With its broken sign and empty window display, the Portland Outdoor Store looks like the economic tumbleweeds are already blowing down Southwest Second Avenue in downtown Portland.
This store is where ranchers and riders have come for 99 years for their Wranglers, Dickies and Filsons. In the last decade or so, fashionistas have been coming for the classic bandanas, while tourists peruse the Stetsons, and schoolgirls the English saddles and Carhartt beanies.
But the coronavirus recession has taken a bite out of this retailer because it has remained stubbornly brick-and-mortar, with no online sales to speak of. The question now is, how can it survive in a changing retail landscape?
Brad Popick and his two partners own the Portland Outdoor Store business, the building, and the quarter lot it is on. He's working from home while the shop is closed but came in recently to show the Business Tribune around. The store shut down on March 17, but Popick says they were already feeling the drop off in sales on March 8. The four staff he had have been laid off, and he has applied for Paycheck Protection for them.
He feels relatively fortunate.
"The clothing industry is in massively bad shape — and it's not only clothing but retail in general. The overheads are continuous, the responsibilities for rents and fixed costs, bills and stuff is becoming devastating."
He looks at chain stores like J. Crew and the Gap, which have hundreds of stores, and sees a reckoning coming.
"When you have 1,000 units, at probably around $10,000 or $15,000 a month, that's an enormous amount of money. And even one month it would be difficult," he says, talking of the widespread shutdown of non-essential businesses in March, April, and probably May. "For two and three months, which is a very good possibility, it would be impossible."
He says banks are getting "a little jittery" and many brick and mortar retailers, big and small, will vanish in a couple of months, although he doesn't see e-commerce replacing everything. "There's still the excitement about going into a retail store and having the fun. It's an event. But there are six or seven companies in just the men's and ladies' clothing industry that owe something like around 60 or 70 billion dollars."
The Portland Outdoor Store's costs remain relatively fixed: wages, property taxes, utilities, inventory. However, he has a warning for the government.
"Cities are going to be hurting from the loss of tax revenue. The municipalities in this state, and most states, have been taxing fairly liberally for the last four or five years. Well, it's going to come back and haunt them. They have cut back on their spending. There just won't be that type of money available from the taxes."
He also believes reopening the economy will be slow because consumers will be either too broke or too afraid to go out and spend money. Businesses can't instantly spring back if they want to.
"It can't be done overnight, and you're not going to go back out and hire everybody back."
For his business, he's optimistic.
"We will come out of it, and we will be fine. Because of our structure, we can go probably six, seven, eight months without too much problem. Our overheads are fairly low."
The banks, he says, have been slow to adjust to businesses asking for leniency.
"They have not been very adjustable in this whole process. Look at the PPP (Payroll Protection Plan) . . . all these programs coming out of Washington, and the banks are the ones that are dragging their feet. It's just unbelievable. Maybe because I don't think they're making a penny off of it?"
He thinks the small banks distributing the coronavirus relief money were overwhelmed. As for the big ones, many are "Too big to keep, rather than too big to fail. We should have let those guys die 10 years ago."
The Portland Outdoor Store will be open again in two months rather than six, he predicts.
Heritage and history
The first record of the store comes from 1919, but in his 52 years working, he has met old-timers who remember it from pre-World War 1 (1914-18). The Popick family bought it in 1929 and called it Popick Menswear. It went into another family's hands until they repurchased it in the late 1970s.
"We walked in, October 10 of 1977, the lights were turned off, the power was turned off, the phone was disconnected, and there was no inventory in the store. The first thing we sold was a Filson jacket without the lights on."
Second Avenue had a string of workwear stores from Morrison Avenue to Burnside in the 20th Century: Frank Becker, Alan Miller, Bernie Wax, and George & Sons Knives.
About 15, 20 years ago, western workwear and Americana became young men's contemporary across the world.
Sign of the times
Popick is confident they will celebrate their 100th anniversary somehow.
As for plans to replace the missing piece of the painted sign on the front of the building, which came down in 2019, Popick said, "It was put up about 25 years ago, and I think it was $700 or $800. Today it's five grand for plywood sign. For a plywood sign!"
