Outdoor Retailer Winter Market is still the place to go for anyone doing business in the outdoor and active lifestyle markets. Many attendees that spoke with The B.O.S.S. Report speculated that traffic at last week’s OR Winter Market was down slightly, but the traffic that did attend was strong.

Weather played a part in some of the traffic patterns as well, as the West Coast was battered by storms that kept many from California and Arizona at home or delayed as heavy winds and rain grounded planes and snarled air traffic.  The same storms had a bit of a different impact on the traffic by week-end as retailers and vendors alike played hooky from the show to hit the slopes around Salt Lake City for what many saw as the best fresh powder in years.

The mood around the Salt Palace was positive and optimistic for the year ahead, a far cry from the somber mood of a year ago and the “cautiously optimistic” mood at Summer Market.  Most retail attendees that spoke with B.O.S.S. were a bit more upbeat about business after a solid Holiday season at specialty retail that looks to be setting the right tone for Spring 2010.  Retailers were dropping paper on Spring ’10 even as they looked at new goods for the fall season. Vendors focused on the quality of the traffic rather than the numbers in attendance. One exhibitor put it best when he said, “The right buyers showed up and business was done.”

“Traditionally, I’ve never been a traffic counter,” said James Curleigh,  President and CEO of Keen. “I believe in the quality of contact over the quantity of contacts. But I think the vibe is good. I think the last month or two has really helped retailers and brands show up with a level of optimism that is not as guarded as it was six months ago. “

While sales were aided by the arrival of cold weather early in the season in many parts of the country, improved sell-through during the fall and early winter have made retailers more confident regarding 2010 inventory positions. That confidence has spread to vendors, many of whom indicated that 2009 came in better-than expected due to replenishment orders. “I think there’s legitimate optimism out there,” added Curleigh.


The Outdoor Market Remains Resilient

Although more optimistic than Winter 2009, the industry is far from out of the woods. Jonathan Lantz, president of La Sportiva N.A., said that while some brands clearly benefited from a surge in replenishment orders as sales picked up in the fall, other brands are struggling. “I think the industry overall is going through a shakeout,” said Lantz. “If you make quality product that people need in the outdoors, then you’ll do okay.”

Lantz also feels the industry continues to be overly-conservative in inventories and 2010 will be another year when much of the upside will be captured through reorders.  At the same time, Lantz was hopeful that the tight inventory levels would stem some of the promotional deals flooding the Internet. He also said conservatism is probably warranted for many stores until more signs of a recovery appear. “I like to see them being conservative and smart and stay(ing) alive instead of being overstocked,” commented Lantz.

Many fears seem to have been eased about the loss of more retail as the shuttering of outdoor specialty stores during the downturn appears to be significantly less than what many predicted just a year ago.
Dennis Hochwender, western regional sales manager for Hi-Tec, who’s also heading up the brand’s launch into apparel, said many retailers indicated  business was either flat or up, which he thought was “pretty amazing” given the pullback in consumer spending. “The electronics industry is probably doing okay, but I don’t think there’s a lot of retail sectors doing as well as the outdoor industry,” noted Hochwender.
While consumers were looking for lower prices, they also showed they were willing to come to outdoor specialty stores and pay a premium for authentic outdoor brands and products they believed would last longer. Moreover, as some expected, the outdoor industry proved to be somewhat recession proof as a “back to basics” mentality brought people back to activities such as hiking and camping.

“People didn’t have as much money, but they still said, ‘I still have to get out!,’” explained Kim Miller, CEO of SCARPA North America. He believes this led to strength in inexpensive activities such as running and walking as well as hiking. He noted that national park attendance grew 20% last year. “People just said, ‘Let’s go hit a trail today or let’s go run’ – in our case trail running. So that’s where we saw the burst.  These are all very easy activities.  They’re free and you can do it with a friend.”

Jim Zwiers, president of The Outdoor Group at Wolverine World Wide, overseeing Merrell, Patagonia Footwear, and Chaco, also felt that the overall energy at the show remained strong considering the difficult times. “Outdoor Retailer is always our favorite,” noted Zwiers. “It’s as much an industry party and an industry networking event as a show. The retailers are coming in looking to partner and it’s the kind of show that encourages partnership. You’ve got the right media and the right retailers, and it’s a formula that really works for the Outdoor Group of brands. A lot of business is able to get done here.”

But Zwiers also noted that what makes Outdoor Retailer different than other shows is its connection with causes that helps reinforce those partnerships throughout the outdoor community. “It’s a fun show but it’s also a show that’s about causes,” Zwiers added. “So while we’re partnering and showcasing product, we also talk about how we’re aligning strategies to causes. It’s not just about business. It’s about outdoor participation, or conservation and the environment. So it makes it a little deeper than about buying and selling product. That’s what makes this show special.”

>>> With so many shows struggling, OR is still a clear reflection of an expanding outdoor lifestyle business…