February 21, 2024

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Winthrop Mountain Sports hasn’t had to sell outdoor equipment online for 40 years. The coronavirus pandemic didn’t change the owners’ plans either. But the forest fires did.

Tourists flock to Winthrop, a few hours’ drive east of Seattle, to ski, hike, or drive through a beautiful stretch of the Cascade Mountains. As with many outdoor recreational stores, sales at Winthrop Mountain Sports have been solid through most of the pandemic.

Marine Bjornsen, one of the store’s owners and former elite biathlete and skier, told me there were no plans to sell products online now. “We wanted to do that, but we didn’t think we’d do it this year,” she said. “Then the fires came.”

Last month, two major forest fires isolated Winthrop from the world and smothered the valley with smoke. The store stayed open but did not sell much more than discounted boots and shirts to firefighters. Sales fell by around 80 percent in July compared to the same month in previous years, said Björnsen.

Less than two weeks ago, Winthrop Mountain Sports started selling products on its website to reach customers who couldn’t or didn’t want to come to the store – slowly at first with a few types of items to see how it went . That makes Winthrop Mountain Sports a test of what it is like to open an e-commerce site in 2021 amid the double crisis of a pandemic and forest fires.

One of the topics I keep coming back to is the nuanced ways that technology both makes things better and worse for a business owner, a teacher, a rabbi, and the rest of us. Selling online offers Bjornsen new opportunities to boost her business, but it also brings new pressures and puts her business in direct competition with everyone else who sells outdoor gear online – including giants like Amazon and REI.

The good news is that starting an ecommerce site has never been easier. Stuck because of the unhealthy air inside, Bjornsen said she devoted her time to adding product photos and descriptions to the Winthrop Mountain Sports website.

It helped that the store was already using software from a company called Lightspeed to track inventory. If Björnsen were to sell 10 pairs of walking shoes in the store, she would not be mistakenly trying to sell them online too. That’s not fancy, no, but a lot of small business owners don’t have the time, money, or expertise to learn the basics of technology.

Björnsen said she and her employees are still learning how to run a business and an online business at the same time. Every time you order online, you have to manually enter the weight and dimensions, attach a shipping label and collect the package with UPS or another service. Björnsen said that on the way home she placed some orders at a delivery depot herself. You and your employees discuss questions with people who also want to order online.

Björnsen said it was too early to know how the business’s finances could affect if more sales were shifted from personal to the internet. “It’s a lot of work,” she said. “The margin will be lower, but it’s better than not selling.”

Selling online is allowing the store to reach customers in new ways and many people expect to be able to shop online, she said, but Winthrop Mountain Sports would not survive as a purely online store. “We have a shop and a community around us,” she said.

Marine and Erik Bjornsen retired from skiing and moved from Alaska in December after they and others bought Winthrop Mountain Sports from its longtime owner. To put it mildly, it was an unpredictable time to run a retail business for the first time.

“If we’ve been in business for 10 years, then summer doesn’t seem like a big deal,” she said. “You can be a little more level-headed. But because we don’t have that, it’s a bit stressful. “ Björnsen said she hoped “we will have a good winter and forget that”.

Tip of the week

As more companies require proof of vaccination against Covid-19, our consumer technology columnist Brian X. Chen is taking the steps to save a digital vaccination record within easy reach on your phone:

Here in California, I recently requested my digital vaccination record from the California Department of Health. (The way you file an application varies from state to state – check your health department’s website for instructions.)

After entering my details, I received an SMS with a link to a QR code, a type of digital barcode that contained the information about my vaccination record. From here I had to figure out the best way to save the barcode on my phone.

The quickest method, I concluded, was to take a screenshot of the dataset and attach the image to a note. So I was able to find my vaccination record using a keyword search or by scrolling through my notes app.

That’s how it’s done:

On iPhones:

  • When the image editing toolbar appears, tap the button in the upper right corner, which looks like a square with an arrow pointing up. In the row of apps, swipe to the Notes app and select it. Here, save the picture in a new note.

On Android phones:

(My colleague JD Biersdorfer has more tips for keeping vaccination records on a phone, and The Washington Post has another helpful guide.)

  • Would you like to attend a work meeting in virtual reality? Mark Zuckerberg says it’s you. My colleague Mike Isaac gave it a try and explained Facebook’s belief in VR and other “technologies that give you that sense of presence.”

  • Help with informing Afghans, at risk to yourself: Rest of the world writes about a company called Ehtesab in Kabul that generates smartphone alarms to inform people of bomb explosions, roadblocks, power shortages and other issues. The founder, Sara Wahedi, is concerned that the nature of the service will make Ehtesab staff the target of a Taliban raid.

  • How do you prove an illegal monopoly? A judge told the US government in June that it would have to provide evidence that Facebook has an overwhelming share of social media. The Federal Trade Commission revised its antitrust lawsuit Thursday, and my colleague Cecilia Kang points out that it could be difficult to apply U.S. law to areas of technology where dominance is not necessarily easy to define.

Puppies in a shopping cart! Puppies! In a shopping cart!

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