Elmer Rorstad

20 years of retail changes with Free Spirit Sports

Free Spirit Sports owner has seen lots of changes in Revelstoke and in the retail industry in 20 years as businessman.

When Free Spirit Sports opened 20 years ago, there wasn’t much in the way of competition. There was a bike store and a ski shop and that was it.

It’s a far cry from today, with two ski shops, two newer snowboard shops and two bike stores in town. Through it all, Elmer Rorstad has kept Free Spirit Sports going and to celebrate, he is hosting a party at the story this Thursday, Aug. 2.

Rorstad was a teacher at Revelstoke Secondary School when he opened FSS with his colleague Terry Beitel. “It was something new to do. Maybe a mid-life crisis,” Rorstad said. “We were both interested in doing something else but we still had our love of teaching.”

The store was a “mom-and-pop” operation located where Work ‘n’ Play now is when it first opened in 1992. Team sports equipment, like basketballs, volleyballs, baseball equipment were the big sellers. Team apparel was also popular and the store also carried fishing gear and hunting supplies, including rifles.

“I had to get my firearms certification to sell it. We were selling rifles and I didn’t know anything about it,” Rorstad told me.

It’s a far cry from the store today, where the team sporting goods are relegated to the back corner and lifestyle clothing and technical wear. Gone are the bikes and in is the avalanche safety gear.

It moved into its current location for the raised floor at the back and underwent a massive renovation in October 2010.

Rorstad has seen the changes in the industry and in Revelstoke through his 20 years as owner of the store. In the mid-90s, he started selling technical outdoor clothing by brands like The North Face. Around that same time he taught himself how to snowboard and began selling them too.

He’s watched as the number of brands has exploded from a handful to dozens, each with a specific niche. He’s seen customers get pickier too, looking for the perfect colour and the perfect set of features.

“It makes it more uncertain becasue there’s so much more selection,” he said. “The customer is becoming more technically astute. They’re looking at things and seeing how it applies to what they’re doing.”

On the marketing front, things have changed too. When I stopped by FSS to meet Rorstad, store manager Becky Doyle was in the back taking part in a training seminar on how to effectively use social media to promote the business. The store is running a photo contest through its Facebook page, with prizes every two weeks to the photo that gets the most likes, as well as to the staff pick.

“It’s about building up a group of like-minded people and keeping them updated with what’s going on in the store and with us as staff and family,” said Rorstad of the new marketing push, adding that it also provides a way to get feedback from customers.

Another difference in the industry Rorstad has noticed is that companies no longer go through distributors; instead they deal with retailers directly. New clothing lines also come out much earlier than usual – purchasing for spring 2013 just happened, and winter lines are bought nearly a year in advance.

In Revelstoke, he’s noticed the shift in the town to a winter from a summer destination. It used to be that most of his business would be done in the summer – now he estimates he does double the business in winter as in summer.

“Summer used to be more than winter during first 15 years,” he said. Since Revelstoke Mountain Resort opened, summer business has slowed but winter has exploded.

He has noted that tourists – a large portion of the customer base in a small town – are being more selective about where they go, checking the weather at the last minute before choosing their destination. If it’s a powder day, they’ll come to Revelstoke but if the weather forecast shows more sun in the Okanagan, they’ll head there.

What has been the key to the store’s success? One thing Rorstad pushes is the fact its locally owner and operated. “We hire local, we advertise local and we have local knowledge of conditions. We hope to be doing more of that with our social media.”

Rorstad is now 60. His wife Liz is expecting the couple’s second child soon. He plans on sticking around for another 10 years, he said.

“No guarantee after that. I’m no spring chicken.”


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