Seasonal disorder: Winter outdoor retail sales floors and brands are warming up

Despite winter's return to much of the United States this year, more brands and retailers are shifting focus toward warm-weather items.
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Welcome to the new outdoor retail winter sales floor. No longer does a sea of puffies, fleece and skis dominate the landscape — even with the return of cold and snow this year. Now running shoes, yoga apparel and even paddlesports gear are adorning winter shelves. Two prior warm winters and an evolving outdoor enthusiast have brought a realization that consumers increasingly are staying active in the winter months beyond the slopes.

Outdoor and wintersports brands are responding. Even though we’re at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, few name brands here solely focus on the cold-weather season any more. Iconic winter brands like Dynafit, Westcomb and even IceBug all now play in the summer, too. And The North Face, Outdoor Research and Columbia spy growing opportunities in the sportswear category, where Under Armour has reaped the benefits for years.

Winter isn’t dead, though — many places the in nation broke 100-year record-low temperatures earlier this season and snowfall has been healthy in the Northeast and the Rockies — it’s just become less clear-cut of a season from year to year, not only from a weather standpoint, but also because of changing consumer habits.

Consumer-driven
Like many trends, this one is consumer driven and many outdoor retailers have been the first to react on the front lines, from small specialty shops to the big boys at REI.

No doubt, there’s still a very “viable and significant business in the snowsports categories” during the winter, said REI Director of Merchandising Rick Meade, but today’s customers have become accustomed to more choices and product availability, even if seemingly out of season. Think about a trip to the grocery store. Many of us have come to expect fresh strawberries in February.

REI is “making significant investments to stay in front of the customer’s evolving expectations,” Meade said. “Specific to winter, that means featuring snowsports products with maximum impact while ready to meet the customer’s other needs for fitness products, travel, hiking or technical apparel and footwear.” Adjustments are made regionally and individual stores are able to react to local weather, he said. “With recent technology, supply chain and people investments, we’re able respond to trends and replace product in our stores more quickly than we were five, or even two years ago.”

Smaller specialty retailers may not have all the technology, but they are closer to heartbeats of their customers, who are telling them the same story.

At Ouachita Outdoor Outfitters in Hot Springs, Ark., Office Manager Kristal Mackey said she noticed the shift coming in part from the economic recession. “People started gearing up for trips closer to home and found out they were enjoying the outdoor winters in the south [hiking , camping and even kayaking] without a trip to the Colorado ski resorts,” she said. “They’ve become much more regional customers with a lot more overnight car camping.”

There are other drivers as well, including more people moving to fairer climates in the West, where, yes, they are closer to the ski resorts, but also more apt to stay in low country and go for a run on a sunny December day. One of the reasons running, yoga and lightweight hiking have become so popular among active consumers is that they can fit these pursuits into hectic schedules — over a lunch break instead of a weekend.

For all these reasons, retailers are passing on the messages to manufacturers.

“Heavy down and insulated outerwear is dangerous because it is so dependent on local [highly variable] weather conditions,” said Douglas Baker, store manager Benchmark Outfitters in Cincinnati. “Versatile pieces with a broader seasonal appeal are crucial,” for retailers to adapt.

Baker added that inventory risk, especially in winter, needs to be better spread between vendors and retailers.

“Incentivizing front loaded orders by offering extended terms packages places the burden on the retailer,” he said. “Flexibility in flowing in goods or swapping out product allows smaller independents to stay nimble and competitive in a marketplace increasingly hostile to independent specialty retailers.”

Year-round business
Many people might think summer hiking and camping are at the core of the outdoor industry, but when it comes to pure dollars, winter is the winner.

Typically, there are higher profit margins to be made with cold-weather gear, plus there’s the bonus of the holiday shopping season. Many new outdoor brands get their start in the winter.

“There’s no better platform to showcase innovation and technology than in the winter,” said Alan Yiu, creative director for Westcomb. “You’re adding materials to stay warm and dry. In the summer, if you want to keep cool, it’s about stripping down, and there’s less material to innovate with.”

Still, brands like Westcomb are venturing into the summer business, looking for that year-round business and wanting to remain front-of-mind to retailers and consumers.

“Reserving that shelf space with your brand for 12 months is crucial,” Yiu said.

Winter athletes are active 365 days a year, even when their favorite weather isn’t around, said Jim Lamancusa, director of sales and marketing at Dynafit. “Our customers are obviously not sitting on the couch in the summer — they’re mountain biking, they’re alpine running and climbing. They want the same technology and performance.”

Outdoor brands also are learning to be less insular, Yiu said. Some of the technologies, materials and designs that the industry has perfected over the years are perfect for crossover categories like yoga and cycling. And the street can go both ways, if companies don’t stay on their feet.

“The next time you’re out hiking in the spring or summer, take a look at what all the women are wearing for pants — technical leggings from yoga and cycling brands,” he noted. “Here’s an example where the outdoor industry missed it, and made a mistake not addressing a consumer trend.”

Even merino wool, which in many minds is a winter-only product, is making inroads with summer wear. Brands like SmartWool, Point6 and Icebreaker all are promoting the natural performance benefits of wool in the summer, such as temperature regular and odor control.

The growing global market for outdoor brands also plays a role in this story. A large segment of these new customers, particularly in Asia, live in year-round warm climates.

“If you look at a heat map of the world, a much greater concentration of people live where its red and yellow, versus where it’s blue and purple,” said Dan Hanson, vice president of global marketing for Columbia. The company, a staple when it comes to winter jackets, rainwear and ski pants, has made a significant push in the past few years to drive innovation in summer apparel, including its Omni-Freeze Zero technology, which helps users cool more when they sweat.

Nearly half of Columbia’s customer base is now international, with most of them living in warmer climates, Hanson said. “They want to stay cool and they want to stay protected from the sun.”

Summer blues
So, is it all kittens and lollipops for outdoor brands with nice, neat even revenue every month? Eh, not exactly.

While summer presents opportunities, it’s also a lot more competitive, especially with sportswear giants like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour in the mix. And brands admit, despite their warm-weather ambitions, a bulk of sales still come in the winter. Spring and summer weather can be fickle, too. The cool and wet spring in 2013, threw a curveball to many.

Some customers and retailers might lament the loss of sole-season focused brands. “It can pull brands in too many directions, especially if there isn’t additional support,” Lamancusa said. “The saying ‘jack of all trades, master of none,’ can become a reality.”

Plus, as this season has so far proven, Old Man Winter still knows how to put on a show, driving consumers back to those puffies and fleeces.

Winter cheer
Thanks to that strong start to the cold season, brands should see retail demand at Winter Market picking up for the first time in two years.

Perhaps no surprise, some of the few independent, solely winter brands left on the show floor live north of the border. Canada Goose and G3 still like it cold and probably wouldn’t mind if the ice age decided to make a comeback.

“We continue to work solely in the winter field, because that’s the way we think — it’s our mindset,” said Oliver Steffen, owner of G3. “Other brands might hand things over to the accountants, but at the end of the day, the pie is only so big.

And there are other ways to diversify in the winter field, he said. Particularly, by expanding to more of a global market.

“Somewhere in the world,” Steffen noted, “it’s going to be snowing.”

--David Clucas

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