DENVER — In a 138-year-old building in Denver’s LoHi neighborhood, Wilderness Exchange Unlimited has long earned a reputation as a place where budget-conscious outdoor enthusiasts can find great deals on used gear.
Founded 22 years ago, it has grown into a full-service outdoor specialty boutique. But consignment sales continue to represent around 20% of its business, and the market for second-hand outdoor equipment is booming.
“Our mission was to break down the financial barriers to accessing the outdoors,” said owner Don Bushey. “The idea for the Wilderness Exchange was initially a community store where people could come in and gear up.”
That’s how used gear sales were made, and it still works for Wilderness Exchange. But not far from there is a new player in the growing “re-commerce” industry that is using the internet to reach a nationwide audience of buyers and sellers.
Just over a mile downriver in trendy RiNo is the headquarters of Out&Back Outdoor, an online site launched 16 months ago as a marketplace for used outdoor gear. Sellers access the site and complete an online questionnaire describing the equipment they wish to sell. If the price offered by Out&Back satisfies the seller – the prices are set according to the current market value – he ships it to Out&Back in exchange for cash.
Last week, Out&Back expanded its model with a “pilot” program in partnership with Dick’s Sporting Goods. At two Dick’s locations in Colorado – one in the Belmar shopping district of Lakewood, the other in Pittsburgh, where Dick’s offices are located – sellers can walk in with used equipment, and Out&Back will buy it on square. From there, the equipment is transported to Out&Back’s warehouse in Denver, where it can be purchased online.
The outdoor resale business has grown considerably in recent years. Industry insiders say the sales are driven by the desire for affordability and concerns about the environmental impact of manufacturing. Re-commerce has grown to the point that well-known brands such as Patagonia and Arc’teryx have launched their own buy-back programs to get in on the action. When buying used equipment, they offer the seller a sales credit for purchases within the brand.
According to a study conducted by thredUP, an online shopping site specializing in women’s clothing, the re-commerce industry as a whole is expected to reach $75 billion by 2025. Outdoor equipment will be part of this growth.
“The (outdoor) market is huge, mainly because it’s a very expensive category,” said Jimmy Funkhouser, owner of Feral Mountain Gear, where about 50% of his sales are used goods.
“If someone wants to hike this weekend for the first time, if they buy everything new, they’ll spend over $1,000. You could take a small family to Disney World for that, so people are definitely looking for opportunities to spread that cost out, buying used or renting is the best way to reduce that cost and start a new hobby.
When Funkhouser moved from a small store on Tennyson Street to a much larger space just down the street in 2018, it added a used gear section to its inventory. He also rents equipment. Manufacturers jumped into the used market because they saw the success of independent retailers like Funkhouser.
“The market has changed overall,” Funkhouser said. “If you’re a retailer or a brand and you don’t have a strategy to capture some of that resale activity, you’re falling behind. The whole industry is moving in this direction.
Wilderness Exchange began in a small 600 square foot store near the current location in 2000. Bushey, then 33, lived in an apartment above the store.
“It took off so fast that my upstairs apartment became part of the store with backpacks in the living room,” Bushey said. “The guest room has become the sleeping bag room.”
At that time, his customers were primarily looking for ways to save money on their outdoor equipment purchases, but in recent years environmental concerns have become another motivator. Manufacturers tout environmental responsibility to promote their resale programs.
“There’s been a lot of messaging to make people aware of the real impact of producing the equipment and trying to extend the life of the equipment to keep it from being buried so we don’t have to to overproduce and overconsume new equipment and new products,” Bushey said. “That’s the main difference between when we started and now. People are becoming more aware of the environmental impacts of their recreational equipment.
Ben-Zekry declined to provide sales figures for Out&Back, but said its sales had doubled every month since March, and the site had 10,000 to 15,000 items in its inventory every day. He expects customers to delight in being able to drop off their gear at Dick’s Sporting Goods – Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, only at the Belmar location – instead of having to ship their items to Out&Back. He hopes dozens more Dick’s Sporting Goods locations will be added over the next two years.
When Out&Back accepts soft items such as clothing and sleeping bags, they are cleaned by Tersus Solutions, a Denver company that also cleans gear for Patagonia’s Worn Wear program and The North Face Renewed. Out&Back tests tent pegs, replacing bungee cords if necessary, and re-waterproofs old tents. They accept used skis, but bindings are removed before resale for liability reasons. They don’t sell shoes.
While big brands have buyback programs, Ben-Zekry thinks most customers would much rather receive cash than credit.
“A lot of people say, ‘I don’t want a gift card,'” Ben-Zekry said. “People who have a lot of this equipment sit on the sidelines. We have the capability for you to turn your Carhartt skis, backpack and pants into cash, all at once. Maybe you want to turn your skis into beer. It gives you the opportunity to do so. You can liquidate your entire closet.
However, many outdoor gear buyers prefer to see and touch what they are considering buying. And outdoor equipment stores are usually staffed with experienced outdoor enthusiasts who are good sources of information.
“I can’t tell if the weight of a jacket will fit me for the whole season just by looking at a photo online,” Bushey said.
“Backpacks have to be adjusted, and there is an art to adjusting backpacks. It’s an art to put on ski boots. Your skis must be adjusted. We are less sales people than business advisers. We’re helping people, not just the gear they need to go on those adventures, but (replying) “Where are you going?”