Outdoor Retailers and Experienced Staff

3:14 p.m. on October 15, 2012 (EDT)
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Since the thread about customers butting in on conversations between sales staff and other customers began, there's something that's been bugging me.

Our local MEC store (like REI) got a new manager last year, and one of the rules he put into place was that all staff had to be available to work every weekend. Until then, the majority of people working there in the evenings and on weekends were part-timers, most of them doing it for the pro-deals, and because they enjoyed sharing their experience.

It meant that when you asked a staff member for advice, they usually had a good idea how to help you, and because they weren't on commission they were more interested in getting you the right gear than making a big sale. Of course, they were getting their experience by taking to the mountains most weekends, so when the new policy came into force, one by one they quit.

As a result, the store is now staffed by a few old-timers; the rest of them are kids who know little about the equipment and are severely lacking in actual experience. While they may have a love of the outdoors, their advice is often ill-informed and sometimes even dangerous. Some might have done some climbing in a gym, but are trying to answer questions about real mountain ascents. Others might have done a lot of camping with their buddies, but have no idea what kind of equipment is needed for lightweight backpacking.

Before the policy change, I saw things like the man (a high school principal who really didn't need the money) spend a full three hours outfitting two kids with complete sets of AT ski gear. I picked up a lot of good tips from a retired ACMG mountain guide who worked there, and never had a problem getting an honest opinion from a staff member as to what was good and what wasn't. When I needed new boots, there was always someone around who was willing to trundle out a dozen different kinds for me to try on.

After the changes, I witnessed things like the woman who, when asked for a McMurdo Fastfind believed the customer was talking about a SPOT. When he explained the difference, she said they didn't sell them. Because we were talking about something that was potentially life-or-death for the customer, I'm afraid I interrupted and pointed out the Fastfind displayed in the cabinet in front of her.

I had to deal with the aftermath of the kid who, when asked by one of my newbies what kind of food to carry for backpacking, told her to buy a big bag of beef jerky, and who sold her a $300 dollar backpack that didn't fit and overpriced boots that were a size too small.

Then there was the guy who told me the waistbelt on a pack couldn't transfer any weight to the hips unless it was at least three inches wide. I think he was trying to sell me something a bit more expensive than the old Outbound pack I have.

And now at that same 'cooperative' store, I have to caution new and enthusiastic hikers to watch out for the professional sales guys who will happily sell them thousands of dollars worth of stuff they don't need.

As a consequence, I've been going through my list of sponsors and making a point of doing an anonymous visit to see what kind of stuff they try to sell me. If they're just trying to scam me, they're off my website with an explanation sent to the management about why I did it.

So tell me, am I being too harsh? Does caveat emptor apply here? The interest in websites like this suggests otherwise, that people just aren't getting honest and accurate information about the equipment upon which their life (or at least their enjoyment of the outdoors) might rely. And I think that's why the advice of people who know the differences between the newest-latest-greatest gear and what actually works in real-life is so important.

By the way, this isn't a shot at anyone here. I think that retailers who take enough interest in the equipment they sell to come here and read the reviews is probably a bit more responsible and conscientious than a kid who picked that store over working at McDonalds.

5:54 p.m. on October 15, 2012 (EDT)
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My initial thought is that I don't think you are being to harsh. Speaking just for myself I don't think caveat emptor is a legitimate excuse when there is a lack of professionalism, or when any deceptive tactics are employed, by the selling party. Although it is generally good advise for the buyer.

In other words I feel like "Let the buyer beware" should be a warning & protection for the consumer like in the case of "no warranty" - not an excuse for unprofessional or unethical marketing.

I have three local outfitters, I have mostly been pleased with the staffs willingness to help me in the store, but less so with their actual ability to do so.

I usually know exactly what I am buying before I get to the store, but on the occasions that the staff has tried to interest me in something extra (e.g. -water filters) I haven't been too impressed with their product knowledge.

If the stores could pay what I am earning at my current job I would go to work at one, but I can't pay my bills on what I understand they pay.

Mike G.

