanche.

Gear like that doesn't come cheap. "You can spend $475 on a coat," Wilson notes.

It's possible to spend that much at OGE, but you don't have to. The Cherry Street shop carries some new camping, climbing, skiing and snowshoeing gear and apparel, but it specializes in closeout and consignment goods. Hence the "Exchange." A customer might be able to find the same quality coat at a much cheaper price, though probably not until next season. It might also be secondhand, or have some cosmetic defect.

Donohue says customers can find a well-made parka for $29.99 - "If they don't care if it's pink and has an oil stain on the elbow."

Sure enough, the consignment racks in the back of the store are full of deals, including a perfectly good red-and- black North Face shell that would have gone for $235 new, but here is marked down to $69.

If only a new North Face jacket will do, shoppers can walk to the North Face Store at K.L. Sport, on the corner of South Winooski Avenue and College Street. Owner Will Vinci points out that his store is not a chain; he and his family started in the sporting goods business 15 years ago, with K.L. Sports on Shelburne Road. They switched to dealing the North Face line exclusively five years ago, and moved downtown in 2003. "We really felt this was the center of commerce in this area," Vinci says.

Today, Vinci works with his wife, daughter and son-in-law to offer a complete North Face product line. They sell everything from the Expedition 36 tent, cold-crack-tested to minus-60ºF ($519.95) to the Himalayan parka in ignition orange ($499) to a Women's Revolution insulated pant ($149).

The strength of the North Face brand undoubtedly rests in part on its appeal to people who may not climb mountains but want to look like they do - hence the Boys' Glacier-zip fleece for $40. But, insists Vinci, "It's not just a fashion statement. They make really great gear that people summit Everest with."

The store is doing so well that it's expanding; the Vincis are preparing to knock down the wall that separates their current space from what was most recently Anichini, a luxury linen and textiles store. When completed, the 5000-square-foot shop will be the largest North Face dealer in North America.

The new Predatorwear outlet on Church Street is betting that specializing in one brand will work as well for them. The company, which is based in Tahoe City, California, makes high-end mogul skiing outerwear. They chose to open their flagship store in Burlington, Manager Danielle Poirier explains, because "We just felt that there was a niche here that wasn't being targeted by other retailers."

Predatorwear opened a month ago in the storefront that was occupied by the Champlain Clothing Company before it moved to the space above Climb High on Bank Street. Predator- wear essentially sells only two items: ski jackets and ski pants. A plain pink puffy coat sells for $239. For $149, you can get brown Lanai pants, with baby- blue tropical flowers running down the outer seams.

Their clothing seems to be as much about looking good as staying warm.

Same goes for the Sessions and Technine goods at 802 Action Sports on Main Street. The laid-back skate and snowboard shop with the graffiti art skate decks in the windows is selling "lifestyle" more than protection from the elements. 802 also encourages kids to hang out and watch extreme snowboarding videos projected on a sheet while grooving to tunes on WRUV.

Lastly, the two cycle shops across from each other on Main Street also sell winter outerwear. North Star Sports has just a few racks of Helly Hansen and Moonstone jackets amid the rows of two-wheelers on the sales floor. Manager J.P. Coseno admits that hardcore skiers and snowboarders probably shop somewhere else. He suggests that the family-owned business caters primarily to loyal customers who return because they like the service, and to "people who just want a warm puffy jacket to walk around in."

Not so Ski Rack. The 16,000-square-foot, four-level storefront makes it downtown Burlington's largest outdoor outfitter. It's also the oldest, founded in 1969. The store appeals to serious ski and cycle enthusiasts, with an extensive selection of Nordic and telemark skis. They've got snowboards, too, and rack upon rack of cold- weather gear. "If you want to go outside, we carry the clothing for you," says Manager John Smith, though that doesn't apply to camping gear. "There are other retailers in town who do that well," he acknowledges.

But Smith can't resist pointing out one thing that sets Ski Rack apart from the rest of the pack. "We have free parking out back for customers," he says. "That counts for something in Burlington." Not that walking a few blocks is likely to present much of a challenge to any of these retailers' hardy clientele.