Back-to-school sales aren't necessarily hot for outdoor retailers

Though back-to-school time means big numbers in retail sales in general, it doesn’t necessarily mean big bucks for outdoor retailers. SNEWS gets the scoop from retailers across the nation about what they have experienced, what they expect and how they deal with the change of seasons.
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The end of summer is often marked by hot days, melting popsicles, grumpy children – and back-to-school promotions and sales. Although the season is typically the second biggest spending season in the country after the winter holidays, back-to-school spending isn't necessarily non-stop cash register ka-ching at some outdoor retailers.

The dog days of August might perk up sales of certain products – like backpacks – but generally this time of year signals the seasonal end of outdoor summer product sales. The shift can be regional: In places like Colorado and Iowa, outdoor retailers slow down in early fall, while in Texas, Arizona and Arkansas business remains steady, and even may increase a bit as the southern heat dissipates and temperatures become more tolerable for outdoor activity. Further north, some are just too busy preparing for the busy winter season to think much about it. Retailers we spoke to around the country shared what the season means to their stores and what they’re doing to offset any sales lags.

Book bags ‘r us

Summit Hut in Tucson, Ariz., generally sells “book-bag type of stuff,” said hard goods buyer Richard Allen. “We certainly look forward to (back-to-school sales) but it’s not a pivotal part of our summer business.”

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, backpacks and lifestyle bags are the main the products that outdoor retailers can expect to show a peak in sales during the back-to-school season, such as the case for one Texas store.

“Yesterday we probably sent out 150 Internet orders and almost all of them were for backpacks,” said Joshua Walker, manager for Mountain Sports in Arlington, Texas. He said in the brick-and-mortar location, long-sleeved shirts and pants sell well during the back-to-school period as well.

Backpacks are also a hot commodity at Jax Outdoor Gear in Ames, Iowa.

“Once the Iowa State students are back in town they’ll come in and get back-to-school bags and things for tailgating,” Marshal Toms, store manager, told SNEWS. He said the younger students only shop there for backpacks if their parents “want a better backpack for them. They will come here and get a North Face backpack.”

But a boost in school-oriented backpack sales can't always replace a summer full of pack, sleeping bag and tent sales.

“We get a lot of people from spring break until late June that are pretty hot and heavy into backpacking,” Toms said, but he admitted, “we kind of hit a wall right before school.” 

What back-to-school?

At the Wilderness Exchange in Denver, Colo., Reilly Anderson, manager, doesn’t see much back-to-school business at all.

“I haven’t really noticed anything and I don’t know if it’s our market or what but usually back-to-school time means not-playing-in-the-mountains time,” Anderson said. “September and October can be a slow season.”

Michael Hendren, an assistant manager and buyer at Ozark Outdoor Supply in Little Rock, Ark., said he sees a small increase in people who are headed to college in a cooler climate visiting the store to purchase warmer clothes.

“It stays hot here for so long … that people will wait just a little bit longer before they start buying stuff to go out,” Ozark Outdoor Supply’s Hendren said.

It’s too hot in Arizona as well, said Summit Hut’s Allen. The summer “is a pretty hard time to get outdoors,” he said. “Everything slows down just because of how hot it is."

The busy season for them is the spring and fall when it’s sub-100 degrees, he said.

Closeouts and Internet save day

“If it’s slow here it’s because it’s hot,” said Mountain Sports’ Walker echoed.

But there’s always something to look forward to and always a way to get through the slump. Anderson of the Wilderness Exchange said the store offers guided events and closeout pricing on last year’s goods to get it through the slump.

Other stores look to promote activities other than camping and hiking. Toms of Jax Outdoor Gear said the store starts pushing its items for hunting and fishing to get through the slump.

Mountain Sports in Arlington, Texas, has promoted its click-and-mortar business to get through any potential slumps and, as a result, “business stays pretty steady,” Walker said.

But for areas with snow, retailers look forward to getting business from wintersports participants.

“People start getting excited about the fall and winter,” Wilderness Exchange’s Anderson said. “There are definitely a lot of (winter) activities people do.”

--Ana Trujillo

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