6:25 p.m. on October 15, 2012 (EDT)
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I too have experienced the same thing, but with a twist. theres no one in the store to help you. when it comes to buying gear, you're on your own. this usually isn't a problem for me because I know what I want, but I could see it being a problem for some people. The store has the gear, just no salespeople.

10:54 a.m. on October 16, 2012 (EDT)
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I don't think you're being too harsh. I've worked in a lot of different outdoor stores, some of which took staff training seriously, and some that didn't. Store managers have a responsibility to hire appropriate staff, train the ones without the requisite knowledge, and assign appropriate staff to the right departments.  I spent a lot of time as "shoe guy" and one of my colleagues was "gps dude." I could sell a GPS, but couldn't provide the best advice about the relative merits of different units, so I wasn't assigned there.

5:26 p.m. on October 16, 2012 (EDT)
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a lot of this resonates for me.  i was a part-timer at eastern mountain sports when i was young.  if i had not been able to take advantage of everything the Vermont/New Hampshire outdoors had to offer in my spare time, i would not have been nearly as good at my part-time job.  the quality of advice at our local REI varies considerably.  i have seen excellent work fitting people with backpacks and other gear, but i have also seen embarrassingly inexperienced "advice" that probably steers people to stuff they don't need or that won't work for their purpose.  it's unfortunate. 

 

 

9:14 p.m. on October 17, 2012 (EDT)
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peter1955 said:

"...the majority of people working there in the evenings and on weekends were part-timers, most of them doing it for the pro-deals, and because they enjoyed sharing their experience.

It meant that when you asked a staff member for advice, they usually had a good idea how to help you, and because they weren't on commission they were more interested in getting you the right gear than making a big sale. Of course, they were getting their experience by taking to the mountains most weekends, so when the new policy came into force, one by one they quit."

First and foremost, I'll say that I am bothered by the fact that a lot of people work on commission in a retailer that outfits people for activities that could very easily lead to serious injury if they are ill equipped. However, a lot of people wrongfully assume that many of those stores have associates working on commission. I can say, with my current job, that no one in our store works on commission, though we are pushed by management to upsell higher end products. That doesn't mean that we do. I know that what you said is just a generalization, but if you get to know a lot of those people, you will realize that the majority do their best to properly outfit people for the activities they plan on doing. I'll explain a lot more below.

"As a result, the store is now staffed by a few old-timers; the rest of them are kids who know little about the equipment and are severely lacking in actual experience. While they may have a love of the outdoors, their advice is often ill-informed and sometimes even dangerous. Some might have done some climbing in a gym, but are trying to answer questions about real mountain ascents. Others might have done a lot of camping with their buddies, but have no idea what kind of equipment is needed for lightweight backpacking."

Hey hey, take it easy tossing the word "kid" around. As far as knowledge of the equipment goes, a lot of the time in a major retailer, you aren't compartmentalized based on your product knowledge. You may be assigned to a section (for instance, the camping department), however, I don't just sell tents. I don't just sell backpacks. I don't just sell sleeping bags. I'll give you a broad scope which includes all of the aforementioned things as well as: standard camping equipment (lanterns and the like), kayaks and canoes, grills and smokers, etc. I have done a lot of backpacking, I hike almost every day off that I have, and I camp 2-3 nights a week year round, and I've been kayaking since I was 7, however, if you ask me a question about meat processing or making jerky, I'll probably stare at you like a deer in the headlights. Much the same, I share the department with people who camp maybe, twice a year, or consider camping staying at Motel 6 for the weekend. It all comes down to individual experience. Major retails usually aren't specialty stores. Out of the 75% of my department that is actual camping gear, I'd say only 10% of that isn't equipment much better suited to family camping. There are more weekend and family campers than backpackers and so that's what the store tailors to and what most of the general knowledge you'll encounter is pertinent to.

Before the policy change, I saw things like the man (a high school principal who really didn't need the money) spend a full three hours outfitting two kids with complete sets of AT ski gear. I picked up a lot of good tips from a retired ACMG mountain guide who worked there, and never had a problem getting an honest opinion from a staff member as to what was good and what wasn't. When I needed new boots, there was always someone around who was willing to trundle out a dozen different kinds for me to try on.

