Moosejaw had cult following, unique environment – then a downfall came

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On walls inside Moosejaw outdoor apparel and gear stores are framed photos of customers visiting faraway destinations — mountaintops, waterfalls, an equator point in Kenya — and displaying “Moosejaw” banners for the camera.

Most of the photos have been up for years, a testament to the close affinity between the Michigan-based retailer and its devoted customers.

But in the weeks since Dick’s Sporting Goods, the corporate owner of Moosejaw, said it is essentially merging Moosejaw with its own fledgling outdoor retail brand and will close nearly all of the 14 Moosejaw stores in Michigan and six other states early next year — plus shutter Moosejaw’s headquarters in Madison Heights — staff report seeing customers come in to retrieve their photos off the wall.

The coming wave of closures, announced in September, will leave just three Moosejaw stores nationwide by February — one of them in Michigan, 34288 Woodward Ave. in Birmingham.

Of course, there will still be the Moosejaw.com website. And the majority of Moosejaw sales have happened online since the late 2000s, rising to about 70% by the mid-2010s, according to former employees.

Yet the shift out of stores and out of state will be a hard pivot for the Michigan-born company.

The Moosejaw brand that emerges in 2024 is likely to be different from the creative renegade Moosejaw of the past, a company that leveraged a quirky culture and unique brand voice to grow and expand at a time when other regional outdoor retailers were fading and closing.

Started in 1992 by a pair of 22-year-olds, Moosejaw had an aura of coolness from the beginning that made wearing Moosejaw-branded T-shirts and hoodies a trend among Michigan teens and college students.

The company was known for its goofy, irreverent and boundary-pushing marketing, especially throughout the 2000s.

Employees were encouraged to answer store phones in a wacky way — “Maaaa-ooose jaw” was perfectly acceptable — “love the madness” was an official corporate email sign-off and public controversy once erupted over a Moosejaw billboard ad that was photographed in a cemetery.

“Culture and fun and the humor was such a huge part of why I think Moosejaw was successful,” said Melissa Boudreau, who worked for the company from 2002 to 2015, starting in the Grosse Pointe store and rising to a senior marketing position.

“I remember going to shop there to buy outdoor equipment and I was like ‘This place is super fun. The people that work here are so nice. You know what, I’m just going to apply to get a job here,’ ” she said.

‘It will remain in Michigan’

The closures and restructuring news came six months after publicly traded Dick’s Sporting Goods acquired Moosejaw from big-box giant Walmart. The announcement was a surprise to many of the headquarters employees who abruptly lost their jobs that day.

One of those laid-off employees recalled how last winter, shortly before the March 2023 sale closed, Dick’s CEO Edward Stack and other Dick’s executives visited Moosejaw headquarters and made assurances to everyone. Dick’s is based outside of Pittsburgh.

“To our faces, they specifically said they would never dismantle Moosejaw. Moosejaw is a Michigan company, it will remain in Michigan like it started,” said the former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing severance.

“Somebody raised their hand and asked ‘Are we moving to Pittsburgh ever?’ And they said absolutely not. You will always stay here,” the employee recalled.

The morning of Sept. 22, Moosejaw employees were told of the layoffs and closures in an all-hands ZOOM meeting.

They weren’t told the precise reasons behind Dick’s decision, the employee said. However, Dick’s has described Moosejaw in corporate filings as “a digitally focused leading outdoor retailer,” and Moosejaw employees said that stores on the closure list had been losing money.

A Dick’s representative would not give an interview for this story or answer submitted Free Press questions.

Real beginning of the end?

Yet according to several former Moosejaw insiders, the real beginning of the end for the Moosejaw brand wasn’t this year’s acquisition by Dick’s, but the February 2017 sale of the company to Walmart for a reported $51 million.

