MAKing It: Powering through a pandemic

SPONSORED: With COVID-19 encouraging Alaskans to be more outdoorsy than ever, The Prospector has thrived on keeping customers equipped for adventure.

Presented by First National Bank Alaska

On the surface, retail is a straightforward business: The business stocks items that customers want and customers buy what they like.

Behind the scenes, it’s a little more complicated than that. Buyers have to forecast trends and predict needs. The customer experience has to be just right. And sometimes, just when you think you’ve got everything dialed in, a global pandemic throws a wrench into the works.

“You’ve got to be used to things mixing up every now and then,” said Joe Prax, owner of The Prospector outfitters.

Between pandemic shutdowns, labor shortages and a roller coaster economy, things have been extra mixed-up for Alaska retailers over the past few years. But while some businesses have struggled to survive the ride, The Prospector has managed to thrive by providing Alaskans the things they need to work and play safely in the time of COVID-19.

Equipping Alaskans in an unprecedented time

A full-line clothing and outdoor sporting goods store with locations in Fairbanks and Valdez, the Prospector was first opened by Prax’s parents in 1985. After Prax graduated from college in 1993, he moved to Valdez to run the store. Over the years, the business organization went through a series of changes, and Prax became the sole owner in 2006.

“We concentrate on what Alaskans need to wear to have fun in Alaska,” he said. “We try and have good quality work clothing and outdoor clothing.”

Customers come to The Prospector for anything from work boots to winter clothes to camping gear, and the business focuses on anticipating what they need to enjoy work and play, Prax said.

“You don’t want to fight your clothing,” he said. “You don’t want to fight your environment. If you’re out having a good time, you don’t want your boots to let you down.”

Like many business owners, Prax battened down the hatches when the pandemic began to shut down everyday life last March. Workwear sales remained steady to customers in industries like healthcare and oil production, but the forecast for other products was up in the air.

“We, like everybody, were very conservative -- canceled orders and made sure we had all our expenses in line,” Prax said. “What we didn’t foresee was people wanting to get outdoors.”

Once the science started to indicate that outdoors was the safest place to gather, he added, it made sense that Alaskans would start making plans to get outside.

“We’re social people,” Prax said. “We like to get out and do stuff and see folks, and Alaskans are especially so. We’re still going to have our adventures and do our activities, and that’s why we’re here. You can’t live in Alaska and stay cooped up in the house.”

Supply chain challenges

With even more Alaskans getting outdoors, The Prospector has had a busy year -- and demand for its clothing and gear began to increase just as global supply chains were breaking down.

“That took a lot of scrambling, to get the products coming back in,” Prax said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. Just whole categories go away from vendors.”

Lead times for many items began to get longer and longer. Suppliers were canceling orders unexpectedly. And when stock was available, shipping problems caused even more delay.

Despite the adversity, Prax said he has been “lucky.”

“I have some longtime buyers and managers, and they were able to jump right on things and knew what to do,” he said. “We’ve been in business a long time, so we have good relationships with our manufacturers.”

Prax’s employees -- some of whom have been with the company two decades or more -- have worked with their sales representatives to make substitutions and adjust orders based on availability, and business has been brisk.

“They sell bicycles and paddleboards and kayaks and stuff like that -- those went very well,” said Will Stark, The Prospector’s banker at First National Bank Alaska. “This year, the challenge has been they can’t get as many as they’d like on the shelf.”

Along with watersports equipment, camp chairs have been a top seller, Prax said, something his buyers took a chance on by stocking up as soon as small outdoor gatherings began to grow in popularity.

Then there are the things that they just can’t get. Hunting ammunition is in short supply, with orders delayed up to a year, and bicycles are nearly impossible to find. Fortunately, customers have been flexible.

“People have been very understanding that things are different,” Prax said. “Who knew how fragile the supply chain really was?”

The value of good counsel

From encouraging his employees to creating great customer experiences to bouncing around business ideas with his wife (herself an entrepreneur), Prax places a high value on the community aspects of entrepreneurship -- a philosophy that also informs his relationships with vendors and partners. The Prospector has been banking with First National Bank Alaska since its second location opened in 1989, and Prax said he has come to rely on his relationship with his banker, Will Stark.

“(Stark) has been just such a solid resource (for) looking at numbers and considering things,” Prax said. “He has been a great sounding board.”

Stark has helped advise The Prospector through several loans, a major construction project, and COVID, reaching out to Prax early in the pandemic to let him know how First National could help. Critically, Prax added, Stark doesn’t just rubber-stamp every idea -- he offers pragmatic, realistic input.

“He doesn’t always say yes -- and I’ve seen the danger when banks don’t question anything,” Prax said. “He’s always made sure that when we got a loan, we needed it, and he’s gotten us the best terms. He realizes he’s got to look out for everybody. He’s just been a super resource for me.”

With loyal customer bases in Fairbanks and Valdez, solid advice from Stark, and demand for outdoor equipment continuing to surge, The Prospector is looking at another banner year in 2021. Prax doesn’t take success for granted; he knows this has been a tough time for many small businesses, and he is learning from the curves that have been thrown his way. After navigating the supply challenges of 2020 and 2021, The Prospector’s buying strategy will probably change for good.

“We used to order smaller amounts more frequently,” Prax said. “I think we’re going to have to do a better job of planning and keeping an eye on suppliers.”

While things may change behind the scenes, there’s one thing that won’t go away: The Prospector’s dedication to giving customers a top-quality shopping experience.

“Sometimes in a small town, you can think that you don’t have competition because there isn’t someone across the street,” Prax said. “More than ever now, obviously, you can get just about everything online. Whatever we can do to take care of the customer coming through the door, we have to focus on that. What’s the Google review they’re going to leave?”

First National Bank Alaska has been Alaska’s community bank since 1922. We’re proud to support Alaskans by investing in your success as you take the leaps of faith, large and small, that enrich communities across the state.

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This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.