Outdoor Reps Association show attendance flat, but energetic

Even though the number of dealers was up only slightly from the year before, exhibitors and attendees of the 2005 Outdoor Reps Association trade fair in Madison, Wis., reported a brisk business. The 31st annual Midwest summer market continues to be an important venue for retailers and reps to see new product and to write orders, SNEWS® was told.
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Even though the number of dealers was up only slightly from the year before, exhibitors and attendees of the 2005 Outdoor Reps Association trade fair in Madison, Wis., reported a brisk business. The 31st annual Midwest summer market continues to be an important venue for retailers and reps to see new product and to write orders, SNEWS® was told.

Gayle Snyder, executive director of ORA, said with 131 retail shops and 59 exhibiting reps represented among more than 300 people in attendance, the show drew only one more store than last year. Preregistration numbers were 100, with a final count of registered stores at 161. We were told the 30 stores that did not attend the show registered just to receive a copy of the bound roster that lists the reps, their contact information, and the lines they represent.

"A lot of people didn't show up this year, but for odd reasons," Snyder said. Apparently, the show's dates conflicted with several personal events unrelated to business, such as taking children to college or previously scheduled vacations.

But Snyder also said some buyers failed to attend because most of their orders had already been written. "Preseason deadlines were so early this year that this is a B to C buyer show," she said. "A lot of the A buyers had their orders in before Outdoor Retailer."

The letter grade denotes those buyers whose businesses are relatively small, are in outlying tourist communities or may simply lack the resources or time to attend Summer Market in Salt Lake City.

For those buyers who attended, the ORA show has never been more important.

Arni Ronis, co-owner of Downwind Sports in Houghton, Mich., on the Upper Peninsula, said this was the only opportunity he would have to see new products for spring. "I couldn't make it out to Salt Lake this year, so I'm pretty much playing catch-up," Ronis said. "Here I can bring my guys and they can see stuff too."

Andrew Teichmiller, owner of the Chequamegaon Adventure Company in Minocqua, Wis., said business in his store kept him too busy to travel.

"It was just great to be out in the Apostles this year," Teichmiller said. "No bugs, it wasn't too hot to be on the water. Business is good."

The expense of travel was the main reason why some retailers opted to attend the ORA show this year instead of Outdoor Retailer. "A lot of companies are cutting back their travel," said Tim Cook an independent rep based in Stoughton, Wis., just south of Madison. "I have major retailers that didn't go to Outdoor Retailer this year. If you want their business, you go to see them."

And that means more expense reps have to assume if they are going to write orders for their companies, making ORA even more important as a cost-saving measure. Although Mark Giacomino, a Madison-based rep with Bing Associates of Edina, Minn., wrote a lot of business months before, he said he really appreciated having the ORA show to pull in the business that remains. "A lot of it is just time management," Giacomino said. "Being smart and not dead-heading it traveling a day to see one guy. Now I'm seeing 10 guys."

As a cost-effective alternative to more expensive travel options, ORA is a worthwhile event to attend, said Susan Dinesen, regional sales manager for Suunto. "This is usually a catch-up show for holiday…, but if I can see at least five or more dealers here, that's time and money I don't have to spend to get in front of them later."

Looking beyond the ORA show, Frederick Hartray, an independent rep from Chicago who sells paddlesports gear, looks at the current pace of escalating travel costs as an opportunity for the outdoor industry to thrive.

"Economically there's never been a better time for this business," Hartray told SNEWS®. "It doesn't take a lot of gas to get out on the water. Once you've made an investment in equipment, outdoor recreation is cheap to do."

Hartray said that it's up to dealers to more aggressively market themselves to their customers as the means to get outdoors. But while the market is consolidating, he said there are fewer retailers that can sell high-end product.

"Some retailers think all they have to do is set up tents and put boats on the wall. They're not going to make it," Hartray said. "If you're passive, you're in trouble. If you're passionate, you can do very well."

Specialty retailer Dan Berg, owner of Three Rivers Outdoors in La Crosse, Wis., said he learned the importance of passion and engaging the hearts and minds of his customers after he unsuccessfully opened a second store. Now in the middle of a liquidation sale pending the closure of the store he opened only 18 months earlier, Berg said he's going back to the basics.

"We used to do a lot of outreach," he said. "But when I opened the second store, I stopped doing it because I didn't have the time. Now with the one location, I plan on doing a lot more of it. It's really what I love to do anyway."

Steve Smith, owner of Wild Country, a specialty retail store with locations in Normal and Champaign Ill., said he's working toward building his business by converting his younger customers over time into consumers of outdoor products.

"Last year we maybe sold one backpack for backpacking," Smith said. "Most everyone else is using their packs to go Europe. Older retired people are buying boats but that can't last."

In a business that also sells hockey equipment, inline skates and skateboards, Smith said he aims to facilitate his customers' interest in physical activity any way that he can.

"They come in for skate, but at least they're being active. We'll get them into camping or backpacking with everything else in the store when they're ready for something new," he added.

SNEWS® View: Regional shows like ORA certainly serve their purpose for second- and third-tier retailers who can't, for whatever reason, attend the national show in Salt Lake City. And even after an exhausting travel schedule of roadwork, reps still recognize the importance of supporting regional shows as a means to keep their costs down while serving the interests of both their dealers and manufacturers. However, there are warning signs on the wall as it appears opportunities to see new faces and open additional channels of distribution wane as Midwestern reps face a consolidating market with not so many retailers to pick from. And that outlook makes it even more important for retailers to learn how to engage the hearts and minds of new and existing customers, which is where retail training plays a big part. Specialty business can only be special if the shopping experience for the customer is special. Otherwise, we're just selling more expensive equipment in a smaller box, and what's attractive about that? And that is why we launched our Training Center, to help facilitate the communication of training tips and programs to retailers. We have already seen evidence that the better specialty retailers are picking up the gauntlet and stepping up efforts to make shopping outdoor industry specialty stores a positive experience to remember and one that keeps customers coming back for more.

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