With the close of the retail fiscal calendar at the end of last month, retailers nationwide looked back on the most challenging year in recent memory. For retailers selling outdoor equipment and apparel, January, the last month in fiscal 2009, showed mixed results. It was a strong month for Outerwear and Footwear and Snow Sports Equipment, but all other equipment sales lagged behind as consumers chose to refurbish existing gear instead of buying new.

Winter continues to bring heavy snow in the east and the Rockies and the western states are beginning to catch up after virtually no snow earlier in the season. In some cases the snow actually had a negative impact on sales as consumers were physically unable to get out of their driveways.

According to retail point-of-sale data compiled by SportScanInfo, Outdoor Equipment, Apparel and Footwear sales through the sporting goods, mall, department store, and discount/mass channels were up in the mid-single digits for the month of January while units sold were down in the low-single digits. Average selling prices were up considerably in all three major categories-footwear, apparel and hardgoods.

Many retailers say that inventories are still at a record low, but consumers are finally deciding to go shopping again (albeit on a limited scale). So, now many key items are out of stock at retail and sold out from the vendor. The good news is that this should considerably reduce off-price and closeout sales, making retailers more profitable.

At the same time, many larger retailers are jumping on new opportunities. Full Line Sporting Goods Retailers who saw their equipment sales challenged by big box and mass retailers are bringing in higher-end brands and raising price points. The average selling price of outdoor footwear, apparel and equipment was up over 10% in January.

Family Footwear retailers also began using this same tactic in outdoor footwear, but for different reasons. Encouraged by successes many family retail chains have had with $100+ technical running footwear, many of these retailers brought in higher-end technical outdoor brands to complement their running offering and to address the shift in consumer preferences towards brown footwear. Average selling prices were up 5% in January in outdoor footwear as a result.

Outdoor Equipment sales were up in the mid-single digits in January, driven primarily by Snow Sports equipment, which saw a double digit increase compared to the same month in 2008. Much of this was driven by the back yard effect which spurs ski and snowboard sales when major urban areas have snow in back yards. With much of the mid-Atlantic and New England seeing early snowfall in and around the larger population centers, retailers were very pleased.

The second major hardgoods story in January revolved around water. With new BPA fears emerging, consumers were again prompted to get rid of their aluminum water bottles and trade them in for BPA-free plastic or stainless steel. This brought water container sales up in the strong-double digits for January.

However, the growth in the category began to moderate as this level of sales is clearly not sustainable for the long run.

Sales of Packs and Bags were down in the high-single digits due to a heavy decline in sales of Travel Packs and Bags. The adventure travel industry was particularly hard-hit by the economic down-turn, and is only recently beginning to show signs of a turn-around.

The Outdoor Apparel categories showed a low-single digit decline in sales from the sporting goods, mall, department store, and discount/mass retailers who report to SportScanInfo. All of this decline was driven by slow Snow Sports Apparel Sales as consumers clearly shifted their preferences to more outdoor oriented brands.

Ski and Snowboard outerwear sales were down in the double digits for the month in spite of a strong increase in average selling prices. Snowboard Apparel sales were virtually flat while Ski Apparel sales were down in the double digits.

Excluding the ski and snowboard apparel categories, Outdoor Apparel sales would have been up in the mid-teens. Cycling Apparel was also a strong category during the month with double-digit growth. Outdoor Casual Apparel sales were up in the low-single digits driven mainly by womens apparel, which saw a high-single digit increase. Outdoor Skirts, Dresses and Skorts saw very strong growth in fiscal 2009.

Outdoor Footwear sales in January were up in the double-digits. Winter Boots, Outdoor Casual, Light Hiking, and Approach/MultiSport footwear all saw double-digit increases sparked by heavy snowfall in the eastern population centers.  Technical Hiking footwear, which was flat compared to last January, was the only category that did not show growth.

Performance Trail Running Footwear was down in the low-single digits due to the strong winter in 2009. By comparison, many trail runners were able to run throughout the entire winter last year.

While still relatively small, the Surf/Beach Lifestyle footwear category showed considerable growth in January in spite of challenging weather for the category. It more than doubled in size compared to the previous year. Brands like Sanuk, Quiksilver, and Reef have been driving this category.

At the end of 2008, retailers were completely unsure of where 2009 would go. Today, the feeling of a rebound is clearly prevalent. Two weeks into fiscal 2010, the environment is much more optimistic than last year and the industry appears ready to return to growth.

Contact the SportsOneSource Group for more information on weekly retail point-of-sale tracking through the new OIA VantagePoint research platform launching next month at www.oiaVantagePoint.com — The Official Research of the Outdoor Industry.