After the changes, I witnessed things like the woman who, when asked for a McMurdo Fastfind believed the customer was talking about a SPOT. When he explained the difference, she said they didn't sell them. Because we were talking about something that was potentially life-or-death for the customer, I'm afraid I interrupted and pointed out the Fastfind displayed in the cabinet in front of her.

I see both sides of this situation daily in my store. Again,it all depends on who you find. If the stores weren't usually hard up for people because there is such a high turnover (usually do to the low-paying nature of our jobs) there would probably be a lot more refined hiring process that ensured those people were more experienced. I've been training a new guy for the last month that I'm still surprised got in, even with our extremely basic product knowledge test. 

And now at that same 'cooperative' store, I have to caution new and enthusiastic hikers to watch out for the professional sales guys who will happily sell them thousands of dollars worth of stuff they don't need.

This is a terrible, terrible thing to say, but I honestly end up snagging a lot of people as they're walking out of the section who have already been "helped." Again, I we don't work on commission, but we have had associates upsell things to customers because it's what we're taught to do. I heard another associate say that The North Face is a lot better known and so their pack is better than the one the customer had already decided on. What was this horrible pack being compared to TNF bag? A perfectly good Kelty. Why was he telling him that the Kelty wasn't any good compared to TNF? He had never heard of the brand. Obviously not a backpacker. In our department, we try to get the newer associates to defer a lot of questions and then watch and listen so they can expand their product knowledge, but then again a 55 year old man doesn't often like to be the new guy compared to a 20 year old, so pride gets in the way. Be careful of the people whom you get to help you ina store. It's luck of the draw, you can get the veteran, or you can get the new guy.

So tell me, am I being too harsh? Does caveat emptor apply here? The interest in websites like this suggests otherwise, that people just aren't getting honest and accurate information about the equipment upon which their life (or at least their enjoyment of the outdoors) might rely. And I think that's why the advice of people who know the differences between the newest-latest-greatest gear and what actually works in real-life is so important.

By the way, this isn't a shot at anyone here. I think that retailers who take enough interest in the equipment they sell to come here and read the reviews is probably a bit more responsible and conscientious than a kid who picked that store over working at McDonalds.

 You are not at all being too harsh. Honestly, I'm sure more than 50% of the people employed by our store are either there just for a discount or they just want a steady paycheck, both of which are nice things to have. The only thing we can really do is be a good example to new associates and hope they either defer to people who are a bit more experienced within the department. It also is a lot of building on oneself. For instance, when I started (I was 18) I hadn't had much experience grilling, and I had never used a smoker before. I started to use our grill at home and eventually even bought a smoker so that I had experience and could talk about it confidently. Every so often, I still have a question that I can't answer, and I'm very forward about that. I'd rather have the person know that I'm not sure than try to bullshit my way through it, because on the back end, it'll come back around. 

In addition to what all I said above as far as how the store operates, a lot of it depends on the management of the store. For example, I have been sat down and talked to about something I do often: deferring customers to our competitors. This will give you a bit more insight as to why those people try to upsell you, or sell you improper gear.

People are taught a definition of customer service that is far from that. I don't know how you all feel, but I feel that good customer service is trying to set up a person with the equipment that is best for them. Sometimes, I am approached by someone with a need for something specific, or they ask for something specific. I'd much rather send them to say, Cabela's or Scheels to buy it if we don't carry it, than try to send them off with something that isn't as well made. You can understand why this is frustrating to a manager, but to a customer, the fact that you are straight with them about it shows them that you're working in their best interest and guess what? They come back. They go and buy something somewhere else, but guess where they come first the next time they need something? Who do you think they come to tell the story of their summer trip up into the Adirondacks? Building up a good rapport is a lot more important than selling the most stuff or the most expensive stuff.

Why then, might you ask, is it such a bad thing? Why do the managers come up and talk at you for it? Because they get a bonus when the department meets or exceeds sales goals. That $150 backpack they bought somewhere else instead of the $300 you could have sold them is a loss to their department, and then you have to make that up in order to meet the goal. There is a difference between customer and company service. I'm a consumer too, and I have a really small mom 'n pop store that I go to for most of my technical gear because of their service. 

