Rutabaga's Canoecopia marks early indicator of what paddle customers want in 2013

Canoecopia draws paddle enthusiasts to Wisconsin
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As winter weather lingers into April, outdoor retailers can look forward to a great deal of pent-up purchasing power this spring and summer. And there is no truer sign of of the season than one annual migration of paddle sports enthusiasts to Madison, Wis.

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With ice still thick on the lakes, boaters from the Midwest and beyond recently gathered to share their excitement for the coming season at a sales event so bountiful it can only be called Canoecopia.

Presented by specialty outdoor retailer Rutabaga, the three-day extravaganza is a bellwether of what stores nationwide can expect from outdoor enthusiasts eager to buy. Rutabaga owner Darren Bush said a major snowstorm earlier in the week likely pricked consumer anxiety, drove up attendance and boosted sales.

“Getting 10 inches of snow in November is awesome,” he said. “Getting it in March? Agh! People are done with this stuff. They’re ready for spring!”

That sense of anticipation is part of what makes Canoecopia such a popular event. Of course, customers also come looking for bargains. Deals on quality merchandise brought about 21,000 people through the doors of the Alliant Energy Center over three days. But after months of winter, the collective enthusiasm of a crowd that shares a passion for getting outside is itself a huge attraction. The annual event draws a wide assortment of product manufacturers, guest speakers, outfitters and motivated buyers.

Canoecopia customers Mimi and Randy Vasseem said they look forward to quiet evenings paddling together as a couple. “It’s date time,” Mimi said. “We have five kids. It’s our time to get away.”

With children in tow, the family traveled almost 100 miles from Dubuque, Iowa to pick up two new kayaks, a pair of Wilderness System Tsunamis. With an MSRP of $1,299 each, marked down to $999, this was no small purchase. Even with Canoecopia discounts on paddles, personal floatation devices and other accessories, the day’s shopping also included an admission fee of $15 for each adult ($25 for the full weekend) plus $6 a day for parking. Throw in the price of gas, meals and maybe an overnight stay in a hotel and we’re talking about a major investment. But the Vasseems say it’s worth it.

“We’ve been really good about saving,” Mimi said. “We sold our canoe to make this purchase. So it’s kind of an exchange.”

What matters most is the time they’ll have together exploring the waters near their home on the Mississippi River. “Nothing major,” Randy said. “We’ll take a lot of day trips and maybe go overnight.”

As they look forward to spring, buyers don’t seem to quibble much over price. In the coming season, outdoor recreation is clearly a priority for many and they’re prepared to invest in their play. They came in droves. Crowds before noon on Saturday crammed the aisles to capacity. Shoppers loaded down with purchases made it difficult to pass through. “There’s already a ton of people here,” said former Rutabaga co-owner Jeff Weidman. “Usually it doesn’t peak until 2 p.m.”

Looking for the latest in outdoor gear, buyers quickly cleared the inventory of best-selling items. Fetcher Andrews, sales manager for exhibitor and accessories supplier Cascade Designs, said customers sought out the new Luxury Lite Cot by Therm-a-Rest.

“We were completely sold out in the first two hours,” he said.

Weighing in at 12 oz. the Luxury Lite is a piece of camping gear some outdoor enthusiasts consider mission-critical equipment. Once he got over the sticker shock of the $199 pricetag (marked down from $239), Rob Rizzo, an outdoorsman and IT consultant from Reedsburg, Wis., said it’s an innovative product that makes sense. “As we get older we want those creature comforts,” he said. “Who wouldn’t pay a few bucks to get off the ground and get that rock out of your back?”

Like the outdoor market in general, the core Canoecopia customer skews toward an older demographic. Many, like the Vasseems, are families with children and make their choices with mature discretion. They seem to favor quality over price and the keyword “comfort” plays a major role in each buying decision. Bush said the event did a brisk business in big-ticket items like canoes and kayaks. “I don’t see a lot of new canoes, low-end boats being sold,” Bush said. “They’re high-end buyers. They shop for what they want. They wait longer and then they do it.”

Canoecopia offers buyers a broad selection and solid incentives to make that purchase. Buying patterns and trends revealed during this Midwest event may well reflect similar interests of many regions across the country. For example, while boat sales remain relatively strong and steady Bush said the category that continues to grow is stand-up paddle boards, much as it has nationwide.

“And it’s just getting started,” he said. “They finally have the boards for the Midwest. They’re faster, they track better. They’re just better for this environment.”

Stocking an assortment of boards from Surf Tech, Bic and C4 Waterman, Rutabaga is taking full advantage of the national market expansion of SUP. With five navigable lakes right in Madison and a thriving fitness community, the sport is growing to rival the traditional paddling opportunities popular throughout the region. As a firsttime exhibitor and presenter at Canoecopia, C4 founder Todd Bradley said he’s excited to share a little tropical culture in the frozen north.

“I have to pinch myself,” he said. “It’s 18 degrees outside, there’s there 20 inches of snow on the ground and I’m talking about stand up paddling, a sport that started in Hawaii!”

But with a great depth of passion for paddle sports the Midwest, Bradley said, is an excellent spot to grow his business.

“Coming out and getting involved with Rutabaga is like stepping out for a brand. I think coming here and supporting an event like this really means we’ve arrived and I feel really honored,” he said. “These are the people of paddle sports and it means a lot. We have a real synergy. The Hawaiian culture and our love of the water and nature really transcends into this market.”

Throughout the event, Canoecopia capitalized on the love local residents and Madison visitors have for the outdoors. That synergy of common values is reflected in record turnouts and heavy traffic at the cash registers year after year. In an alchemy of sales-craft Rutabaga brings together the best proportions of product, presentation and personnel to deliver a unique experience that goes far beyond the mere selling of boats, a valuable lesson all outdoor retailers can learn and take to heart.

“I always use the triangle approach: the right stuff, the right people the right skill set,” Bush said. “If you put those three together it always works.”

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