Canoe Rack Empty: Montana’s Oldest Paddlesport’s Retailer Goes Under

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The Canoe Rack, a specialty paddlesports store that has served Missoula, Montana since 1976, is shutting down, a victim of both the economy and what some have called an over-retailed market.

“We simply cannot weather the current economic storm and are going out of business. We are literally up the creek. The era has ended and after over 30 years Canoe Rack is no more,” said a message posted by owner Ben Schmidt on his website (www.canoerack.com) on Dec. 3. “We will be closing our doors for good by month’s end. Times have changed and Montana’s only true shop for paddlers will no longer be. With optimism of a new future, we bid farewell.”

Many factors led the Canoe Rack’s closure including rising wholesale prices and shipping costs that paralleled the economic downturn. These problems couple with what Schmidt sees as the loss of vendor’s interest in small shops.

“I saw only two reps in 2008,” Schmidt said. “I am a paddler, not a hustler. We hope that those who remain true to the paddlesports world will be able to address the plight of so many small paddle shops who are being squeezed by the economy, big business and the little things that make the difference. Remember, shop product and service. That’s my soap box.”

Schmidt told SNEWS® that the doors to his store, which he has owned since 2001, will be shut and the space empty by Dec. 31. His goal, he said, is to pay off all outstanding invoices, clear up all vendor credits owed him, and move all his existing inventory and fixtures to willing buyers.

The Canoe Rack has had a storied history. With three owners prior to Schmidt, the store was once run out of the back of a gas station and grew to holding an inventory of 100 canoes. Retail sales boomed at $450,000 in 2001.

So how did a successful, growing store with such a history arrive to the point of having to shut down?

“The economy is part of it,” Schmidt said. “Folks are not spending as much money, and it is dramatic how quickly the shopping landscape changed.”

Schmidt said that his store’s peak year was 2006. In 2007, when economists are now acknowledging is when the recessionary period began, sales declined to 2005 levels and never recovered, spinning downward at an alarming rate by mid-2008.

“We were behind pace in June and July, but I was not overly concerned then. When we hit August and September, and the economy began really tanking, our sales began to evaporate,” said Schmidt. “By the end of October, I realized we had no hope of making it through the winter.”

For Schmidt, like many paddlesports stores, sales in the spring, summer and fall must carry them through winter, when far fewer folks are buying boats or any products having to do with paddling.

“Sales in October crashed 90 percent when compared with the last six years of historical data,” Schmidt told us. “Since I run a seasonal shop, I have no back up if boat sales don’t happen. Little things can make a big difference. And in this economy, it became very evident that shoppers were no longer concerned about quality, they care only about price.”

Schmidt pointed out that in Missoula, a town of between 50,000 to 60,000, there are too many stores selling boats ––ACE Hardwear, Costco, Wal-Mart, Sportsman’s Warehouse, REI, Pipestone Mountaineering, Edge of the World, and more. He wondered aloud to us if his store closing will even be missed.

As for what he will do next, Schmidt is very sure he wants to stay in the outdoor industry, maybe repping, consulting if needed, and even boat-building. His specialty is hand-built cedar strip boats, which several folks with whom SNEWS has spoken for this story said are simply beautiful works of art that can be paddled very well.

“The change I am looking most forward to is more time on the water,” Schmidt said.

–Michael Hodgson

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Paddlers writing about all things paddling.

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