An old-fashioned brick-and-mortar Western wear store that’s surviving in an era of online shopping and the internet. And not just surviving, but flourishing in Big Sky Country. Once you’ve visited Hoglund’s, you’ll see why.
In business for 70-plus years, Hoglund’s Work and Western Wear is a Great Falls institution: a staple for area ranchers and farmers and a must-stop for visitors eager to take home a memento of Big Sky Country. With three floors and 14,000 square feet of cowboy hats, boots, western clothing, buckles, belts, and accessories, Hoglund’s is the largest Western wear store in Montana and a destination point for visitors from around the globe.
Hoglund’s got its modest start in 1951 when Stewart and Hazel Hoglund began selling tents and surplus items out of a Quonset building on the corner of Central Avenue and Sixth Street in downtown Great Falls. Trader Monty’s, it was called. The following year the couple moved their business to 409 First Avenue South and renamed it Great Falls Army Store. Customers coming in from the cold warmed themselves by standing on the grates of the floor furnace that took up a big square in the middle of the showroom. Back then everybody smoked and the blast from the furnace would send their cigarette ashes wafting all over the place.
In 1964 the Hoglund’s announced to their staff: “We’re going Western.” Great Falls already had more than a half dozen Western-wear stores, but the Hoglund’s were confident there was room for one more. For one thing, they had something no other store had—Vern Rothschiller.
Raised in Billings, Vern had worked in Western wear since the age of 11, when he got a job washing windows and sweeping floors in his hometown. Years later he moved to Great Falls and got a job at Hoglund’s. He learned the business as well as the owners themselves. The Hoglunds promoted him to manager and eventually sold Vern the business lock stock and barrel.
Great Falls was booming in the 1960’s. Malmstrom Air Force Base was installing missile silos throughout northcentral Montana and downtown drew shoppers from an area five times the size of New Jersey. By now, Hoglund’s had relocated one block down, to its present location at 306 First Avenue South. The store was smack in the middle of a rowdy bar scene, with the Pacific bar on one corner, the Board of Trade on the other and a couple of taverns in-between. There were times when Vern felt like a bouncer amidst all that unruliness, but it never kept the customers away.
Everyone wore cowboy boots back then and Hoglund’s offered a slew of them: rows and rows of colorful pointed-toed Tony Lama, Justin, Dan Post and Acme, from plain ole black boots for working folks to exotic alligator-, python- and bumpy-fleshed ostrich-skin footwear for the fashion-conscious. Naturally, if you bought a pair of boots you needed a hat to go with them: a Stetson, Resistol or America brand; the store later added the Cinch and Ariat brands. And whether you really did round up cattle or just wanted to look the part, you’d need a pair of Wrangler or Levi jeans and close-fitting shirts yoked across the back and fastened with snaps. The store sold neckerchiefs used by real cowboys to keep dust out of their noses and to tie down their hats if a storm rolled in. And there were plenty of turquoise and silver bracelets and earrings for the gals. The store later added steel-toed work boots, fire-retardant clothing, and other gear for refinery workers on the basement level.
Hoglund’s success has earned write-ups in Tack ’n Togs, the trade magazine for Western merchandising. For many years running, the store won the Tony Lama trophy for selling the most boots. Traveling salespeople bestowed Vern their Western Retailer of the Year award in 1972.
In 1977, a skinny 15-year-old wearing a T-shirt, shorts and flipflops stopped by to apply for an opening. Vern took one look at Mike Marzetta and told him: “I think I’m going to pass.” But Mike persisted. Let me work for you for two weeks and then decide, he pleaded. Vern took him up on his offer and Mike immediately made himself useful. He quickly discovered that the Western wear world suited him, so much so that he’s never left. Vern sold him the store in 2002 and Mike has been running the place ever since.
Good service is one key to Hoglund’s success. The sales staff knows to have a customer trying on a pair of boots to stand on the balls of their feet to make sure there was plenty of toe room and to make certain the wrinkles in the boots would appear on the curve of the foot instead of the toe. Staff could stretch the innersoles of a pair of boots if necessary to achieve a more exact fit. And Mike is a master at shaping a Western hat: using light hands and a small amount of steam to sculpt the crown and brim without damaging the integrity of the felt. Depending on the customer’s desires, the process can take a few seconds or half an hour.
A cardinal rule for staff is: no high-pressure sales tactics. Be there if customers need you to be but let them wander through the aisles. And be honest. “I told ‘em, if someone’s trying on something and it looks like hell, tell ‘em,” Vern recalls. “If you don’t tell ‘em, their friends are going to tell ‘em.”
Hoglund’s has been generous with competing businesses around the state. More than once they’ve let a salesperson from another store job-shadow their staff for a couple of days to better understand the secrets to Hoglund’s success. “They learned they’d better get back and start working,” Vern jokes.
Equally important is the friendly atmosphere Hoglund’s customers have come to expect. Mike has a knack for remembering not just the names of his patrons, but their children and grandchildren as well. “We don’t even refer to them as our customers,” he said. “Ninety percent of them are our friends.”
The combination of service and hospitality has earned the store remarkably loyal customers. Years ago a few of the regulars were exiting a nearby bar when they spied a burglar shattering one of Hoglund’s windows. They rushed in, nabbed him, and held onto him until the police arrived. Nobody was going to break into their store.
Family retail may be a dying breed, but not to worry. Hoglund’s Work and Western Wear isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. “I’ll never retire ‘cause I love it, and our customers” says Mike.
Join Our Team!
Do you think you have what it takes to be part of Hoglund’s Work and Western Wear legacy? We are always looking for great people to join our team.