Small Business Spotlight: Buffalo Peak Outfitters

Trailblazers

Outdoor retailer has something for hikers, hunters, Boy Scouts and other adventure junkies

Buffalo Peak Outfitters has been Jackson’s premier “outdoor specialty retailer” since it first opened in the Highland Village shopping center in Northeast Jackson in 1986.

Owner Bob McCain said that while he spent many youthful nights in a sleeping bag, he opened Buffalo Peak with the mindset of a businessman and not that of an outdoorsman.

“I had never been backpacking or hiking until I got into this business,” McCain said. He figured that if he ran the store like someone who was simply an outdoor enthusiast who wanted to sell equipment to friends but didn’t care about money or operations since it was only a hobby, he would go broke pretty quick. He also knew that if he was going to sell camping stoves and tents, he’d better field-test them.

McCain grew up in Alva, Miss., a “wide place in the highway” between Duck Hill and Bellefontaine. His father raised everything from cotton to cows to watermelons, always pragmatically evolving his fields with the current agricultural trends. Having a dairy farm in that part of the state in those days was a little out of the ordinary, McCain said, but his father was determined to stay in business no matter what the crop was. “If I took anything from my childhood, it’s that hard work is a part of life,” McCain said.

At six feet, five inches tall, McCain had no trouble making it on to the Belhaven University basketball team after he graduated from high school. The squad had been controversially christened the “Belhaven Clansmen” (a reference to the college’s Scottish Presbyterian culture), but despite the unfortunate handle, McCain said they played some very competitive matches against larger schools like Delta State, Louisiana Tech and others.

McCain’s basketball experience and business degree from Belhaven set him up for a successful career in athletic retail. He worked for a store called the Athlete’s Foot for six years and rose in the ranks to become operations manager for the company, traveling to all five of its stores in Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida. He also met and married the sister of one of his co-workers.

“(My wife Susan and I) were cruising through North Carolina on our honeymoon and we stopped at this little log cabin on Chestnut Street in Highlands,” McCain said. The cabin was actually an outdoor clothing store called “The Happy Hiker,” and the newlyweds spent the rest of the day getting to know the owners, David and Carol Wilkes. “I knew retail and wanted to stay there,” McCain said.

Similar to the “running boom” of the 1980s, suburban Americans began abandoning their cubicles for weekend getaways full of skiing, scuba diving, white water rafting and rock climbing. “These were the days when Banana Republic was still selling Israeli paratrooper pants,” McCain said. “L.L. Bean was also really big.” Clothing became more durable and functional. Hiking boots, like running shoes, became highly technical pieces of mainstream athletic equipment.

It was into this new wilderness that McCain decided to blaze a trail for the Magnolia State. With help from Guy Boyle and Jimmy Fowler, two “captains of industry” according to McCain, Buffalo Peaks acquired it’s first slice of square footage at Highland Village, went to market, built up its inventory and opened for business.

McCain tries to run Buffalo Peak in a similar fashion to the way his father ran his farm: always evolving but focusing on the fundamental framework of being an outdoor retailer, whether it’s selling winter skiing clothes in the 1990s or canoes and kayaks in the 2000s.

McCain said Buffalo Peak’s first three years were tough. The fact that Mississippi is “vertically challenged” made McCain’s store concept unique but tricky to sell in those early years. “Colorado and Wyoming had more mature markets while ours was kind of new,” he said. “Nobody knew who we were. It was seven years before I was the highest paid employee.”

As if that wasn’t enough of a headache, a legal dispute that arose between McCain’s business and an Alabama bottling company compelled him to change the store’s original name from Buffalo Rock Outfitters to Buffalo Peak Outfitters. “Mississippi Mountaineering didn’t seem to be the right fit,” McCain quipped. “We kept a few Buffalo Rock T-shirts as collector’s items.”

McCain said the key to Buffalo Peak’s sustainability has been its habit of finding niches within its own merchandise, as long as those niches pass the Buffalo Peak litmus test for genuine outdoor retail. It’s that McCain ability to know whether to hold or fold on everything from Mag-Lites to Patagonia long underwear that has helped the store grow in spite of a recession.

Buffalo Peak has slowly expanded about every four years (most recently in 2010) always adding more space for merchandise; and another store in Oxford. The company’s 10-year foray into recreational boating, however, ended last year, due to the national decline in canoe and kayak sales amid the economic downturn.

McCain keeps one eye on mega-store competitors like Bass Pro Shop and Dick’s Sporting Goods and the other eye on the rise of eco-tourism, adventure travel and other trends in the outdoor apparel industry. “We always listen to our customers,” he said.

While he tries to be open-minded, McCain will admit that he does have his limits on merchandise that he believes would never fit the Buffalo Peak mold.

“Camo is probably one thing I’ll never sell,” he said. “Everybody sells that.”

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