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Vann’s, the largest independent retailer in Montana, is positioning itself to become even larger.

The 50-year-old appliance and electronics store is venturing into the world of outdoor recreation over the next few months.

Called “Big Sky Country,” Vann’s specialty outdoor retail shop – found online at www.bigskycountry.com – will be a national online store that goes live in early 2011, said Matt Ranta, Vann’s marketing manager.

The company won’t disclose any more details about its broad step beyond appliance and electronics sales. Yet a high-end video Vann’s is sharing with prospective merchandising vendors (www.pieceofthesky.com) speaks volumes about the company’s intent.

“It’s called Big Sky Country for a reason,” says the video’s male narrator. “The possibilities are endless.”

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For certain, Vann’s bold new frontier is causing concern among Montana retailers who have been selling outdoors gear for decades.

Among their many worries: Vann’s significant buying power will allow the company to undercut prices found in Montana’s smaller storefront shops.

“Competition is competition,” said Scott Foster, owner of Lone Mountain Sports in Big Sky. “But what they are doing is detrimental to the established shops that are already here and hurting their fellow Montanans who have been in this business a long time.

“It would be like me going into electronics when my expertise is in ski equipment. I leave it up to Vann’s to sell electronics, the niche they created for themselves, as I created a niche for myself.”

Over the years, Vann’s has become a powerful online retailer, learning how to navigate the electronics marketplace – and becoming so savvy the company was honored in 2008 by Inc. Magazine 5000 for being among the fastest-growing private companies in America that are changing the business landscape.

Last December, Consumer Reports ranked Vann’s No. 1 in the category “Best Electronics” for online retailers.

Montana’s smaller outdoor retailers don’t begrudge Vann’s success, but it is precisely because of that success they fear the company’s new direction will change the state’s outdoor retail landscape.

Furthermore, many of those same small retailers feel Vann’s betrayed sporting goods store Bob Ward’s.

Several years ago, Vann’s was hired to develop Bob Ward’s online presence.

“From the outside looking in, it appears that Bob Ward’s unwittingly trained Vann’s to become one of their biggest competitors,” said Todd Frank, owner of the Trail Head in Missoula. “It’s as if the person you trusted most to help you develop a new facet to your business turned around and took the information they gained and went into direct competition with you.”

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Chad Ward, who helps guide his family’s statewide chain from its Missoula headquarters, acknowledged the two businesses have worked closely together over the decades. His grandfather, Irvine Ward, and Vann’s founder, Pete Vann, teamed up to support and promote each other’s businesses in the early years, he said.

In the beginning, the two businesses were even neighbors, operating out of a site near the infamous Malfunction Junction in midtown Missoula.

That close business relationship continued even as leadership changed and the founders retired, Ward said.

“Back in the late ’90s, the current management at Vann’s was looking at possibly getting involved in website design for other businesses,” Ward explained. “They worked with us to design and develop our first online store, and then supported our efforts over the course of approximately seven to eight years.”

As for Vann’s creation of Big Sky Country, Ward commented: “What they learned from us and the impact that that may have had on their decision to make an attempt to get into sporting goods retail, you would have to ask the executives at Vann’s.”

For their part, those Vann’s executives declined to comment.

At the Round House in Bozeman, Larry Merkel has seen Vann’s promotional video and wonders why the company is undertaking such a bold new venture.

“It must be that sales are down in the appliance business and home entertainment and homes sales are down,” said Merkel, who has owned the outdoor sporting goods store since 1971.

For Merkel and Todd Frank, the video and its online message serve as just another reminder of the old adage: “Buyer beware.”

Given the anonymity of the Internet, truth in advertising is difficult to assess, they said.

“You know, a fancy glossy video only goes so far,” Merkel said. “As for Vann’s, I see it as more than a little boastful. They don’t have the expertise in this area, they are an appliance store.”

Not so, according to the promotional video.

As images of snow-capped mountains, sunsets and wildlife flow one frame to another, the video’s narrator proclaims: “We are a team of active outdoor enthusiasts. In love with Montana and living the dream under the Big Sky. ... We know our gear, we use it every day. It’s embedded in our lifestyle. BigSkyCountry.com is founded in Montana, the mecca of outdoor living, by Vann’s.com.”

Commented Frank: “The video more than anything has amplified my mistrust in the Internet. It shows how easy it is for someone from a totally different background to appear from the outside as an expert and as an authentic business.”

Merkel believes, as does Bob Taylor, owner of Big Bear, the longtime Great Falls and Billings outdoor stores, that brick-and-mortar shops will withstand the attack from online markets.

“A hands-on experience with merchandise, that’s always a better way to service a customer,” Taylor said.

Taylor is dismayed by some of the things he hears about online stores. Some practices, such as online stores that direct customers to try on products at competitors’ stores and then buy from the online site at discount, lack old-fashioned integrity, he said.

Again, Vann’s would not answer questions about the complaints, or about its new online sales initiative.

In the end, Taylor said, changes and challenges are part of any business.

“Would I like to have less competition? Of course I would, it would make things easier,” he said. “But it’s not the world we live in.”

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Like Taylor, Merkel, Foster and Frank, Bob Anderson of Gull Ski in Missoula also believes customers are the ones who ultimately drive the market for outdoors gear.

Price point is important in decision making, but so too is excellent customer service – the kind where you can walk into a store and talk to a sales expert face-to-face.

“I have confidence that our customers will realize that many of these products need the sizing and servicing that only a highly trained staff from a brick-and-mortar store can provide,” Anderson said. “A lot of online places don’t offer a warranty for this kind of merchandise, so the consumer is out of luck if things break, need fixing, or they need someone to help.

“Brick-and-mortar stores provide all that for the goods and merchandise they sell,” he said. “And I think the people of Montana will still go out and put their hands on stuff, see if the price is going to be the same, and buy from people and shops they have a relationship with and who they know they can count on.”

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