If you love something, you have to work for it. Roanne Miller, president and CEO of Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, has “a long history” of working on things about which she's passionate -- and now she’s in a position to lobby for the best of the best in the outdoor industry.
Grassroots Outdoor Alliance (Grassroots) is a nationwide organization made up of 47 independent retailers with right at 100 individual storefronts. Grassroots is like a trade organization for these non-chain stores; the professional camaraderie helps each location excel by offering knowledge that’s hard to find elsewhere.
“What I do is negotiate with manufacturers on behalf of our membership, to stay competitive in the marketplace,” Roanne says.
Roanne has been with Grassroots for 6 years. It’s the latest chapter in her journey, which also includes stints at Marmot, Levi-Strauss, and Patagonia. “I’ve been loosely in and out of this industry since I was 17,” she says.
While many presidents might not have a hand in actually running their business, Roanne bears the responsibility of much of Grassroots’ work. It’s a “two-and-a-half employee, lean and mean” operation. And while she’s plenty busy presently, she’s also thinking 3-5 years down the road about their vision. “I love this industry because I love the outdoors. It’s a healthy lifestyle and it’s a great arena to be involved in.”
Helping multinational vendors reconcile with independent retailers
“The biggest challenge that faces our membership and our organization is that the retail landscape is changing so much,” Roanne says. “The burden of running of a good specialty shop is that there’s added cost” -- of both labor and knowledge.
In the old world of mom-and-pop stores, owners knew their customers and were more heavily involved in the decision-making process. Modern technology like online shopping allows individuals to become generally more informed -- sometimes at the expense of storefronts. Roanne’s job is to help weave that old-school mentality into modern interactions.
“We’re helping our members become educated,” she says, “and adopt strategies that help them stay not only alive -- but thriving in the marketplace.”
On the other side of the coin fall the manufacturers and vendors. With profits and expansion on their collective minds, it can be difficult to understand the needs of a non-chain store.
Grassroots’ responsibility is to help manufacturers realize that specialty retailers remain an important segment of the industry. Because independent stores typically offer a mix of top-notch goods from national and local vendors, prices reflect the high quality -- which can be a turn-off to newer shoppers.
“You kinda get what you pay for,” Roanne says. “You can find a product that’s inexpensive in a lot of places. But there’s value in speaking to an expert.”
She compares shopping at an independent retailer to developing a relationship with a teacher: Some let you off easy, but you walk away with more questions than you had in the first place. The ones who force you to learn will be the ones who stand out, who you can trust in the future.
“One thing that resonates well with everybody is learning that the independent outdoor retailer is not ‘gouging’ them and marking things up and making extra money on them,” Roanne emphasizes. Rather, the prices support just enough to allow stores to maintain a staff that has specialized knowledge and expertise.
“More importantly, you belong to the community you’re in,” she says. “Shopping local supports a community tax base. All the other things that you want to make your life good are products of that. You have better streets, schools, and open spaces. You help employ your friend’s little brother. When you don’t shop local, your money goes to somebody else, somewhere else -- and it doesn’t help your life in the big picture.”
The outdoor industry has so far been good to Roanne, so she's doing her part to make sure it helps the lives of others. The success of her work will ultimately be reflected in the growth of the industry. But increased interest at the local level makes the national players take notice -- and that sharpens the big picture for everyone.