Comparison Shopper: MEC vs. Europe Bound vs. Canadian Outdoor Equipment
Toronto's outdoor adventure stores have all decided that King and Spadina is the best intersection from which to sell thermal underwear. Mountain Equipment Co-op domineers over the north end of King Street, while Europe Bound and Canadian Outdoor Equipment share the south side. The latter is the newest arrival to the area, having opened up in November and humbly began offering its Gränsfors Bruks axes. To the novice outdoor enthusiast, the stores may seem one in the same, but there are indeed clear distinctions that may determine where you spend your money. Here are a few factors to consider.
The newest is also the smallest, with just one floor of products in the COE space. Europe Bound is in the middle with three (seemingly disorganized) floors of clothes and equipment, and MEC, obviously, is the most grandiose with a central staircase and ample natural light. Based on the amount of space, MEC offers the greatest variety and selection.
The MEC label makes almost everything. I'm not sure if it has expanded to the realm of freeze-dried food yet, but I'm sure it will soon. Same goes for Europe Bound. COE, on the other hand, only designs a select few products, including wooden toboggans and folding saws.
Who goes there
Generally speaking, of course, MEC is the everyman's outdoor store, while COE and Europe Bound are perhaps better options for the seasoned adventurer. (Europe Bound devotees would argue that MEC falters when it comes to its selection of true quality brands.) While I've found service at all three stores to be more than exceptional, MEC might be the first stop for an overview look at equipment. COE does not offer seven different types of dry packs, for example, but rather, a honed collection of choice brands. Europe Bound does offer a little more variety, but newbies might find the store overwhelming. Of course, true backpackers know that if you can't handle a little mess, you'll be back on a plane in no time.
Europe Bound offers pretty great rentals for everything from ice climbing gear to sleeping bags and tents. Same goes for MEC. COE doesn't really offer rentals at the time (other than the odd tent, perhaps), but co-owner Chris Scerri says it may be rolling out a program in the near future. As for bike shops, MEC wins by default, since COE is out of the running and Europe Bound's program generally operates out of its Front Street location.
It's hard to say which store offers the best value, and I'm aware that that's somewhat of a cop-out answer. You really can't beat MEC's prices for, say, a plain organic cotton tee ($12-$14), and you can certainly grab some great bargains when products go on clearance. COE carries specialty items you won't necessarily find in the other two shops, such as Woolpower t-shirts, so in that way, it's sort of tough to compare. But I did notice that prices for Trangia cookware, for example, was a little steeper at COE. Europe Bound is sort of in the same boat as COE, though perhaps more in line with MEC.
MEC wins again in terms of its impact (or attempted lack thereof) on the environment. Undoubtedly by virtue of the fact that it is simply a larger business, its environmental efforts, such as donating 1% of its gross annual sales to green efforts, go beyond just selling you a sleeping bag. The shop itself also houses a green roof, battery recycling program, and more. COE hasn't gone quite as far, but it has taken the small step of not heating its second floor (which is poised to host regular seminars in the spring).
MEC is my personal pick for outdoor shopping at King and Spadina. In sporting goods selection, as in life, I never quite know what I want, so I appreciate the organization, abundance of variety, and plethora of helpful salespeople MEC has to offer. And the value pretty much can't be beat. Those looking for unique products created the traditional way, such as Helle knives from Norway, might be wise to check out Canadian Outdoor Equipment, and for the veteran, informed backpacker (who can also handle a little clutter), there's Europe Bound.