Welcome to Wonderland
Wonderland Gear Exchange succeeds a CrossFit gym and a sex shop as the newest, family-friendliest occupant of a busy North Ballard street corner; after the grand opening on Dec. 8, it will be fully open for business. Co-founders Ben Mawhinney and Nate Seiberling soft-launched the store Nov. 9 and have quietly helmed the front desk daily since then, taking the temperature of local interest by physically tallying on sticky notes the number of customers who show up.
The duo have spent the past few months organizing low-key informational sessions at breweries around the city, offering high-return, early-consignment plans to slowly build a critical mass of products before the official launch. Limited marketing means customers come mostly from local foot traffic, or because they saw a friend click ‘Going’ on one of the store’s few Facebook events.
As of Nov. 28, however, Mawhinney says they’ve consigned more than 2,500 products gleaned from at least 300 individual consigners, and have sold more than 500 of those products.
“We're excited to keep growing and building from here, but we're happy with this start, and particularly the warm welcoming we've received from the Ballard community,” says Mawhinney.
Plenty of outdoor retailers and sporting goods stores throughout the region dabble in used or consigned product sales. REI quietly sells returned gear in a corner of its Seattle flagship operation, while retailer Ascent Outdoors offers a selection curated from exchanges for store credit.
But Wonderland remains the only store currently solely focused on outdoor-gear consignment: It stocks only used products from recognizable brands and past-season manufacturer samples from brands like La Sportiva, Odlo, Forsake, and Lifestraw. (More brand relationships are in the pipeline, Mawhinney says.) The team accepts gently used gear across disciplines — skiing, snowboarding, hiking, climbing, camping, backpacking, trail running, cycling, and more — but not gear oriented toward traditional "team" sports, the kind you’d find at Second Base in the University District. It also won’t consign safety equipment like climbing harnesses and ropes, which carry extra liability.
Wonderland is hoping to stock gear made within the past five years, but Mawhinney is eager to attract vintage apparel. “I have had a few people coming in saying, ‘Oh you probably wouldn't even want, like, my old Descente ski suit,' and I'm like, ‘Yes, please bring that in!’ ” he says. “Ballard has that strong Scandinavian heritage, with a lot of people coming from families with deep skiing [traditions], so I’m excited to see what comes through.”
The crux of consignment at Wonderland is the waiting game. Consignment stores like Buffalo Exchange and Crossroads offer cash and store credit upon receipt of an item, but Wonderland is more traditional in its approach. Rather than paying someone outright, Wonderland requires consigners to create an online profile, show their ID, and entrust their gear to the store for at least 60 days. The duo will attempt to sell your gear for you, and upon a successful sale, will let you know you're eligible to collect profits according to a tiered payout that rewards consigners of high-value items: Expect to receive between 40 to 80 percent of the item’s selling price, or up to 90 percent in store credit.
The most recent sales numbers (from Nov.18) indicate Wonderland consignors could collect more than $5,000 if they all cashed out now. Early consignors have overwhelmingly been parents, Mawhinney told me Dec.6, with both the most consigned and purchased products being children's outdoor gear.
‘Wouldn't someone have done this by now?’
When I visit Wonderland Nov. 14, six days into its soft-launch, rays from streetlights play on racks of clean, curated softshell jackets behind the all-glass storefront; a wall-sized mural of a mountain peeks out from behind rows of ski boots. Children run circles around a foosball table, distracting eyes from continued construction in dusty corners. Steely Dan is on the stereo.
Mawhinney is sitting near a pizza-print ski onesie, but he’s all business.
“The more I’ve progressed in different sports, the more I've realized gear is secondary to the knowledge [required of them] and the experience,” he says. “I'm not always myself looking for the latest and greatest.”
The co-founders share an entrepreneurial spirit. A marketer and freelance photographer by trade, Mawhinney has tried everything from opening an ice-cream shop to leading outdoor trips for Rocky Mountain School to promoting the Seattle International Film Festival; Seiberling has tried his hand at both strategic craft beer sales and carpentry. Outdoor gear is a new and welcome challenge for both men, who have became friends while playing outside together at Colby College.
The two moved to Carbondale, Colorado, and befriended Steve Denny, the first employee and second owner of used gear store Ragged Mountain Sports. When Mawhinney moved to Seattle in 2014 (Seiberling soon followed), the possibility of recreating something like it stuck with him.
“I talked about it with friends, and just sort of was assuming it was a bad idea — that it didn't exist here yet because it was not a good idea,” he says. “For the next six months we just said, let's just keep exploring this until we find out why it shouldn't exist. And we couldn't come up with a good reason.”
Seiberling was ready to take his life in a new direction. “I'd been talking with folks about how can I do work that does some kind of social good,” he says. “But the idea of recycling gear and keeping stuff out of the landfill [sounded great], and then Ben started talking about accessibility in outdoor sports, and I was like, whoa, this business is going to fill what I deem as something important for me in the next step in my career.”
The two friends started emailing consignment businesses across the country for advice; they visited outdoor store owners in Seattle, like Beau Sadick of Second Base, to learn the ins and outs of the industry. Seiberling spoke with 15 people about consignment-specific analytics technology alone, he says.