He also looked into having the elevator signs, the ones around the roofline, redone, but the two quotes he got through the Portland Development Commission (now Prosper Portland) was $30,000 to $40,000.
"That's the program, they met 50%, but the numbers are always inflated a little too much." He got another quote since. "It's still a lot of money to come up with for friggin' plywood sign."
Hilfiger it out
Most of the business comes locally, not from ranchers. He recounts how Tommy Hilfiger came through once at 9 a.m on a Saturday and spent $5,000 buying a rack of Filson and red and black hunting jackets to use as inspiration for a look. He remembers chatting with another guy whom he recalled as "an incredibly well-dressed man in his 20s, was the blogger who coined the phrase 'heritage lines' and then used it as the basis for the entire concept all the way across the country."
The umbrella term for what they sell is "work western," and it sells locally, nationally and internationally.
"It's part of Americana. It has been that way for a long time. The perception of America is basically Western cowboy stuff. And it's a universal look all the way across the world. Good fashion becomes basic."
Tourists buy Pendleton, Levi's, Seymour, Stetson and cowboy boots.
Popick has a mostly American made/designed policy, and has a thing or two to say about quality. In the footwear corner, cowboy boots start at $200. Anything cheaper is not going to hold up. Brands he rates include Dan Post, Lucchese, and Stewart.
Showrooming — where someone tries on a garment then leaves and buys it online for less — doesn't worry him too much when it comes to boots, because the fit is everything, and online returns are expensive.
He believes shoe e-tailer Zappos (owned by Amazon) has between 18% and 21% returns.
"That that's brutally, brutally hard." He also claims they don't resell returns, but give them away.
Part of the problem with Amazon, which he calls the "10,000-ton gorilla" of retail, is that it matches the lowest prices. So, if someone is retailing a Pendleton shirt or a Barbour jacket for a silly price in another state, they match it, and it undercuts his business. He also has plenty to say about how Real Estate Investment Trusts built big-box buildings that were rented by Walmart and subsequently "totally, totally devastated the retail industry between the Appalachians and the Rockies."
On the third floor, which one enters via a locked gate and a steep staircase like a ship's ladder, they keep all the horse tack and a few dozen saddles. There are Western saddles (with the horn or handle upfront) ranging from $150 (used) to $5,000. The better made saddles keep their value, but cheap imports have hit the market.
"That is almost completely gone online, and it's horrible, horrible quality stuff. It's all this stuff from China and India. It's cheap. And that's the problem with the internet. People can't feel the quality until you actually see it." He's talking about bridles and saddles, all kinds of tack. "When you have a 900- or 1,200-pound horse, and you're putting your lifeline on a piece of leather, you want to make sure it's good."
Ask him about any brand, and he'll give you the business back story. They've carried Levi's for 100 years, but Wranglers are in trouble because the company that owns them, Vanity Fair, sold them a few months ago because "they decided last year Wranglers didn't have any growth potential." Vanity Fair spun off Wrangler and Lee jeans so it could focus on athleisure brands such as The North Face and Vans.
Real estate showrooming
The building was built in the 1870s as a bank. It has a 42-inch thick concrete walled basement, with steel columns that hold up the masonry. Developers ask all the time about selling up, which peeves him. He sees them as carpetbaggers who have been here less than 15 years and would ruin the character of Portland, throwing up tall buildings to flip.
Upstairs there's a hole in the ceiling, and many surfaces could do with a lick of paint — including the peeling neon sign outside. There are empty boot boxes piled on dusty shelves and yellowing signs taped to walls. The look is part country store, part incipient hoarder.
And Team Popick likes it that way.
"We have so many guys in the clothing industry go through here. It tells you not to touch it because you can't buy this type of atmosphere."
He's seen people remodel vintage-looking stores and go out of business in a year.
He's determined to stick around. Asked how many recessions he's been through and if there's a secret to surviving them, he counts up. "This would be the sixth. It just is what it is. I'm not sure there's a secret. It's just a matter of being persistent in whatever you're doing."
Portland Outdoor Store
304 S.W. Third Ave.,
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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