After the Walmart deal:

  • Several popular gear and apparel brands, most notably Patagonia, stopped supplying Moosejaw, and Moosejaw had to stop selling merchandise on Amazon. “Those were some of the top brands for the company; you are immediately losing those sales,” said one former high-level Moosejaw executive, who requested anonymity so they could speak freely about a former employer.
  • Some Moosejaw customers were immediately turned off by Walmart becoming the owner.
  • Moosejaw began to tone down its zanier ad campaigns and marketing stunts that once attracted attention and gave a renegade feel to the brand, the former executive said, not because of any direct orders from Walmart, but pre-emptive concerns to avoid controversy that might offend the new owner.
  • The Moosejaw brand may have lost cache as some Moosejaw-branded items, including clothing, eventually appeared on Walmart’s shelves and website.

The loss of several brands in the wake of the Walmart buyout, including Patagonia, Canada Goose and KÜHL, were significant setbacks for Moosejaw, the former employees said. Another high-end outdoors brand, Arc’teryx, later stopped supplying for the Moosejaw website, although it continued to stock for Moosejaw stores.

“A lot of brands specifically went to our buyers and said, ‘If we ever have to deal with Walmart, we’ll cut ties with you,’ ” one of the former employees said.

The executive that did not want to be named recalled how some higher-end brands were afraid that their products might appear on Walmart.com, while other brands were building out their own direct-to-consumer websites and the Walmart deal was a convenient excuse to bow out.

“So it was a good time for some of them to leave to push their own website without upsetting Moosejaw customers, because Moosejaw customers had uneasy feelings when Walmart took over,” the person said.

At Moosejaw headquarters, there was anxiety as to what brands might abandon them next.

“It was expected that we were going to lose a couple,” the person said. “But when we lost one after another after another in that first year and a half, it was a little frightening.”

Patagonia eventually returned to stocking Moosejaw this year. A Patagonia representative declined to comment on why it dropped Moosejaw after the Walmart acquisition.

“Dick’s Sporting Goods is an existing dealer of ours and it makes sense that we would restart business with Moosejaw once they were purchased by DSG,” the representative said in an email.

Although many customers were unaware of Walmart becoming Moosejaw’s owner, according to employees, passionate Moosejaw customers did know and didn’t like it.

Another former longtime employee, who also spoke on condition of anonymity so he could speak freely about a former employer, recalls encountering a customer’s strong opinion about Walmart while answering Moosejaw’s customer service line.

“I remember talking to a customer once about the old days of Moosejaw. And I mentioned how Moosejaw actually got bought out by Walmart and they were like, ‘that (expletive) sucks. Dude, I’m sorry, I’m not going to buy anything from you today.’ “

Moosejaw sales were “relatively steady” under Walmart after the initial shock of departing brands, one of the former employees said. Over time, however, the numbers started to drop for Moosejaw-branded apparel and “it became harder to get people excited about Moosejaw like it was in the past.”

Still, even employees who were critical of the Walmart sale concede to being pleasantly surprised by how well Walmart treated Moosejaw employees. The retail giant boosted base pay and benefits and allowed more time off, they said.

Walmart didn’t respond to an inquiry for comment and the Free Press could not confirm the claims regarding Moosejaw sales figures.

Started in ’92

Robert Wolfe and David Jaffe, who met at a camp in Charlevoix as children, had just graduated from college when in 1992 they opened the first Moosejaw store in Keego Harbor.

The company was originally called Moosejaw Mountaineering and Backcountry Travel. They reportedly came up with the name while on a camping trip and driving through the town of Moose Jaw in Canada’s Saskatchewan province.

Jaffe later sold his shares to Wolfe and the second Moosejaw store opened in East Lansing in 1994.

Company insiders say the tone and whimsical vibe of Moosejaw’s marketing was a reflection of Robert Wolfe’s personality and sense of humor.

Wolfe was later joined at the company by his siblings, Julie Wolfe and Jeffrey Wolfe, and by 2004, Moosejaw stores had opened in Birmingham, Grosse Pointe, Rochester Hills and Chicago. (The original Keego Harbor store closed after Birmingham opened.)

Moosejaw early on faced competition from national retailers as well as local specialty stores, such as the former Raupp Campfitters in Royal Oak. But those and other small chains and mom-and-pop stores were out of business by the mid-2000s.

How Moosejaw stood out

Bryan Lively, who was Moosejaw’s vice president of retail from 2002 to 2014, said the company’s unique culture helped it to stand out and grow.

