The attentive service and knowledgeable advice prevalent in Ketchum’s best outdoor gear shops are rooted in one thing—people who love their jobs. Best of the Valley voters and anyone else who’s spent time in the Wood River Valley can affirm that the smiles and friendly greetings they’re met with when they walk into Backwoods Mountain Sports, The Elephant’s Perch or Sturtevants—the winners of the category in that order—aren’t faked, because they’re there all the time.
Employees at those shops in Ketchum say they enjoy the work they do, the people they work with and the customers they serve.
“It’s the best job ever, because Bob and Kate are the best people to work for,” said Maria Beattie about the Rossos, owners of The Elephant’s Perch. “It’s a little family—we’re a tight-knit group.”
“When you’re around good people, good things happen” is the way that Sturtevants owner Olin Glenne summed it up.
Backwoods Mountain Sports owner Andy Munter said he tries to hire “people who I know fit into the mold of really caring about others’ experiences.”
Not that he has to hire people very often—none of these stores has much turnover. Glenne, who bought Sturtevants five years ago after working there for 20 years, said at least five employees have been there longer than he has.
Munter pointed out that “there are familiar faces when people come in—they always like that.” Employee Laura Furtado says it’s common for customers to just stop by and visit.
The low turnover mirrors the longevity of the stores themselves. Sturtevants was founded in 1948, Backwoods Mountain Sports in 1975 and The Elephant’s Perch in 1976.
The stores’ owners say they pay relatively high wages—compared to both the valley standard and that of the industry in general—and provide a flexible work schedule that lets employees get plenty of time to travel and to do the sports they love.
“If it’s a huge powder storm, I can just call in,” said Tina Cole at Backwoods.
She said that freedom results in “happy employees who are out using the equipment themselves. Everybody in here is very, very active.”
Munter said he manages that by keeping a big enough roster that he can juggle schedules, by day and by season. Of course, during busy holiday periods, everybody’s got to be at work.
All that fun time is key to providing customers with reliable information about the gear they’re shopping for.
“The No. 1 thing in customer service comes from sharing our passion and experience,” said Jim Santa, a buyer at Sturtevants.
Santa said employees can use that experience to not only sell the right products, but to educate people on “how to use your gear and when to use your gear and how to be responsible.”
Of course, a top-notch store has to carry top-notch equipment and clothing. Munter said he tries to carry as big an inventory as he can to give people lots of choices. Glenne said he likes to import some little-known brands that he’s discovered.
“I want to have what the customers need, but I also want to introduce them to things,” he said.
All these stores are involved in the community, by donating to nonprofit organizations and by sponsoring or hosting events. Rosso and Munter are on the board of the annual Boulder Mountain Tour cross-country ski race, and the Perch hosts the annual Backcountry Run. Rosso says his store also sends business to local outfitters.
“The community has really supported us and we try to support the community,” Munter said. “It’s a two-way street that comes back to us, too. People appreciate how generous we are.”
Rosso said the shops promote recreational amenities and work with coaches and parents of young athletes.
“I’ve put a lot of years into this stuff and I’ve loved it,” he said. “What keeps me going is the whole community of energetic people.”
And when they can’t provide something that a customer wants, all the stores send business to each other. All three owners say the local outdoor retail scene is competitive, but that it’s a friendly competition.
“Part of our success is about how good all the other stores in the valley are,” Munter noted. “It makes us compete at that level. I wouldn’t be anywhere near as good if the other stores weren’t as good as they are.”
“I’ve just been incredibly lucky,” he said about the 35 years that he’s owned Backwoods Mountain Sports. “I can’t imagine a better job than owning the best outdoor store in the best outdoor town in the best outdoor state in the country.”