Cautious buyers perused the floor at the first Midwestern Reps Association (MRA) Pre-View Show in Lansing, MI on Dec. 8 – 10, with 49 vendors on site to display new fall goods for the 92 attending buyers.  By all accounts the show, which was primarily apparel and footwear focused, was judged a success.  Hardgoods will be presented at the regular February MRA Show.

Bonnie Rathbun, executive director of the show, explained why MRA created the December show. “The thought process was getting people, especially during this busy holiday season, for one-stop shopping,” she said. “A lot of people would like to get their pre-season buying done in advance.”

The concept of a preview show is one that many retailers have rallied behind for months. In May, Kim Pearson of Bill and Paul’s Sporthouse in Grand Rapids, MI sent a letter to encourage retailers to attend the new MRA show.

“The last few years have been crazy for me because some vendors need buying decisions to be made much earlier to ensure delivery of goods,” she wrote. “These appointments took me away from tending to business in my store.”

When explaining plans for the December preview show, Chris Rounds and the MRA Board of Directors wrote a letter to all their retailers stating, “What is clear to us is that the present system [having a preview show in January] is a major inconvenience to you, and that a large percentage of your open to buy dollars are being placed during this time frame. Our January Preview was simply too late to be effective.”

Holding the show in December allowed buyers time to weigh their options before committing their money and gave them the opportunity to stay focused on their stores during the busy holiday season, without a steady stream of reps rolling racks through the doors. Not surprisingly, buyers are becoming increasingly cautious with their orders in this economic environment and this show seemed to alleviate some stress by allowing some relaxed one-on-one time between vendors and retailers, a luxury usually unavailable at larger shows closer to buying deadlines.

“The advantage to the show is that a lot of people will be able to see the stuff in December,” observed Brian Crespo, sales rep with Organized Kaos. “[And this] gives them time to go back to the store and see where they are inventory-wise and place their orders mid-January.”            


The December show also helped vendors get in contact with retailers they had been to unable to meet before. “We had a couple new buyers from stores we’ve been chasing and they had some time to come in and sit down and talk to us,” said Tom Crowe, rep for Four Square Outerwear.

Some smaller, independent ski shops and independent resorts also attended, said Crowe, many of which are frequently skipped over by reps during bigger shows in order to make room for the dominant retailers. “There are people that we wouldn’t be able to get to the show room and their schedules book up so fast for SIA and this is the time to get in front of them,” he said.

Of course, big names such as Columbia and Obermeyer were in attendance, which some saw as a drawback due to the short length of the show. “One disadvantage to the show is that it was only three days and they had some powerhouse brands there,” remarked Crespo. “And because a lot of people came for two days and those particular brands kind of monopolized them for a few hours, buyers ran out of time to see more lines…. I’m hoping that instead of a three-day show next year it could be a four-day show.”

The timing of the show seemed to be the key to its success, grabbing retailers before they were swept up in the busy holiday season. “I don’t think it changed deadlines for them, it just made the process more efficient,” said MRA board member Karen Donnelly Strough. “There’s a recognition that the buying cycle is starting earlier and is going to keep going earlier; lead times are getting longer because of overseas production.”

The Pre-View comes at a tough economic time and creates a Catch-22 for many.  Great to see things early, but what to do when times are so uncertain?

This uncertainty during such a major time of transition in the American economy has many buyers taking the same actions they’ve taken in years past, unsure of what else to do. “We didn’t talk budgets or inventory levels or anything because nobody really knows yet,” said Organized Kaos’ Crespo. “For me [the show] was really focused on the product itself.”

Another element factoring into the somewhat uneasy atmosphere was the show’s location – Michigan. “Michigan has been all over the news with what’s happening with the car companies right now,” observed Strough. “[Retailers] are still buying and they’re still looking ahead, but I think they’re going to buy tighter and… I think they’re going to protect themselves.”

Strough said that MRA does not expect to see many Pre-View attendees repeat their visit in February. “We expect that some of the reps that come to this show won’t be there and the retailers will be done [with buying],” she said.

Sue Peacock, co-owner and apparel buyer for Outpost Sports in Mishawaka, IN agreed. “I think last year I drove up to Grand Rapids three times for appointments,” she noted. “[This year] we were there two and a half days and we were busy every minute… If I do go back [in February], it’ll only be for a day or two.”

Still, despite the apparent success of the show, the industry remains apprehensive about the future. “It’s not business as usual,” said Strough. “And I think the business has been going this way [people being much more cautious in their purchasing decisions]. Now there’s been so much negativity in the press that people have been listening.”
Looking towards the future, Strough said MRA will ideally make the December Pre-View show an apparel show and push the February show back a little later and focus it more on hardgoods in order to better accommodate buying schedules. “We’re pulled by two different groups and interests,” she said. “We’ve always had this dichotomy… We’re just trying to meet the needs of both groups.” For the next few years, however, she expects the December show will be in “a transition period” as retailers and vendors adjust to the earlier date and the split between apparel and hardgoods becomes official.