By Eugene Buchanan

If COVID-19 has taught outdoor specialty retailers anything, it’s that they can count on each other to help get through these turbulent times — and that people’s desire to get outside is stronger than ever.

Bucking the “grass is always greener” assessments from retail doomsayers, those are the take-homes from an SGB Executive’s call with the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, a national trade association recently reporting its largest one-month growth in membership in its history. Working to strengthen the specialty outdoor retail channel with 10 new members in June, (read SGB’s coverage here), the group now has 83 retail members comprising 187 storefronts.

“It’s a group of individual businesses, all learning from each other,” said spokesman Drew Simmons. “They use us as a sounding board to share ideas, network, peruse educational resources and better understand some of the issues they’re all facing. It helps them better understand their own business.”

All this has proven especially important with the disruptions of COVID-19. “We help our members share ideas, learn and hone in on what’s working and what’s not,” added director of retail membership and education Dana Howe. “It’s a collaborative brain trust which is more important now than ever.”

The formula’s working. The group’s 187 storefronts now exceed such big-box retailers as REI’s 164 and Bass Pro/Cabela’s 169. And, according to its most recent reports, those members, for the most part, are all faring pretty well now that pandemic restrictions have eased. After collective group reporting showed February sales up 4 percent, March and April — when stores mostly shuttered their doors — were down 80 percent. But now overall sales among Grassroots members have rebounded.

“We saw positive trends in our May reports from retailers with our June reports up so far as well,” said Howe, reporting top-selling categories including hardgoods, paddlesports, camping, camp food, and more.

While the jury’s out on if early summer sales trends will continue (“It’s been a positive couple of months, but we don’t know if it will be a sustained bump or not,” said Simmons) for the most part, retailers seem to be sticking with what works. Consumers aren’t browsing so much as buying, said Howe.

“Our members are seeing very intentional shopping from the customer,” said Howe. “They’re cautiously optimistic, but are still being conservative with what they’re bringing in. They’re selling items that they know are working, not necessarily gambling on something new.”

With retailers now in 45 states, Simmons added that the group’s broad geographic scope is a good sign for the overall health of the specialty outdoor industry — but that sales are varying regionally depending on reopening caveats and regulations.

As with its members’ sales, Grassroots’ growth is due to the services it provides, including its new Switchback program, a group-wide technology program focused on sales data management and trend analysis for retailers. While it had to cancel this year’s tradeshow as with Outdoor Retailer, the setback also allowed organizers to launch Connect Hub, an online sales tool application for buyer’s and brands including overviews of a member’s sell-in process, key deadlines, product and brand images, workbooks, price lists, MAP policies, order forms, links to B2B sales platforms, and more.

“Realizing that this year’s sales process needed to be both flexible and long term, it’s a way to bring vendor brands and specialty retailers together for the Spring ’21 buying cycle,” said Simmons, adding that the tool is also open to approved retailers and brands outside its traditional membership.

“Open accessibility for vendors and retailers is more important than ever for the Spring ’21 buying cycle,” said Grassroots Vice President Gabe Maier. “This supports both our members and our industry at whatever level they are able to come to the table, and whenever it works best for them.”

Connect Hub opened for vendors on June 2, with retailers joining in at the end of the month.

“The feedback we’ve been getting from everyone is really positive,” added Howe, adding she’s received several hundred notifications from retailers already using it. Given its success already, Howe added that Grassroots would likely continue to use Connect Hub in the future as well as part of its regular tradeshow. “It’s just a great efficient and affordable tool for both retailers and vendors,” she said.