Outdoor Retailer Winter Market light on traffic, big on smiles

Exhibitors were prepped for the worst, fearing, as many told SNEWS® in the weeks leading up to Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, that given the state of the economy, the show might resemble the infamous foray into Anaheim, Calif., where you could toss a bowling ball down the aisles and not hit a single retailer. And, indeed, when the show opened on Jan. 22, there was a hush over the floor. Traffic was light -- not bowling alley light -- but light enough to have many exhibitors worried. By noon, fears abated for many as retailers began to pour in and fill the main aisles.
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Exhibitors were prepped for the worst, fearing, as many told SNEWS® in the weeks leading up to Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, that given the state of the economy, the show might resemble the infamous foray into Anaheim, Calif., where you could toss a bowling ball down the aisles and not hit a single retailer. And, indeed, when the show opened on Jan. 22, there was a hush over the floor. Traffic was light -- not bowling alley light -- but light enough to have many exhibitors worried. By noon, fears abated for many as retailers began to pour in and fill the main aisles.

"Fortunately, we scheduled a lot of appointments. The first day of the show was noticeably down -- borderline eerie," Mike Hosey, president of Highgear USA, told us. "But the second day was much better. There is a cautious mood overall. Lots of businesses are being prudent; they want to be smart."

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On the whole, most exhibitors on the main floor, as well as numerous retailers our editorial team spoke with over the first three days of the show used words like positive vibe, substantive meetings, engaging, energetic and focused to describe the show mood. For many, it appears the lighter traffic eliminated the dodging through crowded aisles, and allowed retailers and exhibitors to enjoy more quality time.

"It's been a quality show," said Tommy Knoll, president of C.A.M.P. USA. "Outdoor Retailer shows are one data-point among many that we pay close attention to so as to be able to accurately access the market mood. Retailers and vendors who do not show up are not investing in networking and discovering market trends, and as a result, they are less able to build community either here or at home."

Roody Rassmussen, president of Petzl America, told us on Saturday, "It's certainly a little softer crowd, but at the same time our appointments and booth have been full."

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"In general, the show vibe was great. The retailers that are here are interested in sharing ideas and developing further synergies and leveraging partnerships," said Steve Bendzak, general manager for ExOfficio. "Our emphasis is at-once business, reiterating our spring promotions and reminding our retailers what further we can do to help them sell through."

Not surprisingly, those companies on the periphery or off the main floor, such as in the ballroom, did not enjoy the hoped for traffic as retailers appeared to, for the most part, stay focused on bigger and primary brands mostly located on the main floor. In some respects, the traffic mirrored what is being reported in retail forecasting both in SNEWS and mainstream media. In this economy, consumers -- and by extension, retailers -- are sticking to basics, buying what is needed, and spending less time and money investigating or trying out new products or brands.

Or, as Jay Steere, vice president of global product management for Timberland, put it, "At present, the economy is driving consumers to value propositions. The days of opulence are over."

Doug Faude, owner of Molehill Mountain Equipment, said this was the "worst OR show ever" for him. Usually, he has the first two days booked with appointments, he told us, with retailers dropping in to fill up open slots for the rest of the show, picking up catalogs, etc., and that was not the case this show. "People are staying closer to home, but I don't think the economy is as bad as the media portrays it. People may be postponing that $400 Gore-Tex jacket, but they're still buying quality product for their kids," said Faude. He made a point of telling us that sales for his company in '07 were down 25 percent, while sales in '08 were up 30 percent.

Despite the mostly positive show vibe, cost-cutting measures by retailers and manufacturers alike were evident anywhere one looked. Smaller booths. Less staffing in booths. Retailers bringing only one or two buyers, or in the case of several retailers we spoke with, only the owner came leaving the rest of the team at home. Many retailers came only for two days, including the larger chain stores.

Kenji Haroutunian, Outdoor Retailer show director, told SNEWS that after reviewing unaudited numbers, it appears as if retail attendance was down approximately 6.25 percent compared to Winter Market 2008. Overall attendance, with exhibitors making up the largest percentage of decline, was down approximately 10 percent with numbers of exhibiting companies at 765 in 2009 compared to 815 in 2008. It is important to remember, here, that percentage numbers are only estimates and that Outdoor Retailer show management will not have audited numbers for several weeks.

--Michael Hodgson

SNEWS® View: Frankly, we don't know what else Outdoor Retailer show management could have or should have done to improve attendance or ensure traffic flowed from the main floors to the outlying booths and ballroom folks. In a broader look at all trade shows, Outdoor Retailer Winter Market is actually less affected than most others, which perhaps bodes well for the outdoor industry as being somewhat insulated from deeper economic and market impacts. SHOT show was down about 6 percent, Action Sports Retailer was well off its numbers, and the upcoming MAGIC and WSA shows are projected to be off between 20 percent and 30 percent, and the list goes on.

So traffic was down. What else did anyone expect in this market? Sure, some exhibitors and a few retailers were feeling less than enamored with the show -- but to be fair, that happens even with a much larger attendance in more prosperous times. If anyone wants a job that guarantees someone will be very upset with you, become president of the United States or a trade show director. And if you are going to blame the show for the bad economy, you're pointing your angst in the wrong direction.

While the traffic was lighter than perhaps desired, our takeaway was that overall the smiles were far wider than expected and the vibe was more positive than we might have dreamed. There was a feeling of hope in the halls that we have not seen for some time. That's what happens when good people gather together in one place, under one roof, breathing the same air and collaborating toward solutions that might improve business for us all. That's what we felt happening at Winter Market. If you were there…you likely felt it too.

--SNEWS® Editors

Stay tuned: Detailed ski, travel, footwear, apparel and other trends reports are on their way in the next few weeks as only SNEWS® can provide. Be sure to keep an eye on the Trade Show Trends Reports section or bookmark the category for future reference by clicking here.

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