Bob Woodward on Retail's Heady Heydays of Sierra Designs

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From Bob Woodward, Founder of SNEWS, Sierra Designs-1971 to 1976, SD Retail ‘70 to ‘76.

February 16th 2004

The most impressive thing when many of us joined Sierra Designs in the early 1970s was the number of dogs wandering around the premises. From George's Kabuki to all the others, there seemed to be more canines than employees, and far too many canines with names out of "The Hobbit."

The customers who climbed the stairs of the old paint warehouse at Fourth and Addison streets to get to the store knew where they were and what they wanted. SD's early customers were hardcore outdoor people who came for Sierra down jackets, the Glacier, Wilderness and Three-Man tents, and either a 100, 200 or 300 down sleeping bag. A few took to the new 60/40 jacket which was the employees’ outerwear garment of choice. And then without any fanfare, the 60/40 became THE jacket to have. It's success to have a huge impact on SD and put the company on the map nationwide.

[Pictured: Reba McWhorter, Henry Gruchacz, and Paul Kramer at the Palo Alto Store opening.]

 One fall day the Rolling Stones road manager came into the shop for 60/40s for all the crew working on the Stones' latest tour and ending up spending $40,000 on everything from down jackets to sleeping bags.

An NBC News film crew dropped by to purchase 60/40s for themselves and their field reporters.  A woman chef named Alice Waters who had a new French restaurant in Berkeley traded meals for 60/40s. Her Chez Panisse eventually became a landmark American maison de cuisine.

Just as the 60/40 took off in popularity (Woodward in 60/40 below)  so did the backpacking boom begin in earnest. Backpacking became the hottest new summer recreation in America.  

And if that wasn't enough, cross-country skiing came onto the winter sports scene and soon SD had yet another new set of customers coming into the store.

These were heady times. The retail gang worked hard and played hard. They used the gear they sold and got three days off a week so they could be in the mountains.

And then paddling on the rivers and out in the bays and estuaries took off at SD as Bob made an arrangement for the retail store to become the biggest kayak dealer west of the Rockies. The store also became one of Mad River Canoe's first retailers in the U.S.

Between backpacking and all the other "new" sports, sales boomed and with it the first significant changes the Sierra Designs' ethos. Gone were the funky old, almost amateurish catalogs and a few product names were changed to reflect the times. For example, the venerable Three-Man tent suddenly became the Three-Person tent.

The catalog shift to high-gloss, high profile came in 1972 . That year the catalog featured a winter trip to the eastern Sierra ghost town of Bodie.

Woodward and 60/40Coming off a favorable response to the Bodie catalog, a week-long backpacking trip along the "Lifesaving Trail" on the west coast of Vancouver Island was featured in the ensuing year's catalog.  The catalog copy and photos portrayed the trip as a joyous trek offset by short periods of rain and arduous trail sections.

In reality, the trip was horrific. First the food ran out, and as everyone got hungry and the days got longer, tempers flared and there were constant confrontations and emotional blowups. By trip's end, the happy backpackers couldn't wait to get away from each other.

The last of the trip catalogs was the one in 1974 to the Southwest US.

The following year, the trip documentation catalog idea was scuttled in favor of artistic rendition of SD gear and the California countryside by well respected watercolorist, Earl Thallander.

The catalogs were not the only things that changed at SD. The company had new owners in CML, a small conglomerate comprised mostly of outdoor companies overseen by former Harvard Business School lecturer Charles M. Leighton (hence the CML) and his partner Robert Todd.

They installed Stanford Business School graduate and former accounting firm consultant, Cass Apple, as SD's president. Apple arrived and soon the casual, seat-of-the-pants way of doing business was gone.

Apple employed Harvard Business School students to work through SD's systems in hopes of streamlining everything from materials purchasing to sewing operations and retail.

In a classic CML management moment, a Harvard team pressed SD's retail manager Bob Woodward on how many inventory turns the Berkeley store experienced every year. Woodward replied, "who knows, who cares? We just sell a hell of a lot of gear and apparel."

Woodward was pressed to not only learn about turns but to also expand SD's retail presence. With the help of SD production guru, Henry Gruchacz (pictured), they found a failing furniture store in Palo Alto and opened SD's second retail store in 1976.