Also, the customer who interrupted me wasn't doing so because I was misinforming the customer, or trying to sell them the "wrong equipment" for their needs. He just thought that he had something to contribute to the conversation upon overhearing it, but was a lot less helpful than he was rude in doing so. I work with several hundred different people on a daily basis, and I have learned a lot from those people that contribute in that way, and oftentimes, a little bit of different perspective is a really good thing for someone who is new to something to hear, but please, don't be "that guy" if you can avoid it. 

My best advice is to build a relationship as a customer with an associate that you know has experience or has the knowledge you're looking for, and if no one does, then maybe you can teach them a little bit about something. I have learned a ton (especially about smoking and meat processing) just by talking to people that come in looking for stuff. 

Also, remember not to judge a book by it's cover. I am the youngest person in my section by far, but I am usually the one people get referred to when they walk in looking for camping help because of my experience.

P.S. Sorry for the novel.

10:50 a.m. on October 18, 2012 (EDT)
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I don't show up at a retailer with a lot of money and no idea of what to buy.  I buy 90% of my gear online after careful research. 

The fact of the retail world is that they are there to take your money.  They feed their families from your purchases.  Many sales people are extremely conscientious and I have been turned away from local outdoor suppliers who have told me that the stuff they are selling is not what I need. 

The other sad fact is that retailers can not afford to hire people who have tons of expierence because that takes time and many of those experts have families to support which can't always be done on retail wages--I've tried it. 

 

 

 

Jeff

11:11 a.m. on October 18, 2012 (EDT)
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Whew! Take a breath, buddy! :-) No personal insults intended. A retailer who comes here to read what people have to say about the equipment are a big step above a simple sales clerk.

I agree with you that a lot of the problem comes from management. As I said, this all happened with the hiring of a new manager who was presumably out to show how good he was.

Stores like Cabelas or Bass Pro Shops (legitimately) have to cater to anybody and everybody who might want outdoor equipment of any kind, while Mountain Equipment Coop used to carry mostly the more specialized gear, such as equipment for climbing or UL hiking. That meant they used to be looking for staff who could offer the best advice, not just somebody who could make a sale.

And as you point out, I built a relationship with many of the people. I'd hiked and climbed with some of them, and knew others from repeated contact at the store or through the various clubs. Selling a customer equipment that's too expensive or wrong for their purpose might work as a one-shot, but when the customer realizes he's been taken for a ride, he won't be coming back. That doesn't happen when the staff you're dealing with really do have your best interests at heart.

12:16 p.m. on October 24, 2012 (EDT)
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The outdoors and people that sell outdoor equipment have always been full of blowhards with little experience that are long on opinions but short on experience.  It is up to us to ferret out the truth.  This has been the case in the US for at least 125 years.

9:12 p.m. on October 25, 2012 (EDT)
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I learn everyday, but sometimes it's not the sale's person it's me.  I have been trying to lighten my load and been having a great time, but after reading a few books and reviews I think I'm expert on whats the best gear to buy that I don't need.  I just went to REI and yes I know not everyone knows everything, but if you explain to them that you going to do, most of the time they will tell you in so many words that you're wasting your time.  I feel that ppine you're correct that you need to use sites like Trailspace to find out what is good or not, but also only on the trail can you know what you really need or not, and experience only comes with time and sometimes failure.   Nothing is worst then having equipment fail or buying something you never use.  One last thing when asking question to sales persons you'll know soon if they know what they're talking about, and if they don't know ask someone else or leave.

2:45 a.m. on October 26, 2012 (EDT)
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Peter, I have seen the same thing for a number of years. REI, has gone much more corporate, which is good for the shareholders(I've been one since 1963) but not so good if you want the lowdown on gear. When Lloyd Anderson started REI in'38, it was to bring good gear into the US at an affordable price. He and the others who helped REI had real world experience. Jim Whittaker, recently off of Everest, fitted me with my first pair of boots. Today, except for a few old timers, most at REI have have a lot less experience. To be fair, REI can't attract the Jim Whittakers anymore and hasn't been able to for a generation. Smaller shops still have folks who love their various sport niches and do a pretty good job. Feathered Friends, OR, etc. still have very knowledgeable staff. In order for any large retailer to stay in business, they have to have a large staff, and frankly, working for 10 bucks an hour selling socks on a week end when you could be climbing or skiing, just doesn't attract many with solid experience. I give full credit to the experienced folks who stick with it because they want to help people buy the right gear.

