Why I Buy: Heresy and the Religion of Gear

We have heard that people are tired of guessing what #OIBIZ customers want. Or – worse, perhaps – folks eyes roll back in their heads whenever they are shown data that purports to define this for us. So, we here at PEMBA decided simply to ask a few folks: “Why do you buy?” Continuing in this series for us is Steve Jordan, who along with his family is one of the more regularly active people we know. Steve is smart, frugal, and funny. If you get his dollar, you’ve earned it. And we’ll let him tell you all about it. Enjoy.

Why I buy comes down to two things: relationships and value.

I’ll start with relationships.  When I worked as a river guide, I noticed a tendency in myself and my fellows to disrespect the customers behind their backs.  Lots of times this was light-hearted and fun, its severity diminished by the fact that we really cared about our passengers, and wanted them to have a memorable, safe experience.  Since then, however, I’ve noticed this tendency in most initiation-based societies that require working with the public.  There seems to be some basic human need that is satisfied by rolling our eyes at the uninitiated, enthusiastic people who ask perfectly reasonable if excusably naïve questions.  In a lot of cases, this eye-rolling is small and unfair because these questions deal with things that our customers would never be expected to know anyway.  And in some cases, it can hurt feelings and damage relationships, outcomes that should be of grave concern to the OIBIZ, where elite behavior may be the kiss of death with respect to a large potential market, one that includes me.

I have to confess that I don’t buy a whole lot of gear.  I established the tradition of getting by on my first boy scout backpacking trip, back in about 1980.  We hiked a few miles along the Wild and Scenic Rogue River in Southern Oregon, and I brought a steel campfire toaster, cans of beef stew, and my mom’s kitchen can opener.  In spite of the notable lack of titanium in my pack, I had a magical and marvelous time.

I don’t backpack with toasters anymore, but I do have an enormous respect for making do, a strategy embodied by professional cyclist Jens Voigt.  Voigt, you may recall, is the eternally sunny German strong man who crashed badly in this year’s Tour de France, disabling his bike.  When the sag wagon arrived to pick him up, rather than abandon the tour for the second year in a row, he hopped on the only bike available, a little yellow junior bike, and, bandages flapping in the wind, rode back into the race .  Now when I’m faced with an adaptability problem, I try to ask myself “WWJD?” – What would Jens do?

So, that’s my attitude when I show up in your shop, or in other words, as I violate your inner gear sanctum.  If the best greeting you can muster is to briefly glance over your shoulder and ask, “Yes?!”, in an irritated voice because you were just getting to the good part of a story to the shop gang about the latest three-gram $2195 carbon-fiber-titanium paddle bolt that helped you attack the 5.16, continuous class VI pipeline pitch in the black of night in Inner Mongolia, then I probably won’t be spending a whole lot of time or money as I sprint for the exit.

And I’m not asking you to fake interest in me and my need to replace the clip on my backpack either.  I’m looking for service from people who genuinely like me, the rest of the public, and their jobs, not people who deign to slum in a shop while waiting for Mountain Hardwear or Body Glove to call with a pro sponsorship offer.

I’m a teacher.  I have an obscure research specialty that I know pretty well.  I could gripe and demean my students ever day.  I know SO much more than them about my specialty.  (Gosh! Idiots!)  But if I did, I’d be a terrible teacher.  Most days I actually like to expose my students to the ideas that got me excited about my profession.  I take satisfaction in helping others appreciate my field, or have an “Aha!” moment under my tutelage.  Outdoor retailers are teachers too.  And I’ll tend to shop for gear from people who want to teach me, and take pleasure in my learning, rather than view me as an uneducated weekend hack or a nuisance.

My local hardware store is a great example of this.  When I go in with the dumbest question, or needing the smallest item, I know that I’ll have friendly, expert, nonjudgmental advice.  I choose to shop there even when Lowe’s has a cheaper price, because Lowe’s employees are poorly trained and not particularly friendly.

The other end of the buying equation for me is value.  I try to use previous editions of my textbooks so that my students can get them for $25 on eBay rather than $150 in the bookstore.  I know that in most cases, older books will be perfectly adequate.

Likewise, as an outdoor enthusiast, I don’t choose to afford the latest technology.  If you are determined to sell it to me, I’ll leave.  Likewise, if you are determined to sell me an ill-suited product just because you have it on your shelf, I’ll leave.  If you want to tut-tut me as I buy a good-value, but less-than-cutting-edge item, I’ll leave.  I want solid gear, but I don’t need the latest 2% of innovation responsible for 50% of the price.  People rode mountain bikes, ran rivers, backpacked, and climbed last year, and ten years ago.  I’ve a hunch that older technology will do a fine job of getting me where I want to be.  And now that I have three kids to outfit as well, value has become all the more paramount.

And please don’t nickel and dime me either.  If I’m spending $1200 on a new bike, don’t charge $75 for the professional fitting.  I bought a bike online last year after a local retailer tried to pull that on me.  It doesn’t fit me as well, but it was a lot more bike for the money.

Vargo Outdoors , my local shop, is a good example of a culture that cares more about me than my money.  This culture, as is often the case, flows from the owner and manager.  I recently replaced my 15 year-old shell there when Brian let me know about an economical sale price on the item I needed.  Several weeks before that, he watched my dog in the shop for a few minutes while I went into the post office.  An internet retailer can’t compete with service like that!

So, why do I buy?  I buy because I walk into a shop where the employees and owners seem genuinely happy to engage with me and help me find a high-quality, economical solution.  I buy because the guy/gal behind the counter asks me how my kids are doing and invites me on the shop ride on Friday afternoon even though s/he knows that I’m nowhere near as fast as the rest of them.  I buy when I feel like I am being welcomed and graciously initiated into the holy priesthood of gear rather than shamed as an infidel.  In circumstances like these, I may even spend a little on things I hadn’t really planned to buy in the first place, like that killer titanium backpacking toaster!


Steve Jordan is an associate professor of biology at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA.  He specializes in the evolution of Polynesian insects, and has spent time in the field in Hawaii, French Polynesia, and Turkey.  In his younger days, Steve worked as a river guide at Denali and in Moab and wrote his MS thesis on aquatic invertebrates of Canyonlands NP.  He backpacks and rafts out west with his family whenever he gets the chance, and is a passionate advocate for the preservation of public lands.  Last month he caught two brown trout, several creek chub, and lots of perch in upstate NY with his seven-year-old son.

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