Fall/winter sales forecast: Industry more optimistic, but strategies have changed

Two weak winters in a row have altered production and ordering habits, including leaner lineups and less sales floor space dedicated to winter goods.

A long and cool spring helped many outdoor retailers and manufacturers clean up leftover winter inventories, but don’t expect a big rush to restock.

While the accommodating weather and an improving economy have brought more confidence and optimism to the industry, caution remains.

The brutal “winter that never was” in 2011/12 and a tough early winter 2012/13, have altered production and ordering habits, including leaner lineups and smaller sales floor space dedicated to winter goods.

“We’re pretty excited to be back to full-priced items this winter as long as the weather shows up,” said Mike Massey, owner of Massey Outfitters in Louisiana. “That being said, we’ve tried to diversify away from weather-dependent product.”

Massey’s winter sales floor features a lot more paddle, cycling, running, fitness and lifestyle products than it did a few a years ago, he said. “We can’t afford to give 70 percent of the floor to just fleece and down.” Massey sees several brands responding to the trend and diversifying their product categories to become more year-round businesses.

Many retailers are in a good position heading into fall/winter, but will play it conservative with orders, said Roanne Miller, president of Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, representing about 100 specialty outdoor shops in North America. “Their plan is to stay at basic levels, not go deep into quantities, and then rely on ASAP orders as need be.”

Manufacturers are responding with leaner inventories, particularly on the hardgoods side, such as with skis and ski boots said Black Diamond President Ryan Gellert. “We’re playing it tighter … ‘scarcity’ seems to be the new buzzword among manufacturers.”

Could that backfire if a big winter shows up early this year? Consumers might grumble, but most in the industry probably wouldn’t mind a few shortages at this point.

“For the past few years, consumers have been trained to buy off price,” Gellert said. “That will take a few years to correct.” Lower inventories will help, but in addition, winter needs to come early, he said. “Some of these retailers have had just 30 to 45 days [at full price]. Once the discounting starts, it pretty quickly spreads.”

Scott Jaeger, senior retail analyst for Leisure Trends Group, said while retail inventory levels did come down this year, the dollars tied up in unsold stock is still running about 15 percent higher than the 10-year average, adjusted for inflation. That and other indicators, including winter equipment sell-ins still down by double-digit percents, has the analyst group projecting a slowdown in overall outdoor specialty sales during the second half of the year. Leisure Trend’s full-year 2013 estimates stand at 4 to 6 percent dollar growth, after a 9 percent increase through in the first half of the year.

There are some bright spots though, and they speak to the product diversification retailers are shifting toward, Jaeger said. Sportswear sales are strong and categories like yoga are making greater inroads at outdoor retail. The trend is toward more softgoods and technical-savvy lifestyle products at specialty, brick-and-mortar retail, he said, while hardgoods continue to shift more to online retailers.

Core outdoor isn’t dead. One the fastest-growing categories of late — backcountry ski and winter safety gear — is expected to build off its recent gains due to higher demand, better technologies and increased sidecountry/backcountry access, Gellert said. With that, he added, lies more responsibility and opportunities for all parties — from the brand to the user — to invest in winter safety education.

Winter weather and gear trends aside, outdoor retailers are keeping their eyes on few other key areas that will bring challenges and opportunities in the new year, Miller said.

“The new health-care law, the economic recovery and the evolving e-commerce market, are also top of mind for our members,” she said. “For the small independent business, there’s a lot to tackle.”

--David Clucas