I should also mention that if a customer gets good products at a reasonable price, they are likely to return. Sell them something they don't really need, and sooner or later, they'll figure it out and not come back. 

11:21 a.m. on October 29, 2012 (EDT)
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Erich,

I like your story about Jim Whittaker and your boots.  I joined in 1968 and used to wait in line all night for the annual sale at the old main store in Seattle when I was a grad student there.

I was in the new main store last July with my 88 year old Dad that did a lot of backpacking in Washington in the 1930s and 40s.  He supplied my first backpack in 1961, an old Trapper Nelson.  I had a lively exchange with 2 young sales guys at the store.  They had experience and knowledge, but it was only from the last couple of years.  Their views were narrow, but appropriate for what the store had to sell.  While looking at a wall of internal frame packs, I asked why they didn't have one external frame pack for sale in the whole main store..."I really don't know why." he said.

The outdoors industry has been taken over by Madison Avenue salesmen and slick advertising.  There is a lot of money to be made.  The fall of "Outside" magazine from grace is a good example.  People think they need Expresso makers and latest fabic and colors.  The old ways are the best ways.  There are some new materials that have been made available in the last few decades, but the basic concepts haven't really changed in the last 40 years.  The lighter ethic is new however, and liberating for many especially we older guys.  After looking at all the new stuff, Dad was unimpressed.

3:23 p.m. on October 29, 2012 (EDT)
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your right, ppine...the whole outdoors scene has been taken over by yuppies!

5:41 p.m. on October 29, 2012 (EDT)
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Trailjester said:

your right, ppine...the whole outdoors scene has been taken over by yuppies!

LOL The same store I mention above now carries extensive product lines for yoga and urban cycling! Once upon a time they sold real gear. Once, it was the only place in town you could buy stuff like crampons or an ice axe, a backpacking stove, a UL tent, a climbing rope, or a really good pair of boots.

Seriously? Yoga?

3:18 a.m. on October 30, 2012 (EDT)
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ppine, you are right that much of the outdoor industry is market driven, but then it always was, to a certain extent. The market has changed. 50 years ago, it was common for those vacationing in the outdoors to take several weeks or even months on a trip. Gear was needed that would last. Today, the majority of enthusiasts spend little more than a long week end exploring. Their needs are more important to suppliers than the needs of someone like my son, who is a counselor at Keewaydin. Most staff and campers at the worlds oldest canoe camp, will go through a pair of boots in a season. The chosen pant is a "dickies" like the UPS folks wear. Durability is key, but then they are out in the bush for six or seven weeks at a stretch. If someone is only going to use a particular type of gear for a couple of week ends a summer, it can be made much lighter, possibly cheaper, and will appeal to the majority of the market. However, there are still markets for gear that is more durable over the long run. Ft. McPherson Tents still makes some the best canvas wall tents around. They are heavy and expensive, but they sell everything they can produce because they are a proven durable product.

11:41 a.m. on October 31, 2012 (EDT)
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Erich,

Talking with you on the forum is a pleasure.  There is definitely a difference between the weekenders and people that spend their lives outdoors.  I have a wall tent from Colorado Tent and Awning that is 31 years old and still looks new.  The company is out of business but their stuff lives on.  I value tradition and stuff that lasts.  Many gear heads have a different mind set that the latest stuff is the best, and they are always ready to update their equipment.

I enjoy using a rifle, Dutch oven, axe, etc. that I have inhierited from relatives.  They are with me every time I go "out there."

4:02 p.m. on October 31, 2012 (EDT)
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The weight of modern gear is a huge factor. Back in the day I remember humping 60-70 lbs for a three-day backpacking trip. Heavy stove, heavy tent, heavy food, heavy sleeping bag, heavy pack and heavy clothes. It meant that most of my backpacking was limited to low-elevation slogs through the bush (or canoe trips where weight was less of a factor) because of all the weight I had to carry.

