THUNDER BAY -- Co-owners Jonathan and Sandra Wynn started Gear Up for Outdoors in 1987. At the time, Jon was working for a forestry supply company in Southern Ontario and he noticed that a lot of the company’s business was in Northwestern Ontario. It made sense to start a similar company based in Thunder Bay, and the 25-year-olds moved here to start their own business.
They moved into their current location the following year. At the time, they had very few neighbours – “there was nothing here, just nothing,” Sandra says. “The only other business here was Bennet’s [bakery].”
“We started selling forestry and engineering equipment, tree-planting gear, tents and sleeping bags. Business was relatively slow so we focused on camping supplies,” Jon explains.
In the 90s, they started selling online, which was still a novelty back then. “A lot of our business was done with Canada Goose,” he says. Gear Up for Outdoors became one of Canada Goose’s largest distributors, but many of the coats went to Europe. “If it wasn’t for the online component, we wouldn’t be here today,” he admits. “At one point, almost half of our business was online to European customers.”
Interestingly, this was what started the annual Shelter House coat drive – European customers had to pay VAT on the jackets they imported from Canada, but if they sent one back, they could get a refund on the tax.
“Europeans buy high end, expensive jackets, and we didn’t know what to do with them all,” says Jon. He approached Shelter House, which gladly accepted the coats. “And then everybody else in town jumped on the bandwagon and it grew from there.”
As Canada Goose expanded internationally, Gear Up for Outdoors was no longer allowed to sell outside North America and the European jacket exchange stopped, but they still collect well over a thousand each winter from local sources. Every customer who donates a gently used winter jacket gets 15 per cent off a new one.
Business has changed drastically over the years, but the couple says being a small company allows them to respond quickly to changing trends.
Initially, 80 per cent of their business served the forestry industry, but now, forestry only accounts for 15 per cent and the rest is retail. They admit Amazon has hit them hard, but many people still prefer to shop for shoes and clothes offline. Since getting inventory from Canada Goose has gotten difficult, they now supply Outdoor Survival Canada winter jackets to Anishinabek Police and Porter Airlines. OSC jackets are of a similar quality and price range, and are also made in Canada. The Wynns try to get as many Canadian products as possible in their store.
Currently, they employ up to 15 staff. After all this time they do think about retirement, but have no plans. Staying ahead has not been easy. “It’s a hard job. It’s day in, day out. Being the owners, the work comes home with you,” Sandra says. “But it’s still fun. There’s always something new, something going on.” The hard work and care they put into their business is evident when you shop there – their employees are extremely knowledgeable about the products and care about making the shopping experience worthwhile.
Whether you’re looking for the ultimate winter jacket, the perfect hikers or something to keep the bugs away at camp, the team at Gear Up for Outdoors wants to make sure you find exactly what you need.