At the old camper, the family business that resists the giants of sport

Store chain Au Vieux Campeur has been an institution for outdoor athletes for eighty years. “There is a bit of an old-fashioned side, nothing has changed since the beginning: the name, the logo, even the location of the stores…”, analyzes Nathalie Fleck, professor specializing in brand management at the University of Le Mans. This does not stop this family business from surfing the enthusiasm surrounding these outdoor sports: since the 2000s, turnover has doubled and by 2022 it should be around 160 million euros. A new Au Vieux Campeur store will open in 2023, probably in Bordeaux.

The story of the bearded old man in the plaid jacket began in 1941. Returning from the war, Roger de Rorthays, a fan of scouting and hiking, decided to “a shop with everything he liked”, while paid holidays are developing. Together with his wife Solange, they sew the tent cloths and scout scarves themselves. Success came quickly and the first store, at 38 rue des Écoles in the 5e Parisian arrondissement, getting too narrow. In 1956, a shop was for sale at 48 rue des Écoles: the couple of merchants seized the opportunity to consolidate all their departments there. From 1973 they began to swarm in the neighborhood.

An “old motorhome village”

Today, the family business has about twenty shops in the Latin Quarter, each dedicated to a discipline: climbing, diving, running… “In the beginning it was not voluntary: we always wanted to stay in Paris, but we couldn’t find a property big enough, says Aymeric de Rorthays, grandson of the founder, who runs the company with his brother Ludovic† Nowadays the question doesn’t even arise anymore, we call it our village and customers love it.” assures the boss. A vision shared by Nathalie Fleck: “It gives the customer the impression of being in a small independent store, with a group behind it, but the consumer doesn’t see that. † However, some people get lost: “Where can I find trail bags? † asks a customer, who has just entered the running shop. “For that you have to go to rue des Ecoles 44”, replies Antoine, salesperson for two months and already used to this recurring question.

Many customers also come to the store for advice. “We are all athletes, so we know what an injury is and can give the best advice,” confirms Arthur, salesman at the running store. “It’s not really a customer-seller relationship, just a human discussion, it’s very easy to get to know each other”, he adds.

hyper-specialized

How to explain this success, faced with competition from giants like Decathlon or Intersport? Au vieux campeur relies on hyper specialization, while Decathlon is much more general. “We have 80 references of climbing shoes, I think they have six”, illustrates the pattern. “Nowadays we don’t even consider them as competitors. But what’s not bad is that they take people to practice an activity and then, when they are more experienced, they come to us to find the right equipment,” Aymeric assures de Rorthays. Same observation for Pauline Boulet, freelance journalist specialized in mountain sports: “I’ve often heard that what came from Decathlon was good for amateur training, but not technical. †

“Au Vieux”, we also pride ourselves on offering durable and quality products, even if the prices are higher than in supermarkets. For example, the North Face down jacket for €99 is impossible to find in stores, which was a hit this winter. “This version does not have a quality that meets our standards, assures the general manager. It only lasts one or two seasons at most, so we decided not to market it because it doesn’t match what our customers come for. A real down jacket from North Face costs about €249”, he specifies. A workshop, located in Normandy, also repairs damaged products.

The importance of self-financing

The famous bearded man was still going through tough times, especially during the Covid crisis. “It cost us 30 million euros in turnover,” explains Aymeric de Rorthays. They claim to have received no state aid other than partial unemployment. “We never had the right criteria to be entitled to it, and then it’s not in our culture to seek help. † Then they used the reserved money and negotiated the rents.

The company attaches great importance to its independence and does not wish to acquire an external shareholder in its capital: “That would be too great a limitation. The advantage of being 100% owner is that if you have a lower return for a year, you can simply spend less, you don’t have to adopt a lifestyle. – including: a remunerated shareholder. Rorthays’ two grandsons were destined to take over the shop: “The question was never asked, it just happened by itself”, assures the cadet.

Vogue of independent trade

But this financial independence also comes with sacrifices. Investments are more restrained. When Au vieux campeur decided to open a shop dedicated to urban mobility in 2021, the choice was made not to sell bicycles and to focus on equipment for cyclists. “It’s also realism. It would cost us a lot to have a huge inventory like we have for other products, and it wouldn’t be financially viable for a very long time,” explains Aymeric de Rorthays.

So far the recipe is working. Especially because there is “a tired of supermarkets, deciphers brand management professor Nathalie Fleck. While this independent trading side is coming back into fashion.”

Eighty years of outdoor sports

1941.Creation of Au vieux campeur by Roger and Solange de Rorthays. The first catalogs are gradually becoming seasonal and are adorned with the little bearded man.

1950s.New stores in Paris. The catalog is expanded to 100 illustrated pages.

1960-1970.The winter sports tree is accompanied by the old camper. He is one of those who follow the principle of “we’ll refund the difference if you find it cheaper elsewhere”. Jacques-Yves de Rorthays succeeded his father Roger in the late 1970s.

the 80’s.On the logo, the bearded man exchanges his cigarette for a daisy. First boutique outside of Paris, in Lyon.

the 90’s.The loyalty card made his appearance.

Years 2000-2010.The website jumps with 10,000 references.

years 2020The brand will open a space in Printemps Haussmann . in 2021 (Paris), ie 46 stores in 11 French cities: Paris, Lyon, Thonon-les-Bains, Sallanches, Toulouse, Strasbourg, Albertville, Marseille, Grenoble, Chambéry, Gap.
Spring 2023. Opening planned in Bordeaux.