Labor Day means the busy shopping season is coming to a close for some outdoor retailers and many reported it was a good summer for business. The economic figures back the story, showing outdoor retail outpaced overall retail sales.
Meanwhile, fitness and wintersports equipment retailers are gearing up for their busy seasons and many said they see a better season shaping up from last year.
By the numbers
Overall retail sales were up 0.5 percent in July, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, and many outdoor retailers, and a few fitness retailers, told SNEWS they project their business to continue along an upward trend. Still, some worry a downturn is ahead – espeically with the recent news from the Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index that consumer confidence has dropped from 59.2 percent in July to 44.5 percent in August, and the Labor Department showed an unchanged job picture for the month of August, holding the national unemployment rate at 9.1 percent.
But the outdoor industry seems to be shrugging off the worries for now. The Leisure Trends Group Outdoor RetailTRAK reported that in July, outdoor consumers spent more than the average 4 percent year-over-year increase in consumer spending reported by the National Retail Federation. Outdoor specialty sales rose 7 percent, outdoor chain sales climbed 12 percent and outdoor online specialuty sales jumped 14 percent, according to Leisure Trends. July sales at specialty, chain and Internet outdoor retailers totaled almost $450 million.
“For some reason people are feeling better about spending a few bucks,” said David Cohen, manager of Adventure 16 in Oceanside, Calif.
The Outdoor Industry Association reported that July outdoor product sales grew 7.1 percent across all channels with the most popular items included outdoor footwear and apparel.
E-commerce sales continued to rise as well, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest figures – up 17.6 percent to $47.5 billion in the second quarter 2011 versus the same period a year ago, and up 3 percent from the first quarter 2011. While e-commerce only accounts for 4.6 percent of total retail sales (a large chunk of retail sales is food, fuel and automobiles frequently bought at brick and mortar locations), online shopping’s pace of growth is more than double of total retail sales, which grew by 8 percent to $1.04 trillion in the second quarter 2011 versus a year ago, and 1.2 percent from the first quarter, according to the Census Bureau.
A spokesperson for online retailer Backcountry.com said business has been great for the company over the summer and it projects it will continue to rise, especially because of Labor Day and the winter holidays.
“We love Labor Day. It's the last universal hoorah before the onset of fall and it's a great time to pass on great deals on gear to our customers,” said Marit Fischer, Backcountry.com’s communications manager. “The fourth quarter of each year is huge for us. This is due in part to ski and snowboard sales and in part to the holiday buying season.”
What retailers say: the good
Cohen at Adventure 16 said business keeps ticking, despite the supposed lower consumer sentiment.
“This year I keep looking for (business) to level off or drop but it’s just been much better,” Cohen said. “It used to be you could listen to the radio and if the stock market was down, then business wouldn’t be as good that day it’s not that way right now.”
Cohen said last year people spent their money on accessories and smaller daypacks, but this year, people splurged on backpacking gear like sleeping bags and tents. Erika Fiksdal, manager of Adventure 16 in West Los Angeles, also noticed tents were popular this summer, along with trail running shoes and lightweight apparel. Fiksdal thinks business will slow down now, especially since kids are going back to school, but the store keeps traffic moving through it by offering in-store presentations and climbing events, something she recommends.
"It brings not only your regular customers but new faces, as well as keeps people enthused about getting outside," Fiksdal said.
Quest for the Outdoors in Louisville, Ky., said business was up over last year but manager Corey Valentine said this might be because the company has re-opened its biggest store after a remodel. Regardless, business has been good and he said the weekend prior to Labor Day is always busy because people want one last wilderness excursion before the summer ends.
Valentine said he thinks the upward trend in business will continue.
“A lot of what we carry is family-oriented and not a really expensive thing to do,” Valentine said. “When times are tough people turn to a cheaper alternative for vacations and it’s cheaper staying in a campground than a hotel.”
What retailers say: the bad
It’s been an unusually hot summer in most places and David Coburn, manager of The Pathfinder in Manhattan, Kan., said the heat’s negatively affected his business.
“We just didn’t see people going out camping and backpacking as much as we have previous years,” Coburn said. “A lot of the basic camping gear … was pretty soft this summer because people didn’t want to go camp when it was 105 and 110 during the day, and 85 during the night.”
On the positive side, moisture-wicking apparel and hydration packs sold very well this summer for Coburn. Despite the slow summer for camping apparel, “We feel good that there are people continuing to want to get out and get exercise and we feel positive about our business,” Coburn said.
In the wintersports category, Sara Nelson, an apparel buyer for the Ski & Bike Shop in Grand Forks, N.D., said Labor Day marks the start of winter season with many retailers holding sales to clear out last year's apparel and make room for the new stuff. Ski & Bike Shop is doing one and so are many other outdoor retailers around the country. Five stores including four Colorado Ski & Golf stores and one Boulder Ski Deals Store hold an annual "Ski Rex" sale that starts Labor Day weekend (and lasts until Sept. 18) said Joan Christensen, the store's media contact.
Ski Rex "gets people thinking about snow ... and sort of unofficially kicks off the winter season energy and vibe," she said. The sale "offers about every kind of winter outdoor gear at really great prices. That's more vital now than ever in this still sluggish and often mercurial economy."
While outdoor retailers saw a summer business boom, summer’s the slow season for most fitness retailers.
Many people aren't looking to buy fitness equipment in the summer, said Heath Tasky, sales manager at Fitness Showcase in Chesterfield, Mo. “They’re out grilling, barbecuing and swimming.”
Tasky said the busy season for fitness retailers is from October to March. Despite the slow summer, the economy has caused more people to cancel gym memberships and invest in treadmills or ellipticals, Tasky said. “That’s happened more so this year than in the last 10 years.”
Business, Taskey said “has been bad for a couple of years." But "it seems like we hit rock bottom last year.”
It’s nothing but positive news at 2nd Wind Exercise Equipment in Ankeny, Iowa. Store manager Zane Christensen said two big trends are vibration trainers (specifically PowerPlate) and seated ellipticals. The summer “has been phenomenal,” Christensen said. “It’s because of the guys working here, new faces and just a fresh perspective on fitness.”
This summer Fitnessscape in Murfreesboro, Tenn., is “making more money,” said sales manager Michael Francis, adding that he’s sold more home gyms than anything else this summer. “I think the economy is slightly better but that may change.”
Overall, specialty retailers are cautiously optimistic, if not upbeat, about their fall and winter sales.
“Obviously I don’t have a crystal ball to tell how those things will work out,” said Valentine of Quest for the Outdoors. “We like to be positive and think that it won’t affect us.”
--Ana Trujillo with David Clucas