By Joseph Robertia
When it comes to shopping opportunities, big cities are usually assumed to be where the action is.
But in Kasilof, a town known more for its outdoor activities than retail opportunities, one store is attempting to buck that trend. This summer, the Kasilof Mercantile became an outlet store for the Alaskan Hardgear clothing line, making it the first outlet store on the Kenai Peninsula.
“We’re trying to stay competitive with New York, Paris and Milan,” joked Rocky Laster, co-owner of the Kasilof Mercantile.
Not to be confused with dollar stores or big box stores that offer discounted items, outlet stores are retailers of factory-direct, name-brand items. They sell this merchandise — typically overstocked items — for less than it would cost in a main store.
“None of this stuff has any kind of factory defect. It’s all perfect condition. It’s just models, sizes or colors they had an excess of, so it’s basically great-quality gear for half the price of what you’d pay retail,” Laster said.
There are few, if any, outlet stores in Alaska. Even in Anchorage, the first outlet mall — the 150,000 square foot “Outlets of Alaska” planned within the Dimond Center — isn’t due to be completed until fall 2013. Locally, the Mercantile is the first true outlet store, according to Laster, although it is tough to say for certain.
“We don’t have or keep records for that kind of thing,” said John Torgerson, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District.
Formerly, the KPEDD would have data on this type of economic development, but funding cuts lead to the discontinuation of the “Situation and Prospects” publication, which tracked this and other developments in the local area, Torgerson said.
“Expansion of a business is usually a good sign, so hopefully they’ve done their market research, and
know what they’re doing, and will be successful,” he said.
Small, rural Kasilof may seem like a strange place for an outlet to open, but Laster said that the nature of the merchandise makes it a good fit for a nature-centered community.
“We have so many people around here who spend their whole day outdoors, from commercial fishermen to fishing guides and their clients on the river, to hunters, snowmachiners and dog mushers, to (North) Slope employees and other people who work outside. This stuff is basically designed to be better than what they’re probably using now,” he said.
“I know of at least one local musher who was a gear tester for them. They wore this stuff on the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod and they still swear by it, even after going through 40-below temperatures,” he said. “When I heard that, I knew this stuff was good.”
The Mercantile renovated a 10-by-30 storage room at the back of the store behind its fishing supplies. Laster’s father, Bob, another co-owner of the business, spent weeks building cedar shelves and racks to display the coveralls, coats, sweatshirts, gloves and other gear. More lighting was wired into the room, and full-length mirrors were mounted on the walls for potential purchasers to get a gander of themselves in the gear.
“Not a lot of the gear is stuff you’d need a changing room for, but we are still working on getting a few of them in here, too,” Laster said.
Laster said that in the first few weeks of operating the outlet, they sold mostly to tourists who were hunting it down during the cool, rainy days of this past summer.
“We keep getting in blue-lipped, shivering tourists who, until coming up, were in 100-degree temperatures in Texas or California or wherever. Near hypothermic, they come in demanding, ‘The warmest, heavy-duty stuff’ we’ve got,” Laster said.
During one particularly cold, soggy week the store sold five cold-weather jackets in one day, according to Laster. He expects interest to grow among residents, as well.
“Local people are already really excited about it,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if, as word gets out, people from Anchorage start driving to Kasilof to do their outdoor shopping down here.”