Outdoor equipment retailer BlueZone Sports saw such strong sales in 2020 it was able to open a new location (pictured here) at the Summit Reno mall in November.
Richard Norris and his leadership team were at a fork-in-the-road moment.
The coronavirus pandemic had just shut the doors of their five Sierra Nevada-based outdoor gear shops — BlueZone Sports — and Norris, the company’s CEO, was trying to blueprint their next move.
“One of the plans was to basically liquidate and close it down and figure out how to take care of my employees on an exit strategy,” said Norris, whose company had 75 employees at the time.
“Another was to keep 12 full-time people on, furlough everybody else, work seven days a week for two months, and pivot to selling online.”
Norris and Co. chose the latter path. A week after state shutdowns, BlueZone Sports began selling their ski and outdoor equipment on the Amazon Marketplace, fulfilling orders out of their Nevada stores in Carson City, South Lake Tahoe and Stateline, and its California shops in Truckee and Roseville. Notably, the company’s warehouse and administrative office is based in Minden.
“We started executing our plan and it was pedal-to-the-metal with e-commerce driving that,” Norris said. “Because the revenue stream was going to bridge the gap until we could open our physical stores again.”
The move worked better than Norris could have imagined. Selling on Amazon, Norris said, gave BlueZone Sports “an immediate” revenue boost, enabling the company to eventually bring back all of its employees and reopen all of its stores last April. It also helped fund the company’s investment in adding an online store to its website.
“As a regional company, it got our products in front of the most amount of people as quickly as possible,” Norris said of selling products on Amazon. “That’s the biggest win to us: the amount of eyeballs and potential customers that can see your product out of your market.”
As of mid-February, Norris said BlueZone Sports has generated more than $2 million in revenue through Amazon Marketplace alone. That revenue stream gave BlueZone Sports the ability to make larger buys from its suppliers and keep its physical stores fully stocked with products, he said.
“Our stores have seen dramatic increases since we reopened,” said Norris, noting the increased demand for outdoor gear has also played a role. “The communities in the areas that we’ve operated in have backed our physical stores.”
So much so that the company opened a new brick-and-mortar location at the Summit Reno mall in November. The store created an additional 10-15 jobs, bringing the company’s staff size to about 90.
“We went from possibly closing the business to where we are now,” Norris said. “We saved people’s jobs, and we’ve been part of the solution and are hiring people in the communities we operate. Our workforce right now actually exceeds what it did pre-pandemic.”
Case in point: BlueZone Sports, a $6 million company in 2019, finished at nearly $11 million in total revenue in 2020 — a 83% increase.
Norris doesn’t expect that growth to slow in 2021. With BlueZone’s e-commerce humming and its foot traffic jumping as COVID restrictions loosen in the region, the company is tracking to hit about $16 million in total revenue this year, he said.
He’s also projecting the company’s e-commerce — which didn’t exist until March 2020 — to account for about 30% of its business by the end of the year.
“We see our e-commerce growth actually outpacing our brick-and-mortar growth,” Norris said. “But in no way does this put a detriment to our brick-and-mortar footprints. We believe very strongly that there’s a community benefit and a reason to come into our stores, whether it’s to be fit for ski boots or have your bike tuned or talk to an expert in the store."
Norris said the company is looking at eventually adding a second store in Reno and potentially expanding to Las Vegas and Folsom.
BlueZone is also in the process of tripling its warehouse footprint in Minden. The outdoor retailer is building 30,000-square-foot facility it aims to move into in January 2022, Norris said.
“I think BlueZone and the industry of the products that we sell is well-positioned to be able to survive anything thrown our way,” he said. “And, in most cases, actually thrive and continue on that path.
That’s a testament to the hard work and dedication of the 90 people that work with us.”