Rugged retail 

Electronics store gets adventurous

Missoula's mega electronics retailer Vann's Inc. plugged into the great outdoors this spring with the launch of a website that sells not appliances, but adventure gear.

"The possibilities are endless," as Bigskycountry.com, Vann's new portal, puts it. An employee-owned, 50-year-old powerhouse, Vann's is the largest independent retailer in Montana, selling the computers, fridges and flat screen televisions that tend to keep people inside. Now it wants us outside, too.

"We're a team of active outdoor enthusiasts in love with Montana," says a promotional video for the new venture at www.pieceofthesky.com. "We know our gear, we use it every day."

To date, the site's gear department is a little thin compared to big national names (REI, Cabela's) and established Montana retailers (Bob Ward, Trail Head, Northern Lights Trading Co., Sportman's Ski Haus, The Base Camp, and more). For example, REI's website features 175 sleeping bags, Bob Ward's has 170 and Northern Lights shows 45. Bigskycountry this spring offered 11.

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The site primarily sells clothing and footwear, and does not feature hardware like skis, climbing gear, or tents. But the expansion is in its early phase, and Vann's has lots of plans.

George Manlove, Vann's president and CEO, says the website will offer name-brand equipment from Marmot, Columbia and other companies, and will also feature sustainable products (Marmot's UpCycle line of clothing, for example, relies on fabrics derived from recycled plastic, organic cotton, hemp and soy).

Though the site hasn't done so yet, Bigskycountry.com also hopes to spotlight Montana companies such as Whitefish-based Hammer Nutrition and Bozeman-based Seneca Boards, according to Kurt Whitmire, the hard goods merchant for the business.

Drawing from Vann's experience selling home electronics on the Internet, Whitmire envisions a robust arsenal of online marketing tools, leaning on blogs, video, and social networks.

"Each sub-category—climbing, skiing—could be a separate culture created where people can chat and recommend products," Whitmire says. The goal is "to make it a place not only for purchasing products, but where people feel it resonates with their passion."

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