DENVER — In a 138-year-old building in Denver’s LoHi neighborhood, Wilderness Exchange Unlimited long ago carved out a reputation as a place where budget-conscious outdoors enthusiasts could find good deals on used gear.
Founded 22 years ago, it evolved into a full-service outdoor specialty shop. But consignment sales continue to represent about 20% of its business, and the market for used outdoor gear is booming.
“Our mission was to break down the financial barriers to access the outdoors,” said owner Don Bushey. “The whole idea of Wilderness Exchange initially was a community-based store where people could come in and outfit themselves.”
That’s how used gear sales used to be done, and it still works for Wilderness Exchange. But not far away, there’s a new player in the growing “re-commerce” industry that is utilizing the internet to reach a national audience of buyers and sellers.
A little over a mile downriver in the trendy RiNo district is the headquarters of Out&Back Outdoor, an online site launched 16 months ago as a marketplace for used outdoor equipment. Sellers tap into the site and fill out an online questionnaire describing the gear they want to sell. If the price Out&Back offers satisfies the seller — prices are set based on current resale market value — they ship 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 — one in Lakewood’s Belmar shopping district, the other in Pittsburgh, where Dick’s corporate offices are located — sellers can walk in with used gear and Out&Back will buy it on the spot. From there the gear goes to Out&Back’s Denver warehouse, where it is held for online purchase.
The outdoor resale business has grown significantly in recent years. Industry insiders say sales are being driven by the desire for affordability and concerns over the environmental impact of manufacturing. Re-commerce has expanded to the point where well-known brands such as Patagonia and Arc’teryx have launched their own buy-back programs to get in on the action. But when they buy used gear, they offer the seller sales credit for purchases within the brand.
“Our big differentiator is, we’re going to pay cash,” said Barruch Ben-Zekry, Out&Back’s founder and CEO. “We’re going to pay for this stuff, so if somebody wants to get rid of it, they can actually do it. And we’ll give you an instant offer. You bring it to Dick’s, our associate checks it in, it usually takes 60 to 120 seconds, and you get a PayPal or a Venmo to your bank account right away.”
According to research conducted by thredUP, an online consignment sales site that specializes in women’s clothing, the re-commerce industry overall is expected to grow to $75 billion by 2025. Outdoor gear figures to be part of that growth.
“The (outdoor) market is massive, primarily because it’s a category that is really expensive,” said Jimmy Funkhouser, owner of Feral Mountain Gear, where about 50% of his sales are used goods. “If somebody wants to go backpacking this weekend for the first time, if they were to buy everything new, they’re going to spend over $1,000. You could take a small family to Disney World for that, so people are definitely looking for opportunities to carve up that cost. Buying used, or renting, is the best way to cut into that cost and get started into a new hobby.”
When Funkhouser moved from a small shop on Tennyson Street to a much larger space just down the street in 2018, he added a used gear section to his inventory. He also rents gear. Manufacturers have gotten into the second-hand market because they’ve seen how successful independent retailers like Funkhouser have been.
“The market broadly has shifted,” Funkhouser said. “If you’re a retailer or a brand, and you don’t have a strategy for capturing some of that resale business, you’re falling behind. The whole industry is transitioning in that direction.”
Wilderness Exchange started in a tiny 600-square-foot shop near the current location in 2000. Bushey, then 33, lived in an apartment above the shop.
“It took off so fast, my upstairs apartment became part of the store with backpacks in the living room,” Bushey said. “The spare bedroom became the sleeping bag room.”
In those days his customers were mostly looking for ways to save money on their outdoor gear purchases, but in recent years environmental concerns have become another motivator. Manufacturers are touting environmental responsibility to promote their re-sale programs.
“There’s been a lot of messaging making people aware of the true impact of producing the gear and trying to get more usable life out of equipment to keep it from landfills so we don’t have to over-produce and over-consume new gear and new products,” Bushey said. “That’s the main difference between when we started and now. People are becoming much more mindful of the environmental impacts of their recreational equipment.”
Ben-Zekry declined to offer sales figures for Out&Back but said his sales have doubled each month since March, and that on any given day the site has 10,000 to 15,000 items in its inventory. He expects customers will welcome the convenience of being able to drop off 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’s hoping dozens more Dick’s Sporting Goods locations will be added over the next two years.
When Out&Back takes in soft goods such as apparel 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 poles, replacing the elastic strings in them if necessary, and will re-waterproof older tents. They accept used skis, but bindings are removed before resale for liability reasons. They do not deal in footwear.
While the big brands do have buy-back programs, Ben-Zekry believes 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 gear just sit on the sideline. We have the capacity for you to turn your skis and your backpack and your Carhartt pants into cash, all at once. Maybe you want to turn your skis into beer. This gives you the ability to do that. You can liquidate your whole closet.”
Many outdoors gear buyers prefer to see and touch what they’re thinking about purchasing, though. And outdoors gear shops typically are staffed by experienced outdoors enthusiasts who are good sources of information.
“I can’t tell if the weight of a jacket is going to be appropriate for me for all season just by looking at a picture of it online,” Bushey said. “Backpacks have to be fitted, and there’s an art to fitting backpacks. There is an art to fitting ski boots. Your skis need to be tuned. We’re less sales people than sales consultants. We’re helping people in, not just the gear they need to do these adventures, but (answering) ‘Where do you go?’ “