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#8 Layering know-how for retail staff and customers.

Updated: Jun 16

This is a dialogue about retail training between Mike Parsons, UK and Chuck Kukla, an Outdoor Gear Coach team member based in the USA. He is an outdoor retail staff trainer for REI (see picture below), a retired chemical engineer, an EMT ( emergency medic) and an active mountaineer. Mike Parsons, co-founder of Outdoor Gear Coach and a former gear maker and designer at Karrimor and OMM, is active in many mountain activities. See ‘about us’  

Mike to Chuck, What is your perspective on training outdoor retail staff?

Chuck: There is an underlying problem here! Retailers are, in effect, outsourcing training to the garment brands. This is brand marketing disguised as training. Individuals have no accreditation, so progress cannot be recorded and monitored. 'Brand' training is not transferable to other brands because it's not based on principles. It may change year to year, often resulting in conflicting messages from the previous year. A feature highlighted during one year often mysteriously disappears the following year.  It is designed to demonstrate any superior features of that brand without looking at the pluses and minuses inherent in any product.

Mike: outdoor equipment, footwear and garments are now a multi-billion $ manufacturing industry. There are many thousands of stores selling these products. However, like many other areas in the economy of many countries post-COVID, experienced employees are retiring. Recruiting staff with outdoor experience to form the basis of their customer advice and support has become very difficult. We, Outdoor Gear Coach, ARE, are an INDEPENDENT voice and are trying to fill part of this gap by undertaking staff training and, of course, book and website publishing. What we offer is training which is applicable to ALL Brands whereas brand-specific training is not transferable.      

In the UK, a small number of stores remain, which are usually run and managed personally by experienced outdoor active owners who can recruit and retain knowledgeable staff. It’s worth making your way to these stores because of their greater product and performance understanding.  From time to time, we feature stores we know. One particular one close to my heart is Climbers Shop/ Joe Brown. I made a Karrimor pack bearing Joe’s name starting around 1959 and supplied the Climbers Shop with Karrimor packs since the opening year in 1959. picture of the store.  As Outdoor Gear Coach, we have done online staff training for ClimberShop staff from all 3 stores.             

Chuck works in the REI Framingham, East Coast USA store, where the situation is very similar. Here is his overview of helping customers find the right product. One thing worth remembering: price is less important than the right product for you!  

CK: “Let's imagine the typical in-store scenario.

Customers enter our store with a perceived need to buy a new garment. In some cases, customers know exactly what they want, but in many cases, they only know what they think they need”.   

Mike, Our short 'performance layering' talks are designed to give people a clearer idea of what they are looking for. Watch out for our upcoming post; 'What you layers do and dont do.  

Chuck. We have an area in-store where we give advertised talks on certain days/dates, but these don't directly relate time-wise to the one-on-one sale situation.

A customer buying a garment doesn’t think of it as a layer that needs to be functionally compatible with and sized to fit into their existing set of garment layers. I ask a series of questions to set the stage for a decision and the best choice for the customer. 

Chuck:   I ask a few questions to enable me to give the best advice.   

  • What is the customer looking for? 

  • Where is the customer going, i.e., location, season, and type of activity? In the case of outerwear, the garment needs to be shaped or tailored specifically to that activity. Here is our 3 min video explanation 

  • Are they replacing a layer or adding something new? 

The second set of questions is about their past experiences. 

What are their current layers? I suggest they bring their layers back with them the next time they enter the store! 

  • A good hood on outerwear costs around 20% of the whole garment, so I always ensure that the customer tries the hood to ensure it is helmet-compatible or is small and neat for a non-helmet user. See our 3 min video on hood selection,  

  • Are they going on a guided trip or an event like an Ultra Run? If so, do they have a kit list so we can help? Many people on guided trips have little understanding of the items on their list, so we prefer to make a special appointment in these cases to ensure good understanding and that all garments layer correctly over each other.  

Mike, Guided trips and events kit rules! As the former owner of the  KIMM 2-day mountain marathon, later becoming OMM, we introduced event kit rules many years back in the early 1970s. The competitors were required to be self-reliant for 36 hours and carry a tent, sleeping bag, stove, and food. Clothing layers were also specified, and the rules were later tightened to include waterproof pants with taped seams and for the jacket. These rules have kept everyone safe over the 55 years of the event. UR event rules have of late become much more specific because of the increased risk, rapid weather changes, maybe climate-related, with many deaths occurring worldwide.    

Chuck. Helping the customer understand the garments they currently own is very useful if there is time I ask them;

  • What are their current layers? What do they like or dislike about what they have? I suggest they bring their layers back with them the next time they enter the store for size and technical compatibility.

  • What would they keep or change? 

  • How have they maintained or have they repaired them? I advise that the breathability of outer garments drops when the outer surface becomes soiled, so I advise regular washing. In a similar way,' wicking in base layers doesn't continue to function unless they are washed correctly 

A garment can function in multiple roles in a layering system. For example, a windshell can sometimes be used instead of a waterproof or as a layer between a base layer and a fleece. I often discuss multiple situations with customers to help them create a versatile layering system. 

In demonstrating the use of a new item of kit, I will often ask them to imagine several different situations, such as a series of What if? Questions–at night, in the rain, high winds, snow, are they too cold or too warm, what happens if they have to stop for a long time or are benighted? I often ask them to consider what may break. What if a zipper fails? Can they make adjustments with gloves on? How many garments have hoods? 

Garments often have overlapping features. Each feature adds costs and increases the kit's complexity, which is a likely point of failure. The idea is to help customers think holistically about present and future needs. 

The multi-layer system is now replacing the outdated and ineffective 3-L system.

Our multi-layer advice on 'What your layers do or DONT DO will be published soon.      

"Outdoor Gear Coach provides courses, books, and support for outdoor activists who wish to learn about performance layering skills for the outdoors. We aim to help keep you smiling in the rain, dancing on the ice and riding well."See our book, Keeping Dry and Staying Warm. How to stay dry, warm or cool in the outdoors; 



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