Now I can carry the same amount of equipment at only 40 lbs (or less), and I'm not as limited in where I can go by having to be a packmule for my gear. Instead of being stuck at ground level, I can get up a mountain pass or two.

And with all due respect for those who went before, I don't think there is any doubt that a lot of modern gear works better. Sure, wool socks keep your feet warm, but Smartwool doesn't itch and it doesn't shrink as badly.

I can give you a dozen examples, from snowshoes to rain gear to tents, but personally I see no particular virtue in doing things the old way just because that's the way they used to do it. And if I can get where I want to with a bit less pain, I'll happily do it.

4:22 p.m. on October 31, 2012 (EDT)
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maybe you might want to do some yoga along the way...:P

1:29 a.m. on November 1, 2012 (EDT)
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peter and ppine; Yes there is a reason to adopt new technology. But it is not always obvious. We seriously have to consider our needs. I use what works for ME. What works for others may be much different. There have been many improvements in gear choices over the years. Voyageurs changed from loin cloths to trousers in the 1800s. The key is to understand the usage and the need. If you are trapping muskrat in the spring and fishing for salmon in the fall, a good durable wall tent of canvas, will doubtless be the best option. If you are doing a randonee route in the North Cascades, a simple Bibler Tent is the way to go. The key is, not to get stuck in a rut of sorts. If you want to be out all summer, wading in creeks and marshes, a Limmer will not be the premier choice.

I also have to advocate that these days, marketing is tool that sometimes sends people astray. We all want the lightest, but sometimes we want gear that lasts. With the economy down, I don't want rain gear that self destructs in the second year of use.

IMHO we have to recommend gear based upon needs. Are you out for a week a year, or a month? Do you want the lightest or the most durable. or something in between? Sometimes IMHO, we are so driven buy the lightest(or the cheapest) that we forget about the most important part, does it work for us, does it meet our needs?

Erich

9:31 a.m. on November 1, 2012 (EDT)
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Absolutely, Ehrich!

Everybody here is entitled to' hike his own hike', with due respect from everybody in this community. I like to think we have more in common than our differing tastes in equipment. We all have different requirements, from ultralight peak bagging to setting up a long-term camp in the forest.

That being said, this is ultimately (as it says at the top of the page) an "Outdoor Gear Community" rather than a discussion of lifestyles or preferences.

I am quite interested in reading complete and detailed reviews of every kind of equipment. That's why I initially came to this site, after all.

Generalities about which gear is better are pointless without a basis for comparison. As detailed in the suggestions for writing a good equipment review, many factors have to be considered, including technical specifications like weight, materials and cost, and actual performance and usage as demonstrated under different conditions on matching trip reports.

I've noticed that many of the reports include references to which equipment worked and which didn't. I've tried to adopt that in my own trip reports and reviews, and I would like to see similar information for some of the older gear that includes how it worked on a recent trip.

This has been quite the thread drift, though! Perhaps someone would like to start a different thread specifically for comparing traditional gear with more modern equipment.

11:51 a.m. on November 1, 2012 (EDT)
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Peter, it is probably time to put this thread to rest. I will say(and this references the marketing aspect) Eddie Bauer recently launched back into real outdoor gear. This harkens back to the days when Eddie Bauer down clothes were the best around. Their new line is designed for use. An interesting note is that in an article a couple of years ago, one of the climber/designers commented that they were eliminating the trendy multiple pockets and extra zippers for something that was more functional and less likely to fail.

For canoeing, I went from using lightweight dry bags to canvas Duluth packs with liners. The Duluths are certainly heavier, and they are perhaps a bit more expensive, but I got tired of leaky dry bags.

You are spot on when you say the best reviews include use and failures. And while a "first look" review might be an interesting read, I tend to live with my gear for a year before I feel I have really given it a chance.

9:34 a.m. on November 2, 2012 (EDT)
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I agree, Ehrich. Care to start that alternate thread I mentioned?

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