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Growing UK retailer expands into the Waterloo market


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Mountain Warehouse only opened in Waterloo this month, but clearly store manager Nancy Zajac knows what she’s doing.

The Elmira local was visited by the company’s owner and vice-president this week, all the way from England. Only two weeks into the store’s opening in Conestoga Mall, they were impressed with how well received it’s been so far.

“I was just asked by the owner of the company, why do you guys think you’re doing so well? There are many reasons,” Zajac said. “When the VP came the other day I was highlighting there’s so much in this area to do. I was handing over brochures saying look at what you can do. Within 20 minutes, within an hour, within two hours of here, we have skiing, we have hiking and camping, cottages, swimming, everything. I say it’s because this area is very active. We are very into being outdoors.”

The staff at Mountain Warehouse come from a variety of sporting backgrounds to better help customers.[Whitney Neilson / The Observer]
The staff at Mountain Warehouse come from a variety of sporting backgrounds to better help customers. [Whitney Neilson / The Observer]
Zajac previously worked at Aeropostale for five years, where she was known for spearheading the Jeans for Teens campaign – collecting jeans for local homeless youth. She plans to continue her volunteering efforts in some fashion with Mountain Warehouse.

She’d like to use her role at Mountain Warehouse to get local Boy Scouts and Girl Guides groups involved. Interested groups can contact her about setting up a time to come in to learn how to properly pack a backpack, what to include in an emergency kit, or any other outdoors related activities. Boy Scouts and Girl Guides will get 10 per cent off at the store.

“Retail is not necessarily respected, but it’s so interesting because I feel like I’m actually contributing to society, to our community. That’s why I get involved with so many volunteer things because community matters to me and I really want to be a part of it,” Zajac said.

One of the keys to the company’s success is cutting out the middleman. They go straight to the supplier to purchase stock, that way everything they sell is a Mountain Warehouse product and customers aren’t paying for the mark up of another brand name.

This means their prices are typically lower than their competitors’, she says.

“Everybody has a limited amount of money. I want when you spend it, I want you to feel good about it, and I want you to get your money’s worth,” Zajac said.

Now, she’s off to Chicago until the end of the month to set up an outlet store for the company. Despite the fact the Waterloo store just opened August 1, she’s been busy training and setting up stores across Ontario since May.

When hiring her staff, she made sure she covered her bases. She has employees knowledgeable about fishing, camping, soccer, rock climbing, and the list goes on.

“I don’t downhill ski but I’ve got a couple employees that ski. My dad fishes, I don’t fish. I’ve got people here that fish. My assistant, she’s going on a hunting trip. We can support so many different people, so I needed a staff that has a diverse background,” Zajac said.

She says their biggest sellers so far have been the backpacks, or rucksacks as they’re called in England, and sleeping bags. Having a wide variety with lots of different features has helped them sell themselves.

Come fall, she expects jackets to be a big seller, along with more rucksacks as school season nears.

“I’m hoping people really start to notice our footwear. And come fall people are smart and they buy their winter stuff mid-October. We’re going to have ski packages for kids and adults and the price will be shocking, how good the price is,” Zajac said.

They’re planning to hold a ski night at the store November 5.

She says customers have taken to the store well so far and are relieved they don’t have to travel to other cities to purchase their outdoor equipment. The store is also fitting in well because so many people in the region are travelers.

“It’s amazing to hear all the stories of all these people,” Zajac said. “We have multiple families coming in going to Mount Kilimanjaro. I have students that are starting their coop semester and they’re doing environmental work in the Yukon. I’ve got a retired couple that are going to Norway.”

The first customers who walked in the door the day they opened spend their winters in Hawaii, so they were buying clothes that dry quickly.

Zajac notes they’ve got a kids section with clothes and footwear for all seasons, especially products which will keep them warm and dry in the winter.

“Even just as a retailer you have a responsibility to your customers, to the mall, to the community at large,” Zajac said. “I love that I get to contribute in so many ways, whether it’s helping a customer out that’s having a hard day, it’s making that child try something on and feel good about themselves, that’s huge. I want kids to be proud of who they are and be confident in what they’re wearing.”

While a job in retail might sound boring to some people, two days are never the same for Zajac. She says she loves the visual challenge of creating the store windows, alongside analyzing the business numbers, but most importantly working with her staff.

“I get to shine in so many different areas and I love developing my people. Ultimately, it comes down to people, the people that I choose to have with me, and I love when they care. I empower people like crazy,” Zajac said.

The company is slowly expanding into North America, with more stores in Canada than the U.S. right now. Founded in 1997, there are more than 200 stores in the UK and Europe.

“It’s been a difficult time in retail for the past four years. But this is a company that’s incredibly successful in the UK and they’re expanding. Not too many companies right now in retail are expanding,” Zajac said.

She added, “It’s just exciting to be in a company that’s doing well.”

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