Outside Sports - A Queenstown outdoor retail success story
What started in the mid-1990s as a means for two outdoor sports lovers to live in Queenstown has become one of the region’s most successful outdoor retail brands.
Professional international triathlete John Knight and teacher wife Judy boldly opened their first store at the top of Queenstown Mall in 1995.
“We’d been living in Boulder, Colorado, with John competing a lot in Europe,” says Judy. John reached sixth in the World Series Ironman Triathlon in the early 1990s but the use of EPO performance enhancing drugs was becoming rampant and he was competing against top triathletes who were taking them. “There’s also a fairly limited timespan to push yourself like that training every day.”
“We really wanted to live in Queenstown and needed a business idea.” They saw a gap in the market in Queenstown and teamed up with Dunedin Recycled Recreation (later R&R Sports) owner Craig Wanty as a third shareholder. “At that time there was only Bill Lachiny’s Ski Shop, Brown’s, and maybe Alpine Sports. Our point of difference was a sports store focused on skiing during winter and full-on biking in summer.”
Wanty brought the industry experience and supplier contacts while John brought the sporting expertise and knowledge with a PhD and Masters in Physical Chemistry.
Outside Sports opened the day after son Benji, now 28 and a buyer for the brand, was born.
The store resonated with the local market and soon expanded taking over the next-door sheepskin store, inheriting its champion saleswoman Liz Wallace.
Icebreaker was also established in 1995 and Outside Sports became one of the brand’s largest New Zealand accounts. “Jeremy Moon came around with his little suitcase. John saw the benefits immediately being a farmer’s son. Icebreaker grew into a huge brand for us.” Marmot was another big brand that sold well with a comprehensive outdoor footwear range. “We became the biggest outdoor fitters in NZ.”
In 2001 a second softer, more lifestyle fashion brand store was launched – Outside Adventure further down Queenstown Mall while the main store continued to focus on more technical apparel.
A store in Arrowtown was opened but when the landlord upped the rent for both their Queenstown and Arrowtown stores they relocated to a new purpose-built, three-level store beside Fergburger in Shotover Street. “As a minor shareholder in that building, we were going some way to safeguard against astronomical rents.”
“A few months after opening Fergburger arrived, which was fantastic for foot traffic,” says Judy. “That did amazing things for our turnover.” However, eventually that too drove up the rent to an unmanageable level.
“We were trying to be absolutely world class. It was a huge building over three levels, but it was just too hard with that rent,” she says.
Fortunately, they’d sold out of their minor shareholding by the time the Global Financial Crisis struck in 2008. They eventually looked further up Shotover Street and formed a collaboration with Trojan Holdings and John Martin on a new purpose-built store which opened in 2015 and is still the home of Outside Sports.
“It’s an incredible building, stunning architecture, a timeless building. A lot of insights came from John who’d visited similar stores in Europe.”
Less foot traffic made the first few years extremely challenging, she says. However, with neighbouring stores like Torpedo 7, R & R Sports and Small Planet arriving the area developed a cluster of outdoor enthusiast stores.
In 2003 Te Anau’s John Greaney bought into Outside Sports Queenstown and in 2009 they rolled his Te Anau Sportsworld business into Outside Sports Te Anau. Wānaka followed, teaming up with Peter King of Good Sports there.
Prior to the Covid lockdown they’d been gearing up to launch a Tekapo store. The deal was signed pre-Covid, so they pressed on. That opened at Waitangi weekend 2021.
“The Covid years were incredibly challenging,” says Judy. “We just battened down the hatches. We knew once the country opened it would pay its way.”
Their Queenstown Airport store, initially exclusively Icebreaker then the best of Outside Sports, was equally challenging. However, they retained staff and trimmed operating hours.
It’s the loyal longtime locals that have shaped their business, however, increasingly, locals are avoiding downtown Queenstown so the store is more reliant on international visitors while Queenstown Central in Five Mile caters to a loyal locals market.