When the Fires Came, the Store Went Online


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Winthrop Mountain Sports went 40 years without needing to sell its outdoor gear online. Even the coronavirus pandemic didn’t change the owners’ plans. But the wildfires did.

Tourists flock to Winthrop, a few hours’ drive east of Seattle, to ski, hike or drive through a beautiful stretch of the Cascade Mountains. Like many outdoor recreation stores, sales at Winthrop Mountain Sports were solid during most of the pandemic.

Marine Bjornsen, one of the store’s owners and a former elite biathlete and skier, told me that there hadn’t been plans to sell products online now. “It is something that we wanted to do, but we didn’t think that we were going to do it this year,” she said. “Then the fires came.”

During the past month, two large wildfires have isolated Winthrop from the world and choked the valley with smoke. The store stayed open but didn’t sell much beyond discounted boots and shirts to firefighters. Sales dropped by about 80 percent in July compared with the same month in past years, Bjornsen said.

Less than two weeks ago, Winthrop Mountain Sports began selling products on its website to reach customers who couldn’t or wouldn’t come to the store — slowly at first with a few types of items to see how it went. That makes Winthrop Mountain Sports a test of what it’s like to start an e-commerce site in 2021, in the twin crises of a pandemic and wildfires.

One of the themes that I keep coming back to are the nuanced ways that technology makes things both better and worse for business owners, a teacher, a rabbi and the rest of us. Selling online gives Bjornsen new opportunities to boost her business, but it also imposes fresh burdens and puts her store in direct competition with everyone else selling outdoor gear on the internet — including giants like Amazon and REI.

The good news is that starting an e-commerce site has never been easier. Stuck inside because of the unhealthy air, Bjornsen said that she devoted her time to adding product photos and descriptions to the Winthrop Mountain Sports website.

It helped that the store was already using software from a company called Lightspeed to track inventory. If Bjornsen sold 10 pairs of hiking boots in the store, she wouldn’t mistakenly try to sell them online, too. This isn’t fancy, no, but a lot of small-business owners don’t have the time, money or expertise to nail the tech basics.

Bjornsen said she and her employees were still learning how to manage a store and an online business at the same time. For each online order, they must enter the weight and dimensions manually, affix a shipping label and get the package out with UPS or another service. Bjornsen said that she has been dropping off some orders herself at a delivery depot on her way home. She and her employees talk through questions with people who want to order online, too.

Bjornsen said that it’s too soon to know how the store’s finances might be affected if more of its sales shift from in person to the web. “It’s a lot of work,” she said. “The margin will be less, but it’s better than not selling.”

Selling online allows the store to reach customers in new ways and many people expect to be able to buy online, she said, but Winthrop Mountain Sports wouldn’t survive as an online-only store. “We have a shop and a community around us,” she said.

Marine and Erik Bjornsen retired from skiing and relocated from Alaska in December, after they and others bought Winthrop Mountain Sports from its longtime owner. To put it mildly, it’s been an unpredictable period to run a retail store for the first time.

“If we had the business for 10 years, then one summer doesn’t seem like a big deal,” she said. “You can be a little more level headed. But because we don’t have that it’s a little stressful.” Bjornsen said that she hopes “we will have a good winter and forget about this.”

Tip of the Week

With more businesses mandating proof of vaccination against Covid-19, our consumer tech columnist Brian X. Chen walks through the steps of saving a digital vaccination record within easy reach on your phone:

Here in California, I recently requested my digital vaccination record from the California Department of Public Health. (The way to request one varies from state to state — look up your health department’s website for instructions.)

After entering my information, I received a text message with a link to a QR code, a type of digital bar code, that contained the information about my vaccination record. From here, I had to figure out the best way to store the bar code on my phone.

The quickest method, I concluded, was to take a screenshot of the record and attach the image to a note. This way, I could find my vaccination record with a keyword search or by scrolling through my notes app.

Here’s how to do that:

On iPhones:

  • When the image editing toolbar appears, tap the button in the upper-right corner that looks like a square with an arrow pointing upward. In the row of apps, swipe to the Notes app and select it. Here, save the image to a new note.

On Android phones:

(My colleague J.D. Biersdorfer has more tips on carrying vaccine proof on a phone, and The Washington Post has another helpful guide.)

  • Are you eager to participate in a work meeting in virtual reality? Mark Zuckerberg says you are. My colleague Mike Isaac gave it a try and explained Facebook’s belief in VR and other “technology that gives you this sense of presence.”

  • Helping inform Afghans, at a risk to themselves: Rest of World writes about a company called Ehtesab in Kabul that generates smartphone alerts to inform people about bomb blasts, roadblocks, electricity shortages and other problems. The founder, Sara Wahedi, is worried that the nature of the service makes Ehtesab staff a target for a Taliban crackdown.

  • How do you prove an illegal monopoly? A judge in June told the U.S. government that it needed to show evidence that Facebook had a commanding share of social networking. The Federal Trade Commission reworked its antitrust lawsuit on Thursday, and my colleague Cecilia Kang notes that it may be difficult to apply U.S. laws to areas of tech where dominance is not necessarily easy to define.

Puppies in a cart! Puppies! In a cart!

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