Family Feud: REI’s Todd Callaway Proves There’s No Us Versus Them

By Emily Glaser
In the world of retail, corporate masters are often pitted against smaller, mom’n’pop shops—but why? After all, we all share the same goal: converting more customers into nature–loving, thrill–seeking adventurers. With nearly 25 years of experience in retailers big and small, Todd Callaway has the personal experience to attest to the fact that we aren’t so different after all.

Callaway, like most of us in this fun field, got his start in sports retail in his passionate youth. In high school, a teenaged Callaway found his love for cycling and triathlons; when it came time to start looking for his first job, Callaway didn’t follow the traditional path of burger–flipping or drink–slinging, instead focusing on his passion. His youthful determination landed him a position at Richardson Bike Mart in Dallas, Texas. It was a decision that would determine the course of his life.
Callaway stayed at Richardson Bike Mart through high school and into college, but after a few years his mind—and body—began to wander. “As with most people, I entered college and found new interests,” says Callaway. “For me, these were outside of cycling. I got more into the outdoors—climbing, camping and skiing. My love of retail and the outdoors inspired me to apply at REI.” The shift from local bike shop to massive corporate retailer was a surprisingly smooth one for the passionate Callaway. His experience transferred well to REI, where he was originally hired as a part–time bicycle technician. As he dipped his toes into the massive pool of corporate retail, Callaway gained invaluable experience and was able to foster his new interests in outdoor sports.
College-age Callaway didn’t quite realize the journey he was embarking on when he swapped jobs. 21 years later, he’s still with REI. It’s a situation that’s a uniquely positive result of working for a corporate retailer; in his 21 years, he’s worked for seven different stores in six different markets, moving up through the ranks and holding a variety of positions. The advantages of sticking with a single, larger company are surprisingly numerous. “It’s allowed me the opportunity to learn many aspects of retail in the outdoor and cycling industry,” says Callaway. “I have also had the opportunity to work with many different teams and leaders, which has really helped me become a more effective and well–rounded leader… and many different divisions within REI, from digital retail to merchandising, which has further added to my skill set and helped me grow.” Working with a corporate giant like REI might not foster autonomy or entrepreneurship (a caveat Callaway recognizes), but it does offer a unique collection of opportunities for business–minded growth, and also breeds a distinct dedication to the world of outdoor sports.

Because Callaway began his career in a small, specialty, independent retailer before moving on to a large, corporate company, he can offer insight into the parallels of the oft–pitted enterprises. “In many ways, it is the same, just on a larger scale,” he notes. Of course there are discrepancies between everyday operations, but at their core every sports retailer shares similar operations and purposes. “At the store level, we don’t focus as much on things like our core assortments or product buying, but we do spend a lot of time working with our local communities to increase participation and stewardship,” says Callaway. Regardless of the size of the corporation, every store, every manager, must be in tune with their local market and work directly with their local community in order to achieve success and growth.

REI – Soho (New York, New York)
These big box retailers aren’t immune to the problems that plague independent guys, either. “We also have to quickly adapt as the retail landscape changes and constantly focus on building expert teams and adapting to sales and traffic trends, whether they are driven by weather, economics, or the competitive landscape,” Callaway notes. If anything, those finicky trends are even more significant for teams like REI’s, where ordering is done nationally and predictability is even lower. Retailers large and small face the same challenges.
Another similarity between the big fish and the little ones? The necessity of speciality retail training like Mann U. Both independent and corporate retailers need to invest in specialty training programs in order to successfully grow and thrive—whether that means in–house for large retailers, easy outsourcing with the Mann Group for smaller ones, or a combination of both. “Working for REI, we have access to many training and development resources,” Callaway notes. “These are not as readily accessible for smaller, independent retailers, but Mann U helps bridge this gap.” And even retail giants like REI and employees like Callaway can benefit from Mann U. “I had the opportunity to attend Mann U in LA this past summer and had a great experience. I was really impressed with the approach and focus on both the customer and employee experience.”
Like most folks who’ve devoted themselves to this industry, Callaway’s passion is driven by a single motivator: his customers. “I am most passionate about the customer experience and how customers experience REI both in the physical and digital space.” That common motivator—creating a similarly passionate and ever–growing customer base—is the greatest uniter of all. It’s a sentiment that’s shared throughout Callaway’s stores, all of REI’s network and the web of outdoor retailers across the country. “We are focused on customer experience and getting people in the outdoors,” Callaway says of REI. “We want to increase participation in the outdoors, whether it is hiking, camping or cycling. As more people spend time in the outdoors and become enthusiasts, it helps our industry, as a whole, grow.”
Callaway’s words ring true. We often view our industry as one of competition, a series of enterprises pitted against one another in a fight over customers. But the truth is, we’re more family than feud. We share a common purpose and common customers, and we all offer unique opportunities and experiences. The key to a successful industry, one that continues to thrive in brick–and–mortar storefronts, is simple: growth. And growth is an objective we all need to focus on, across party lines and as a nationwide industry. By banding together and recognizing our similar goals and incentives, we can work to create a nation of passionate, outdoor–loving, nature–nurturing, thrill–seeking customers.

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