In 1989, Smith Corona was a $500 million company with the slogan, “The best typewriter company in the world.” But in the early ‘90s, the company dismissed the potential of personal computers, held onto its antiquated slogan, and by 1995, went bankrupt.
Jeremy Gutsche, founder of TrendHunter.com, told the cautionary tale of Smith Corona during the Outdoor Industry Rendezvous, held Oct. 5-7 in Asheville, N.C. Gutsche encouraged attendees to build into their companies a culture of experimentation, where failure is tolerated. “If you don’t fail, you will become the best typewriter company in the world,” he said.
Like the presentation by Gutsche, many of the seminars at this year’s Rendezvous, an Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) event, focused on the idea that companies must move swiftly to navigate a market that is changing more quickly than ever due to the recession, new technologies and consumer demographics.
“Companies are trying to evolve, and in this climate, change is happening so fast,” said Frank Hugelmeyer, president and CEO of OIA (www.outdoorindustry.org). He said this year’s Rendezvous drew 350 attendees -- a record number -- and attributed the growth to the notion that more company leaders recognize the need to step back from their hectic everyday duties to recalculate what’s most important for their businesses in these uncertain times.
Travis Campbell, CEO of Far Bank Enterprises (www.farbank.com), gave a presentation on his efforts to transform his company’s fly-fishing brands, including Sage, Rio and Redington. One task was to create a workforce that was more flexible, enabling the company to reach into markets beyond fly-fishing. Like other CEOs SNEWS® spoke with during the Rendezvous, Campbell said the business world is evolving at an unprecedented rate.
“The economy we’re in necessitates an increase in the pace of change,” he said. “At the end of the day, you don’t know what the economy is going to do tomorrow, or what your customers are going to do tomorrow.”
Rendezvous seminars covered a wide range of topics, including trends in the economy, consumer behavior, social media and online retail sales. The various speakers focused on giving attendees hard data and practical advice that they could apply to their businesses. “This was some of the best programming I’ve ever seen at the Rendezvous,” said Norm Cavallaro, owner of North Cove Outfitters in Old Saybrook, Conn.
Changes in the economy
Of course, the greatest change affecting manufacturers and retailers is the crippled economy; however, a “State of the Market” panel discussion held during the Rendezvous offered some hopeful news.
Early retail sales were healthy this year, driven by innovative products like Vibram’s FiveFingers, as well as other lightweight gear, said James Hartford, president, CEO and chief marketing analyst for SportsOneSource Group. He noted during the panel discussion that sales of apparel and footwear dropped off in August due to tight inventories, but he said retailers should have “a strong bottom line by the end of the year.”
Sean Naughton, vice president and senior research analyst for Piper Jaffray, an investment banking firm (www.piperjaffray.com), said in a separate seminar that retail sales are up 6.1 percent this year, though, they would remain below levels of 2008. He added that healthy back-to-school sales hint that holiday sales could rise 3 percent to 5 percent. But, he noted, consumer habits have changed and people shop more during big sale events. As a result, sales numbers will hit higher peaks during intense shopping periods than in the past, but the valleys -- when buying drops off -- will be lower than in past years.
On a positive note, Naughton said outdoor companies seem to be more optimistic about the economy. A Piper Jaffray survey of outdoor companies in 2009 revealed that 57 percent were very concerned about the economy. But the survey this spring showed that only 23 percent were very concerned about the economy.
He said consumer attitudes are also more positive. “The psychology of consumers is steadily improving,” said Naughton. “Consumer confidence is moving up slowly.” He said the latest statistics show that real hourly wages in the United States are growing, which is an indicator that consumer confidence will improve. Also, he said household net worth has been increasing for four quarters. On the downside, he said consumer credit continues to contract, which makes the growth rate more flat.
Changes at retail
While the economy is improving, members of the “State of the Market” panel said retailers face many new challenges. “A really interesting transformation is that products are becoming commodities,” said Sally Jewell, president and CEO of REI. She explained that iPhone apps allow people to comparison shop while on the sales floor, and they are demanding lower prices. “We’re being perceived as overpriced. The key is to learn to be really good at offering value-added services, so that’s it’s not all about price,” she said.
