Summer’s off to a good start for outdoor retailers; find out what’s selling

SNEWS checks in with specialty outdoor retailers across the country to see what products and categories are selling well this early summer.
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While next week’s solstice marks the official start to the season, outdoor retailers really get their first taste of summer over Memorial Day weekend.

For many, the holiday is a harbinger for how the summer season might play out in regard to sales.

We caught up with several retailers around the country for a cross-section of the sales weekend. What we discovered: backpacks and paddleboards are up, as are rec kayaks, bikes and sandals.

For Lisa Martens, owner of Nat’s Outdoor Sports in Bowling Green, Ky., Jackson Kayaks’ rec and fishing models moved well over the weekend, as did mountain and road bikes. “Our bike sales are definitely stronger than last year,” she said. Other items moving off the shelves include Chaco sandals and hammocks from Eagle’s Nest Outfitters (ENO), as well as tents of all makes and sizes.

As far as the summer ahead, Martens, like a growing number of retailers we talked to, stressed the importance of events. “These days you have to have something going on and be on your toes all the time,” she said. “For us, we’re involved in a lot of events, which drives interest to the store, from sponsoring boat demos and a canoe and kayak race to a mud run and bike and trail run.”

In Washington, D.C., a great weather weekend brought consumers out of the woodwork. “I don’t know if it ties to Memorial Day or just indicative of our seasonable May after a cold, wet spring, but anything related to paddling or cycle sports was up,” said Sandy Cohan, owner of six-store Hudson Trail Outfitters. “It far exceeded what we expected.” He adds that the running and adventure-racing categories were also strong, as was lifestyle apparel. “It seems like there’s a lot of pent-up demand for people to start buying again.”

As for what didn’t move, he adds that lightweight rain gear seemed to stay on the shelves compared to other summer-lead-in weekends. But he blames that on weather more than the market. “People out here seem to be impulsive,” he said. “And we had great weather that weekend, so raingear wasn’t on people’s minds. But I thought their sales would have been stronger.” Another category that hasn’t started moving yet for HTO is bug apparel and repellent.

Above all, he adds, people seemed to be buying for the moment. “The big shoppers were people getting their kids ready to go to camp or investing in seasonal-type product,” he said. “Most purchases seemed to be for immediate use rather than on down the road.”

Cohan also characterized SUP sales as being through the retail roof, and the same SUP pattern is holding true out West, leaving other paddlesports categories in their wake. Inflatable paddleboards have been a big hit.

“Over Memorial Day we sold four Hala paddleboards, which is a lot for us during a weekend,” said Peter VandeCarr, owner of Backdoor Sports in Steamboat Springs, Colo. “A lot of people were planning to take them on their summer vacations because they’re easy to transport, which is a major selling point.”

He adds, however, that SUP sales might well have cannibalized sales of other paddlesports gear. Kayaks and kayak accessories didn’t fare too well over the holiday weekend, he said, but lifejackets did. “For some reason, PFD sales picked up a bit,” he said. “I credit it to the fact that they’re getting better than ever with regards to fit and mobility.” Outside of paddlesports, he noticed two other categories with upticks in sales: sleeping pads, especially those by Big Agnes, which he said offer a wide range of options for a variety of consumers, as well as camp chairs by sister brand Helinox, which he described as a “nice, compact camp chair that’s a cross between a car camping and river rafting item.”

In the Midwest, it’s the backpacking category that appears to have a solid sales start for summer. Mike Ruschman, hardgoods buyer for Midwest Mountaineering, said sales have been strong so far this year, especially in the lightweight pack category.

“That’s where we’ve experienced our greatest growth,” he said, adding that sales of ultralight as well as fully featured packs for extended trips have also been on the rise. “People seem to be more weight-conscious these days. But our whole pack category is up.”

--Eugene Buchanan

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