To celebrate the store's opening, Woodward and store manager Peter Langmaid threw a party. Employees were bused down from Berkeley to the new Palo Alto store. They arrived to live music, games for their children, and a wide array of food and drink.

Later plans for retail expansion into San Francisco faltered during negotiations with the Sierra Club to become a tenant in their new downtown national headquarters building.

No story of SD retail would be complete without mention of two key retail marketing moments. The first was the 1974 24-Hour Sale at which an entire year of seconds, rental gear and returns were sold (*See footnote)

The sale started at midnight on a Friday with a line of customers stretching a mile from the SD store down past Spenger's restaurant and beyond.

 The first thing that greeted shoppers was the sight of a 25 foot deep pile of sleeping bags stacked in the alcove extending from the ground level up to the second (retail) floor. From time to time, employees would dive from the second floor into the pile of bags and sink slowly down to ground level.

 The sale was classic Berkeley, classic early SD-equal parts work, play and mayhem. George dispensed cocktails to those working the sale and cooked up a huge breakfast as the sales roared into the early morning.

 Every hour a Brink's armored car would pull up at the store and armed guards would haul off the sale proceeds. It all went well until the twentieth hour when a customer took an inordinate amount of time making a sleeping bag decision. Pushed to the edge, Peter Langmaid finally grabbed the man and thrusting a sleeping bag into his hands, screamed, "buy the fucking bag or I'll kill you." Thus ended the sale which netted SD $120,000.

As good as the sale proceeds were, it was simply too strenuous to undertake again. So the following year the second stroke of marketing genius came as SD retail set up its "Saint Sierra de Paul" thrift shop open Tuesdays and Thursday for bargain hunters.

Footnote:

  • The main reason we had so many things for sale was the result of an ill advised change of color in our product mix. We changed the tried and true perennial favorite, Navy Blue to a Teal Blue. It was rejected by our dealer network and before we knew it we had thousands of garments in our warehouse that were simply not moving. The sale took care of that and we turned Berkeley Teal Blue over night.

-----Original Message-----

From: Bob Woodward 
Sent: Tuesday, February 17, 2004 8:04 AM
 To: George
Subject: Re: History (reply)

George-thanks for your kind remarks. With me the SD years were some of the best of my life as I changed from a suburban young businessman to the person I really wanted to become. It's funny how many SD alumni I talk to look back with such fondness on that period and who also found SD a place to change their lives. Not to overplay it, but SD (old style) was a nurturing place....I think the SD spirit of that time is what the outdoor industry needs today but will never get. The market now is all about hype, lack of innovation, and a sense that it's a business first and all the rest of the interpersonal and important stuff comes later. That's why I've pulled back and don't get too immersed it the business these days. I still see all  the  old friends when they pass through Bend or at the Ski Show (the ski  industry is well over the hype phase) or when I travel...Of course, there's more  to  the SD history than either of us has written and that's the story of all  the characters. It could be an incredible novella...best to you as always and let me know if I can be of more assistance.

Bob

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Comments

Jaye Cook (not verified)
Leave a Comment. (Please,
Shortly after the Berkeley store opened- they had moved from Point Richmond- I was hired by Don to work in the retail store. This would have been '67 or early '68. Thus began one of the most wondrous times of my life. The whole place was a '60's fantasy and the catch was that some really outstanding stuff was made right down stairs. I still have my faded 60/40 jacket and my Omni sleeping bags. I also have a one-off down filled 60/40 jacket. I only recently had the down in my duvet that George made for me vacuumed into a new cover after - what - nearly 50 years. There were no rules on outlandish behavior or dress and running outside for a hit was not unheard of. And of course it was the peak of the sexual revolution. More than once couples hid-or not- in one of the display tents on the retails sales floor for a nooner. Which couples you ask? After a year or so I moved downstairs to work where the the bags and jackets and so on were made. George taught me how to set up the cutting table and how to use the cutters and soon I was cutting thick stacks of fabric for all the products that were made by all the ladies in the sewing area. Made in Berkeley California. There is a whole lot more. Inside the front cover of the '71 catalog is a photo of the whole crew. I am sitting second from the right. On page 26 is a photo of the prototype for the Summit pack. I have traveled all over the world carrying that very pack. I still wear a pair of Sportif sunglasses shown on page 29. Much water under the bridge since then and lots of stories. The few years I spent working at SD for George and Bob were a joy.

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03/30/17