Retailers at OR's Open Air Demo upbeat despite some regional weather challenges

How’s business this season? Right now, the more important question is: Where’s business this season?

Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2015 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Aug. 5 – 8. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

How’s business this season? Right now, the more important question is: Where’s business this season? Retailers at last week's Open-Air Demo at Outdoor Retailer reported that national trends are taking a backseat to local factors, such as weather and regional economies, in this year’s spring and summer sales. While some lucky locales are raking in the cash, other places are battling business slumps.

As always in the outdoor industry, the weather in a retailer’s neck of the woods plays a major role in sales. A warm, sunny summer in Wisconsin has boosted kayak and stand-up paddleboard sales, said Sasha Stone of Rutabaga Paddlesports in Monona. And while heavy rain and flooding in Missouri have kept paddling gear purchases down, camping gear is way up. “People can’t really get on the rivers, but they still want to get out camping,” said Rich Orr of St. Louis’s Alpine Shop. But in the Northeast, stores are still feeling the chill from a long, snowy winter: “The weather was simply awful — we were still selling winter Canada Goose jackets in April,” said Andrew Hampshire of The Tannery, an apparel store in Cambridge, Mass. “We’re thankful we had Birkenstocks, and a lot of them. The brand is incredibly hot now, and we needed a draw for the product that wasn’t weather-related.”

An uneven economic recovery also adds a twist to local sales. In places like Nampa, Idaho, “The economy is turning around a little bit,” said William Nunnelee of Idaho Water Sports. “People are spending more money..” In Hooper, Utah business is slower. “People are using their discretionary income on things they need to survive,” reported Gerald Tatton of Galactic Force Industries.

But for some sellers, a creaky economy has actually been a blessing in disguise. “It’s incredible that with the low economy, people are staying around town and camping, utilizing the national parks and grabbing gear like crazy,” said Mindy Martin of Zurvival Backcountry Gear in Draper, Utah. There, daypacks, water bladders, sleeping pads and camping stoves are flying off the shelves. And in Canada, where high fuel prices are hitting consumers hard, “Power boating has fallen off, and young families are turning to kayaking to keep kids occupied,” said Keith Danielson of Mount Kirby Skis and Boards in Oshawa, Ontario. Customers are also ditching their gas guzzlers in Auburndale, Fla., said David Sims of Action Watersports, leading to strong sales for fishing kayaks and other angling gear.

Several retailers also mentioned the challenge of increased competition from online sellers, national retailers and big box stores. “Costco is a killer. They have cheaper SUPs there,” said Nunnelee. “But they’re exactly that: cheaper.”

“Our biggest problem is that big box stores are muscling in on the fishing and kayak business,” agreed Sims. “But they’re not educating people about the products.” Richard Kassar of Cincinnati’s Benchmark Outfitters also pointed to discounted online goods and long promotional periods: “It’s hard to sell when everyone knows there’s going to be a sale at 30 [percent] off [elsewhere].”

Many retailers are fighting back with new in-store incentives, such as speakers, outdoor classes, women’s nights and sponsored races. And for some, adding rental gear to their business plans is paying off. “We opened up a rental shack on the river that has given people a chance to ride,” said Kevin Green of Idaho Water Sports. “That has directly related to sales of kayaks and SUPs.” And rental SUPs are helping Sandy, Utah’s Ski N See pickup flat summer sales. “We’re promoting that more than anything,” said buyer Jason Williams.

--Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

Click here to read more of our coverage from Outdoor Retailer's 2015 Open Air Demo, including what new gear retailers were checking out.

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