Cashing In At The Camp Store

By Mandy Martensen

When attempting to upgrade and improve camps, most people tend to look at program areas and facilities. The one area few people really put time and energy into improving is the trading post/camp store. It’s quite common for camp personnel to purchase products that are cheaply made, at a relatively low cost, and then place them randomly in the store. They are usually displayed without thought as to the proper placement for best exposure. Because the store is an integral part of life at camp, this area should be as thoughtfully arranged as any other program area. It, too, is a reflection of the camp as a whole.

However, overhauling a trading post can be an overwhelming task. I have done this for one camp, and I am in the process of doing it for a second. In following a set process, I have increased sales, found new and better vendors, and increased staff productivity. Below is a five-part, re-organizational strategy that should aid you in undertaking a project of this magnitude. If you follow these steps, you should be able to upgrade the trading post/store in a relatively short and productive period of time.

Phase 1—Inventory Review
Make sure you have a good starting count of the current inventory. Have a single, trustworthy person make the initial count. It’s my experience that having a number of people conduct an inventory results in unnecessary errors. I like to do the inventory on paper with a column for the storage area and a column for what is on the sales floor. This allows me to easily see if I have anything in storage that is not on the sales floor. If an item is not on the floor, it will never sell. Once I have completed the inventory, I compare that with the old one and see how long items have been on the selling floor.

Another area to scrutinize is the percentage of markup used to price goods. The markup percentage should never be lower than 40 percent. Most major retail stores mark up goods at a rate of 50 percent, which is known as keystoning. Some items—like patches—can handle a 200-percent markup. If there are items that have been in the inventory for more than a year, the percentage for pricing goods may be too high. It is time to lower prices. Always check retail prices. You do not want pricing to be massively higher than in local stores. Also, look at packaging—the item won’t sell if the packaging is damaged or yellowing.

Phase 2—Vendor Review And Negotiations
Now that you know what you have, it’s time to check on getting the best wholesale prices. There are several distributors who will allow you to buy in small quantities. Many times, you will be able to negotiate the return of any products at the end of summer camp, provided they are in original condition. If you do enough volume, you may be able to buy direct from the manufacturer, but many times there is a minimum-order dollar amount and/or piece count. When deciding on a vendor, consider the following:

  • Payment terms. Many vendors offer 60- or 90-day terms. Be sure to ask about shipping costs; the size of an order may allow for free shipping. Some distributors offer shipping discounts if you pay on time.
  •  Return policy. Some vendors will offer free returns, but there is a timeframe for this. If you have prices from one vendor but would rather use another, ask the latter to meet or beat the pricing.
  •  Ability to get samples. Samples are a biggie. I like vendors who will send me certain items for free. Some catalogs do not do specific items justice, so actually seeing the item can help in determining its quality and if it would be “right” for the customer and store. You should never have to pay for samples. If a company demands that, avoid that company. Knives are one of the biggest items I always want to see first, for some brands are “cheap,” while others are of good quality and are inexpensive. Make sure you are getting the latter.

Phase 3—Purchasing
Look into industry-related vendor shows for additional opportunities. As a camp administrator, you are part of the outdoor industry. There are some great trade shows where vendors and distributors exhibit most—if not all—of their product line. Ask vendors which shows they attend. Some vendors even have their own showroom where you can browse and touch the products. When you attend tradeshows, remember your customers. As I walk through, I remember that my customer is 11 to 18 years old and only brings about $50 to camp. I am always asking vendors what the retail price of an item is, because at tradeshows, vendors tend to tell what your price is. Don’t be afraid to ask to open an item so you can see and touch it. Industry shows are great because vendors will showcase new items, so you may have them in your store before the larger retailers acquire them.

When deciding on the types of items, use your staff! I like to sit down with the staff members who actually run the store, as they are in the age range of the campers, and they know what the customer is asking for. In reviewing catalogues, I line tables with brown paper, and staff members use scissors and glue to cut out images they think will sell. I ask questions and listen while taking notes. I don’t sway them one way or the other. Once this is done, I take the information and use it to help me pick products when I am at tradeshows.

Phase 4--Merchandising And Displays
This is a critical detail. You can have great products, but if you do not display them properly and well, they won’t sell. For example, our camp had an island display with a bed of rocks, and knives were set on top. The display looked nice, but needed something. Our camp has a mile of Chesapeake River shoreline, so my family and I found some great pieces of driftwood. I redid the display, using the driftwood, and labeled the knives with prices and a location number under the counter so staff could quickly find the knives. This simple and cost-free change increased knife sales the next weekend. Every other kid bought a knife, the third-most popular item (next to patches and candy). Another option for displaying merchandise is to saw logs and cut steps into them.

Consider putting like items together on the walls. I have personal items, such as lights, bike repair, knife sharpening, fire building, camping, etc. Once you group similar items, make them look nice: use the same length hooks as well as neat rows and columns. Displays do not have to be expensive; look around the camp for resources. Also, talk to vendors—sometimes they will supply free displays and signs, or if you buy $X in products, the displays are free. Be sure to check out local craft stores, as they always have coupons, and you can easily repurpose something. Think outside the box.

Phase 5--Marketing And Branding
Trading posts/camp stores often have a reputation for having low-quality items, so when you have refurbished the inventory, market it. Staff members at my camp told me they didn’t go to the trading post because the products were not of good quality. Now, when they come in, they are amazed and excited to see all of the work we have done. Facebook and your website are great tools—use them to your advantage. Post pictures of new and unique items, or show off the new logo items.

The other great marketing tool is the camp staff itself. Because campers look up to the staff, they want what the staff has. This summer, with all of the new items, I offered staff members a discount. I also got my knife vendors to send me samples of what I sell in our store and gave those knives to our Scoutcraft staff, which they used all summer. The campers like them and then ask where the staff got them.

I also look at branding with my staff. If a product sells well and I can get the camp logo put on it for the same cost (or for a slight increase) I see that as free advertising for the camp. But be careful—you don’t want to fall into the branding trap where you have to buy a large minimum quantity. Rule of thumb—if the item is popular—put a logo on it. 

Keep The Momentum
Now that you’ve made it through the overhaul, don’t stop there. There are countless ways to continue to improve the camp store. For instance, when I am outside the camp and see a cool product or display, I photograph it to see if it will work in my store. This is why I enjoy working the weekends outside of the summer season; it gives me an opportunity to watch the flow and see what is selling and what customers are looking for.

Throughout the summer, listen to what customers are asking for. Keep watch for new items in the industry that may become available during the summer. Order accordingly. Keep the products in your store new and different. By the end of the summer, you should have a clear idea of your best-selling items. Return what you can. Remember, if you keep doing what you have always done, you will continue to get what you have always gotten.

Mandy Martensen is the Business Manager for Rodney Scout Reservation Del-Mar-Va Council, BSA, in North East, Md. Reach her at