ispo winter 2009: Mostly bubbling retailers pack show halls, express caution but are ready to buy

Although the economic crisis in the United States has now fully engulfed the sports retail sector, much of Europe and many parts of the world remain unscathed -- worried and a bit cautious but not entirely panicked or pessimistic. So, despite a noticeable dip in traffic at the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market and Action Sports Retailer shows in North America, ispo's winter gathering in Germany felt like a Mardi Gras party.
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Although the economic crisis in the United States has now fully engulfed the sports retail sector, much of Europe and many parts of the world remain unscathed -- worried and a bit cautious but not entirely panicked or pessimistic. So, despite a noticeable dip in traffic at the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market and Action Sports Retailer shows in North America, ispo's winter gathering in Germany felt like a Mardi Gras party.

A good measure of attendance is gauging how packed the one subway line is in Munich that carries many of the trade show attendees and exhibitors from town to the show grounds: The first two of four days it was in fact "nose-flattened-to-doors" packed. Think Tokyo during rush hour. Think non-ispo Germans cursing under their breaths. Why do we only say the first of two days? On Tuesday, the third day of the show that ran Feb. 1-4 there was a day-long work stoppage called a "warning strike" by all subway, tram and street car staff in an action unusual for Germany ("This is so French," those at the show were muttering all day long.) That left those who did attempt the trip by car or bus stuck in snarled traffic and clogged streets. Since a daily count of visitors won't be available until the final and audited numbers are issued, we can only assume the strike had some dampening affect.

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That means that early and unaudited numbers showed 60,000 individual visits over the four days, down from 64,000 in 2008. Although that reveals a traffic decline of about 6 percent, show management pointed out that early numbers don't include part of the last day, which could have been busier making up for attendees who missed part of the third day due to the strike. (Remember that in Germany, attendees are counted not once overall, but are counted for each day they attend.) Of those, 66 percent came from outside Germany, down slightly from 70 percent in 2008.

Exhibitors numbered 1,950 and came from 50 countries, down from last year's 2,026 but up from 47 countries. Although only 3 percent off, coming shows could feel the economic situation more strongly. If any kind of harbinger, The North Face, for example, announced it would not be at the summer OutDoor show in July 2009, but despite rumors to the contrary The North Face confirmed it would indeed still exhibit at the 2010 winter ispo show. And, contrary to swirling rumors, Jack Wolfskin executives confirmed to SNEWS that the company would continue to attend the OutDoor 2009 show.

Strike or not, decline or not, attendees were hard-pressed to notice much of a difference in energy or traffic or much other than an upbeat and energetic mood: Fashion shows pumped, special presentations filled stages, after-hours parties throbbed, an array of awards touted (click here to see our Feb. 4 SNEWS® story, "Did you hear?...ispo show award winners for outdoor, ski, eco responsibility and 'Sports & Style'") and board sports halls per usual smelled of tobacco, beer and marijuana. Oh, and business was done. Retailers and buying groups were ecstatic after the first winter in two years with much snow to speak of and the first winter in many more years with such great snow. Retail inventories were low or empty, and most came ready to buy. (Look for a special SNEWS report in coming weeks on the summary of the past year's economic situation and forecasts for the coming year in Europe as presented by buying groups and sports associations.)

Rockin' and rolling

Ski- and snow-oriented companies were jamming. Outdoor companies were satisfyingly busy. Board and action sports were doing OK. Running and walking companies were steady, while fitness was perhaps experiencing an early slowdown.

"We are pleased that the ispo winter 2009 show and the sporting goods industry has managed such a positive outcome despite the cautious prognosis for the economy," said Manfred Wutzelhofer, CEO of Messe Muenchen, in a statement. "The mood at the show was sensational thanks to a great winter."

The staff at Osprey was in a good position to assess traffic. Not only on the main corridor in a central outdoor hall (one of 16 total halls) and a main thoroughfare between halls, the booth is also wide open so staff can easily watch passers-by.

"I think there was more foot flow than last year even," said Tom Entwistle, European sales director who had also attended the previous week's Outdoor Retailer Winter Market where early unaudited numbers had indicated a 6.25 percent decline (Click here to see a Jan. 28 SNEWS report, "Outdoor Retailer Winter Market light on traffic, big on smiles"). "Our customers have been pretty happy overall (with sales), but in general the U.S. economy is more depressed than the German and European markets. We've seen a mix of opinions and moods."

Per Vaude global sales manager Jan Lorch's perspective, retailers continue to be optimistic. "They all had a good holiday season and good sales," he said. Therefore, they came to buy, he added.

Over in the Skins performance apparel booth, CEO Jaimie Fuller was threading his way among newly sponsored athletes showing off six-packs, flashing cameras, journalists and curious retailers. "We've been flat-out. It's fabulous," he gushed.

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"Everybody's satisfied," said Markus Boetsch, managing director for sales for Jack Wolfskin. "Everybody came. Everybody's happy. And when they're happy, we're happy."

Helmets and hospitals

Safety helmets for snowsports was a huge topic -- tragically so. In mid-December, a regional politician was injured in a skiing accident while wearing a helmet, while his companion, who was not wearing a helmet, died. Within a day most stores were out of stock, the buying groups reported, and by the end of the year there were simply very few helmets to be had anywhere. Then, a few days before the ispo show kicked off, the former CEO of a national bank, Hypobank, was killed in a skiing accident, sans helmet.

Retailers couldn't stock enough, and the companies that made helmets were writing orders as fast as they could.

In ispo style, shock has to go along with sports: One exhibit, also on a main thoroughfare, left attendees stopping and gawking. It was a 10-x-30 space outfitted to look like a hospital ward, including test tubes filled with yellow fluid (Red Bull we discovered), patients in nightgowns in beds, staff in white nurses garb, and bleeping electronics.

"Um, I just don't get it," one attendee said to another, before moving on. Most stopped in their tracks, opened their eyes wide, turned to stare at a companion with a "what the heck?" look, then moved on, chuckling. Unless you were daring enough to talk to the booth staff, you didn't realize it was a collaboration of three agencies that specialized in PR, marketing and promotions. Look closer (assuming you understood German) and the sign on one bed for the patient's name, for example, read "E. Handel," which in German would be a tongue-in-cheek shortcut to mean "Einzelhandel," which means "independent retailer." Underneath the name, it had a diagnosis of "panic" and "angst" and a suggestion of "motivation rehab" as therapy. "It wouldn't be believable to show that everything is going really well," one agency representative (dressed as a nurse) told SNEWS.

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We do wonder how much the "patients" who lay on a bed all day got paid. And if the shock factor actually won the agencies any leads.

--Therese Iknoian

Look for more reports in the coming weeks on the specific segments including outdoor, ski and fitness, as well as on new and interesting products, economic presentations and forecasts for Europe, as well as other news reports and photos.

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