Green Top Sporting Goods employee Tripp Carraway is a self-confessed waterfowl junkie, and he can blow a very real sounding Canada goose call.
He demonstrates — taking a flute-looking device and blowing a series of honks and squawks that make you think a flock of the birds are in the rafters of the Green Top store in the NorthCross Center off Interstate 95 in Hanover County.
“This is a sporting goods store where you can put hands on everything,” Carraway said. “No matter what you are doing, there is somebody here who does it and can tell you, with first-hand experience, what’s the best, what you need to have, the latest greatest gear,” Carraway said.
Carraway is part of what Green Top CEO Blaine Altaffer calls the independent retail store’s “secret sauce” — a core group of longtime employees who collectively have hundreds of years of experience as hunters, fishermen and shooters.
“They come in with scales on their hands, feathers in their fingers. They hunt. They fish. They use it. They’ve tested the products. They are evangelists for the brand and the products,” said Altaffer, who has been CEO since June 2016.
The Green Top brand is well-known to many Richmond-area hunters and fishermen. The privately owned store has operated in Hanover County since 1947 — 70 years. The store gets its name from the iconic green roof that has topped the store for decades.
Such longevity is a feat for any retailer — let alone a small, independent company with just one location.
The retail sector is in the midst of a major shift and disruption. For physical stores, the competition is not just the store down the street, it’s also the online store open 24 hours with seemingly limitless inventory.
Consumer spending in the sporting/hunting goods category is shifting from physical stores to online sales at a relatively fast clip, said Frank Badillo, director of MacroSavvy Resource Network, a Henrico County marketing and consulting firm.
“The question for all stores in the category — be they big or small — is whether they can remain among the shrinking set of physical stores that a household continues to shop even as they spend more online,” Badillo said.
Green Top’s competition includes chains Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops — the two national retailers merged in September — plus outdoors gear retailers such as Recreational Equipment Inc. (known as REI) and Dick’s Sporting Goods. Bass Pro Shops has a store about 2 miles north of Green Top off I-95, while the closest Dick’s Sporting Goods store is off Brook Road just south of Virginia Center Commons.
Altaffer and Green Top’s owners believe the business model and brand are up to the challenge.
“It’s a very iconic local retailer that’s been doing well since 1947,” said Austin Brockenbrough III, one of the principals of the ownership group and the company’s chairman.
“We do quite well against Bass Pro and Cabela’s. I think we’ve gotten to be a destination retailer. I think that can best be expressed by the fact that we have been around so long, and we have a very loyal client base,” Brockenbrough said.
“We have great inventory. Cabela’s and Bass Pro have a lot of their own brands. We buy brands that we think the customers are really interested in.”
Green Top got its start when Cecil Hopkins, with brother Carroll, opened a Texaco gas station and general store on U.S. 1 near the Hanover-Henrico county line. Cecil Hopkins later began buying and selling guns out of the store.
The store moved to an adjacent larger space in 1970. Hopkins sold the business in 1993 to Charles G. Thalhimer Jr., who had held management positions in the family-run Thalhimer Bros. Inc. department store chain before buying Green Top. Thalhimer died in 2008.
“We basically only had two ownership groups — Cecil Hopkins and then Charlie Thalhimer and myself and my group of investors,” Brockenbrough said.
The store already has shown that it can compete against the big chains.
Minnesota-based Gander Mountain Co. opened a 67,000-square-foot store in the NorthCross Center in October 2007 when Green Top was still on U.S. 1.
A year later, in October 2008, Bass Pro Shops opened a 150,000-square-foot store at Interstate 95 and Lewistown Road.
Gander Mountain lasted about five years, closing its store in July 2012.
Green Top, seeing an opportunity to grow, moved into the former Gander Mountain space in October 2012, giving the local retailer about five times more space.
The move to bigger quarters allowed Green Top to expand its inventory and bring in new brands — something Altaffer honed in on as he talked about changes he has made since arriving about 18 months ago.
The store has added more clothing brands — such as Patagonia, North Face, Fish Hippie, Mountain Khakis, Over Under — for a total of more than 80 apparel names now carried, Altaffer said.
“I think going deeper with key vendors and brands is key,” he said. “We are getting deeper into boutique lifestyle brands. Performance clothing is key. I have been very proud of that.”
These days, hunters and others out in the woods or on the water can find clothing with built-in sun protection, made of fabric that wicks away moisture and that has antibacterial properties.
Green Top also is embracing the whole “store within a store” concept. A display of Yeti brand coolers, tumblers and vacuum bottles occupies a prominent space near the front of the store.