The ‘reuse’ approach extends to building out their business, which helps keep costs down. Most of the racks and displays came from the closing of a Bed Bath and Beyond and from a relocation of Feathered Friends. Friends came for cleaning parties to get the new space ready; Seiberling’s handy father came to town for 2 1/2 weeks to help build out the shop. They splurged to fly in Denny from Carbondale so he could “dump his brain” in their laps.
“We’re just bootstrapping this ourselves — thankfully with consignment, you don’t pay for your inventory,” Seiberling says. “We’ve been able to get this off the ground without investing a ton of capital, but we don’t have a bank account that we can just keep tapping into until the idea works.”
With their limited retail background, Mawhinney and Seiberling have been steeping themselves in gear research to assess fair-market values and appropriate resale value. As devoted outdoorsmen (one snowboards, one prefers skiing; both hike and camp), a lot of that research happens in the field. And they’re already thinking ahead to the next phase of the business.
“We want to be a usable community space — not just for buying and consigning gear, but also an educational meeting place,” Mawhinney says. “Almost all of our fixtures in here are on wheels, with the intention being that we can move the space around to open it up really quickly and easily to accommodate events. I had a conversation this morning with a nonprofit about doing stuff like that. We're only six days in, but there's a lot going on.”
That they’ve opened the shop at all is a source of evident pride. “At our first event, we weren’t even on track for finding a space by fall. In the back of our minds we were like, it’s gonna really suck if we have to track all these people down and give them their stuff back,” Seiberling says. “And I have not bought an item yet, which I am very proud of."
He thinks a moment, and adds a caveat to that statement: “This is super lame but I bought an energy chew just to test our credit card scanner on the first day,” Seiberling recants.
A city of resale
Wonderland isn’t the first time someone’s tried to make an all-used outdoor gear store work in Seattle.. When Greg and Pam Shaw opened as Second Bounce (then Second Ascent, now Ascent Outdoors) a quarter-century ago, they launched it as a purely used gear store. But over the decades, it “became more distinctly a climbing shop, an outdoor sports shop, that sold used gear and also new gear,” says Thomas Greene, Ascent Outdoors’ general manager and a climbing guide with Mountain Madness. “The evolution was a refining of who they were, rather than an expansion into a larger market.”
That doesn’t mean the interest in used gear wasn’t there, or that it’s not present nearby.
According to the Outdoor Industry Association, 72 percent of Washingtonians participate in outdoor recreation each year, contributing toward the $26.2 billion consumers spend on outdoor recreation within the state annually. Recent trends show consumers overall are allocating more of their adventure budget toward experiences over equipment. That combined with increased environmental concerns from consumers and expanding social justice initiatives means many companies, including REI, The North Face and Patagonia, are starting to offer refurbished gear at lower costs.
Even Ascent Outdoors — which had scaled back its used-gear operations after its most recent name change in 2017 — is renewing its emphasis and dependence upon used gear sales, in part because of Greene’s leadership.
Fourteen months into his role, Greene has helped Ascent Outdoors reintroduce used gear as a greater portion of its sales by adjusting the consignment payback program and stocking more high-quality used gear. By adding only $15,000 more product liability onto the floor, he says, Ascent Outdoors’ six-figure used-gear revenues have jumped about 68 percent between 2017 and 2018, year-to-date. The store has sold about 7,000 products year-to-date in 2018, compared with about 5,000 over the same period last year.
“In spite of the fact that per capita income is going up and housing prices are through the roof, or maybe because of that, people are looking for good deals and it just seemed to make sense for us,” Greene says. “I can't attribute that at all to the changes we've made, but we've seen just enormous gains in it, so there's obviously still a very strong interest in reused gear.”
New sales are up overall at Ascent Outdoors, but over the past quarter, used sales have been incredibly important. “We have a ton of dependence on used sales to make our numbers. ...When we have had lean times like this fall where it hasn't been raining and it hasn't been snowing, we're not selling skis and we're not selling jackets, but we are selling used. So that has been something we've had to lean on a little bit more than perhaps we originally anticipated doing.”
Locals and customers at Wonderland I spoke with said they often look to resources like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and even Buy Nothing groups for outdoor gear. Some said knowing who has used a product before it reached them made them feel less uncertain about its value. But many say they prefer the option at consignment stores to both evaluate products in person and receive expert buying advice.
Seattleite Jennifer Grant heard about Wonderland when the store put out a call for consignments through Peddler Brewing a few months back. She started following them on Facebook, and soon realized the store was about a 10-minute bike ride from her home. “I shopped there for the first time last weekend and really liked the look of the place,” she says.. “[It’s] pretty well organized for just getting started, and the owners were both very helpful.”
About 80 percent of Grant’s gear closet is composed of used products for cycling, camping and hiking, she says — a patchwork of thrifting and hand-me-downs from friends. “We are a family of four, so we don’t have a lot of space for excess stuff,” she says. “I try to invest in solid pieces we can afford, and the best way to do that is often used.”
Ballard local Matt Lawrence hadn’t considered cleaning out his family’s gear closet until he saw a blog post about Wonderland on MyBallard.com. In mid-November, he wandered into Wonderland with a speculative bin full of outerwear and new socks, and emerged as the stores 164th consigner.
“We have two kids — we're a gear junkie family, and other consignment stores don't want athletic apparel or sports equipment,” Lawrence says. “Our kids are growing out of it and there's things I don't use anymore and my wife doesn't use anymore, so, rather than staying in the closet, it's going to good use.
“This is a tough business," he adds. "It requires people like my family for them to do well.”