To deal with changing consumer attitudes, retailers must take a hard look at their customer service, said Jennifer Mull, president and CEO of Backwoods. “Knowing who is walking through your door is really important,” she said. “Customer service means something different to a 20-year-old than it means to an older customer.”
While the mindset of consumers has shifted with the times, so has the ethnic makeup of the country. Retailers on the panel agreed that it’s critical for the outdoor industry to broaden its base of consumers. “We have to reach into younger and more diverse communities,” said Jewell.
Will Manzer, president and CEO of Eastern Mountain Sports, cautioned that shifts in U.S. demographics would be dramatic and impact the industry greatly. “The industry is not very good at understanding how to reach a more diverse audience,” he said. “And we need to understand how seismic the demographic shift will be.”
Changes in technology
Drawing great interest at this year’s Rendezvous were seminars concerning the explosive growth of social media and trends in online shopping.
Jim Tobin, president of Ignite Social Media (www.ignitesocialmedia.com), offered 10 examples of effective social media campaigns by large and small organizations, emphasizing that outdoor companies don’t have to spend a pile of money to capitalize on social media such as Facebook. “Creativity and resonance are more important than the budget,” he said.
As an example, he showed videos of the hilarious “Will it Blend” campaign (www.willitblend.com) by Blendtec, manufacturer of high-end blenders. In the videos, the geeky company founder, Tom Dickson, shoves all kinds of objects -- from a rake handle to an iPhone -- into blenders to see how they’ll fare. Begun as sort of a lark, the videos have gone viral, and the iPhone video has drawn more than 9 million views on YouTube.
Tobin said Blendtec spent about $50 to jumpstart its “Will it Blend” campaign, and the company’s sales have risen 500 percent.
In another presentation, Bill Tancer, general manager of global research for Experian Hitwise (www.hitwise.com), noted that social networking at outdoor online retail sites is rising quickly. He went into great detail on how consumer search trends are changing, and he noted that Thanksgiving Day is now the busiest day for online searches involving outdoor brands.
Also, he said many companies do not realize that shoppers actually begin searching for products five to six weeks before Black Friday. He pointed out many other interesting research findings, including studies that show 60 percent of catalog shoppers complete their transactions online.
Tancer and Tobin both pointed out that one of the latest trends is the growth of group coupon sites like Groupon (www.groupon.com). Basically, these types of sites put up an item for sale with a coupon offer, and if enough people sign up for the coupon, the discount becomes available to everyone.
Changes in politics
While outdoor companies are grappling with shifts in the economy, consumer mindset and technologies, they are also doing business in what promises to be a tumultuous political landscape this fall.
Washington Post columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Eugene Robinson gave a keynote speech during the Rendezvous, offering his predictions for the midterm elections.
“This is, to put it mildly, a bad year for Democrats,” said Robinson. He said that in any midterm election, the party of the sitting president loses seats in Congress. But Democrats are also battling the fact that President Obama’s approval rating sits below 50 percent and unemployment remains above 9 percent. Plus, there’s the issue of voter turnout.
“Turnout is always low in midterms, and this will be critical in this election,” said Robinson. “There is a chance that this is a tidal wave, and what awaits the Democrats is a big can of whoop ass. I think they will have substantial losses, but they will keep the Senate.”
When asked whether an effective climate bill might see the light of day in the foreseeable future, Robinson wasn’t optimistic. “If a glacier were to break off of Greenland and float up the Potomac, maybe,” he said. “But I don’t see it happening.”
Ending on a high note
While the Rendezvous brought sobering news about politics and the business landscape, the event ended with cheers and smiles as some 130 attendees joined volunteers from Riverlink, an Asheville non-profit, to pull trash from the French Broad River and clear a section of riverbank that was essentially a dumping ground.
Since 1996, the Rendezvous volunteer service project has proved to be a highlight for attendees, and this year, they boarded rafts and stand-up paddleboards supplied by Nantahala Outdoor Center to haul from the river everything from tires to a vending machine. At the same time, another group of workers used chainsaws, tree trimmers and even a Dingo to clear a jungle of kudzu and poison ivy along the bank so that a greenway can be developed.
Like any good outdoor industry event, this one ended with several rounds of beer. After five hours of relentless work, attendees gathered at a nearby brewery to raise their plastic Solo cups of IPA and cheer another job well done.
Photos courtesy of Steven McBride and Rod Johnson