“We have the first Yeti store-in-a-store in America,” Altaffer said.
“Yeti has chosen us because we were their largest single store in America (selling) cooler sets. They said, ‘We want you to be an extension of our brand.’ We’re elated to be their first. They are only going to have a handful,” Altaffer said.
Other key brands for Green Top are Banded and Avery, waterfowl hunting apparel and gear companies that merged in early 2017.
“They have chosen us on the East Coast to be their destination store-in-a-store,” Altaffer said.
Green Top carries one of the region’s largest selections of Big Green Egg grills and supplies. Altaffer said store employees in November demonstrated how to cook an entire Thanksgiving meal on the ceramic grills that start at about $699 and go up to more than $1,200.
Store employee Betty Hart is another one of the Green Top pros — she can tell you what you need to know about the grills and how to cook everything from brisket to apple pie on them. She sold just over 300 Big Green Eggs last year, she said.
“They are one of the top dealers in our market,” said Jeff Joyner, who oversees distribution of Big Green Egg products in four states, including Virginia.
The store also hosts an annual Eggfest that brings in lots of Big Green egg owners, called eggheads.
“They all show up in our parking lot, and we have a cookoff,” Altaffer said.
Handgun sales are still a huge part of Green Top’s business, he said.
“We are that rare store that has survived the onslaught of the big-box retailers coming in here, as well as the internet,” he said.
“What allowed us to persevere through all of that is it takes quality products and merchandise — that’s a given. But you wrap that with 1,240 years of experience,” Altaffer said. “The folks in the store, they look at it as a complete experience. It starts with the products. But when you return and need more knowledge about how to use it or you need more accessories or additional products, we are there for you.”
Green Top’s online presence is evolving — with more products and more experience stories and opportunities, Altaffer said.
“A lot of customers pre-shop online so we have to make sure our online experience replicates what goes on in the store. So if they look at us online before they come in, they get the same look, feel and essence of our brand,” he said.
At an expo held at the store in October to celebrate the store’s 70th anniversary, Altaffer said more than 16,000 people attended. Over 109 vendors displayed their products.
“One of our propositions is to take the product and merge it with experience and expertise so that the product comes to life,” Altaffer said. “The expo did that. It was a user experience. We had key brands and the who’s who of vendors.”
The store’s customers, on a recent weekday, were of all ages. Altaffer, who is from the Northern Neck, said he shopped at Green Top as a child.
“I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay, so water-based things are important to me, waterfowl hunting and fishing. Both my boys, who are 23 and 21, have a passion for it,” said Altaffer, who held executive and management jobs with Time Warner Cable for about eight years and with now-defunct consumer electronics retailer Circuit City for about 17 years.
Green Top officials declined to release sales or revenue data.
Brockenbrough, who also is co-founder and chairman of the Henrico-based investment advisory firm Lowe, Brockenbrough & Co., said there are no plans to sell Green Top.
“We are not for sale and will not be for sale. I love good businesses and tend to hold on to them. It’s a really important enterprise, and we are not selling so we don’t bother with trying to value it,” Brockenbrough said.
The outdoors gear is a big retail category. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, consumers spend about $21.9 billion on outdoor recreation in Virginia annually. That includes spending on camping, fishing, hunting, motorcycling, off-roading, snow sports, water sports, trail activities such as hiking and rock climbing, bicycling and wildlife viewing.
Badillo at research firm MacroSavvy said it’s entirely possible that a small, independent retailer like Green Top can beat the bigger players, particularly if that store offers products and services that the big chains and online retailers find difficult to match.
“That’s going to mean knowing the local market better than others and perhaps offering distinctive, locally sourced product that others cannot offer as easily. Those should be appeals where the small, independent retailer can have a competitive advantage, but only if they cultivate their own unique approach to the market instead of mimicking the larger players,” Badillo said.
In 2018, Green Top will launch a loyalty program — a way to reward frequent customers but also a way to learn a little bit more about shoppers, including how far they travel to get to the store.
“They are very smart about the way they price things,” said Freddy Breyvogel, 77, a Green Top employee since 2007 and an avid fisherman for most of his life.
“They never have to fight with anybody over price,” he said.
For customers such as Richard Ferrell, Green Top is the go-to place.
“I have probably been here five times in the last month,” said Ferrell, who was at the store shopping in late November. He bought a $60 rifle sling on that particular trip.
“I have been coming to Green Top since they were in the old building,” said Ferrell, who lives in Quinton in New Kent County. He prefers Green Top over the competition “for the service, the knowledge of the staff.”
“The gun prices are good. The fishing equipment — I can find everything I want in one place,” Ferrell said.