“We did things differently and wanted to disrupt the space in a fun unique way, where people were drawn to the culture and community of the brand,” Lively said. “Most of the products we sold could be found elsewhere, but we were proud of building the Moosejaw private label, which became a significant portion of the business.”

And what business schools may classify as “customer engagement” seemed to just come naturally for Moosejaw, giving the brand a cult following of sorts.

“People would come in to Moosejaw just to hang out with the employees and check out the new products with zero intention of buying anything — but they more than likely left with something — and those were our favorite customers,” Lively said.

Boudreau, the former store employee and later marketing executive, recalled how customers would send Christmas gifts to Moosejaw headquarters and sometimes call stores just to chat about nothing in particular.

“We really engaged with every single customer. We built a relationship with them, and this is before social media was big,” Boudreau said.

Former employees often describe Moosejaw as the most fun working environment of their career.

There were plenty of pranks and goofy hijinks, like the time headquarters sent batches of fake mustaches for stores to hand out. There also were some risqué jokes, such as the large announcement on the back of Moosejaw delivery trucks that read “Driver Carries Less Than $50 Cash And Is Fully Naked.”

And there was the free “Break-Up Service,” where people could outsource to a Moosejaw employee the delivery of awkward break-up spiels for their boyfriend or girlfriend.

Employees also created a cast of fictitious and semi-fictitious Moosejaw personalities, including “office dog,” who would regularly appear in Moosejaw catalogues and correspond with their fans over email and later social media.

Private equity enters

In 2007, Moosejaw announced its “recapitalization” deal with a private-equity firm, Dallas-based Parallel Investment Partners.

The deal in fact did open resources for expanding the company, former employees said, and wasn’t one of the buy, strip and flip deals that private equity in general is known for. The deal also was reported to leave the Wolfe family with a significant ownership stake.

Two years later, Wolfe was replaced as CEO by a former Michaels craft stores executive, although he remained on the Moosejaw board.

“Even though Robert Wolfe wasn’t involved in the day-to-day, he was still actively the voice of the organization,” Lively said.

Robert Wolfe declined comment for this story.

Additional private-equity firms went on to buy and sell stakes in Moosejaw. The firms took a hands-off approach to the company’s culture and brand voice, former employees said, allowing Moosejaw to be Moosejaw. But their goal was to build up Moosejaw for an eventual sale.

Robert Wolfe and his brother, Jeffrey Wolfe, along with Hollywood actor Edward Norton, in 2010 started a charity fundraising platform, CrowdRise, that employed some former Moosejaw workers and was headquartered in Royal Oak. CrowdRise was acquired by GoFundMe in 2017.

Current Moosejaw CEO Eon Comerford took control in 2012 and stayed through the Walmart and Dick’s sales.

Under Walmart

Walmart acquired several other specialty retailers at around the same time it bought Moosejaw, including ModCloth and Bonobos, and eventually resold many of them as well.

One of the former Moosejaw executives said that from inside the company, it felt as though Moosejaw was just treading water in the years after its acquisition by Walmart and didn’t see as much growth as some expected.

Some categories of merchandise at Moosejaw experienced strong sales early in the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was uneven.

“Like a lot of retail, it was balanced out by people not buying a lot of other things,” the former executive said. “So we sold out of tents for people wanting to sleep in their backyard, but no one was buying nicer winter coats to go to the office. And if you wanted to spend $70 grand to go to Mount Everest, there was nobody doing it.”

Lately Moosejaw sales have been soft, according to one of the former employees, who speculated the soft sales were because of some U.S. consumers pulling back from expensive non-essential purchases in general.

‘Oh, I’m a whale’

Among the stores set to close next year is the Grosse Pointe Moosejaw, 17037 Kercheval.

A special thing at the store has been its so-called “whale discount,” a discount on all merchandise available to a select group of longtime customers who go back to when the Grosse Pointe store had a different location.

These customers are said to have once paid a significant sum for this long-lasting privilege. But now the clock is ticking.

Contact JC Reindl: 313-222-6631 or jcreindl@freepress.com. Follow him on X @jcreindl





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