Get an insider’s take on what was buzzing at the buying group’s bi-annual show in Knoxville.

The Grassroots Outdoor Alliance worked hard and played hard at this year’s 25th anniversary show in Knoxville, Tennessee. On the first night, during a festive and nostalgic happy hour, dinner, and awards ceremony, members, staff, and special invited guests of the Alliance celebrated the group’s storied history.

Throughout the week important, forward-looking conversations percolated. One thing’s for sure about Grassroots: The organization does not shy away from discussing the challenges facing retailers. President Rich Hill has become famous for his catch-phrase: “Complaining is not a strategy.”

Here’s a rundown of the meatiest topics of conversation. 

Tariff talk: Understanding the impacts for retailers

Outdoor Industry Association’s executive director, Amy Roberts, spoke on “education day” about tariffs. Roberts broke down the impact of the tariffs on vendors and specialty retailers and empowered retailers with questions to ask brands to understand who would be absorbing the inevitable price increases. Roberts explained the work OIA is doing in Congress and encouraged retailers to engage their Congressmen about the impact of policies on mom and pop shops. Tariff implications are scary for both retailers and vendors, but it was reassuring to learn that many brands have already diversified their factories and moved much of their production out of China.

Data is power: Grassroots announced the Data Project

Expanding its data efforts is something the group has discussed for several years. At this show, Hill announced the launch of the Data Project. "It's an umbrella for the long view on how to up the digital game for independent specialty retail in all ways," says Grassroots spokesman Drew Simmons. "It’s an ongoing conversation with all partners that's leading to some great things." Part of the Data Project will entail working with a third party expert to give independent retailers access to the same resources that mega-retailers have to better understand their own business, marketplace, and industry as a whole. “This project is going to allow us to find ways to collaborate and thrive in the ever-changing landscape of retail,” said Becky Williams of Pack & Paddle.

This was also the first show where digital workbooks were launched thanks to a $10,000 grant from The North Face and the efforts of Grassroots Vice President Gabe Maier, who ensured that retailers were supported with the technology and skills needed to enhance the buying process. This initiative represents another step towards a greener show, with less paper waste.

The History Project: Looking back before looking forward

While data will make a huge impact on the group, the history project showed perhaps the greatest benefit of Grassroots: the deep connections and sense of community.

Grassroots 25th anniversary photo booth

Friends and colleagues hammed it up in the 25th anniversary photo booth. Clockwise from top left: Betsy Bertram, Becky Williams, Devaki Murch, Emily White, and Hope Buttita

Before Chris Howe stepped down as Grassroots board chair last year, he gave the history project over to new board member Emily White from Roads Rivers Trails. Over the course of a year and a half, she, along with freelance writer Virginia Schmidt and other Grassroots members and staff, gathered more than 170 pages of stories from every sector of the group.

White explains that the “history project was a priceless education of the amazing people that makeup the outdoor industry and a perfect reflection of the fun-loving and indomitable spirit these people possess.”

The 8-minute video, filled with heartfelt reflections, anecdotes, and laugh-out-loud stories, reflects the essence of the Alliance, past and present. White explains the importance of the History Project: “Knowing where we came from is essential to the future of our organization.”

Meaningful conversations simmered throughout the week: How should Grassroots grow as more and more vendor partners and retail members join the group? What impact can we have on not just our industry but other industries? One common theme among both retailers and sales reps emerged: an appreciation for the productive working atmosphere. “I love that the Grassroots show is really a true ‘buyers’ show,” said Buck Rowlee, an independent sales rep for new Grassroots vendor partner Fjällräven.

Though the organization is growing—and that’s a good thing— there’s a clear desire among members to maintain the close-knit community feel. That cohesiveness is what drives meaningful change in the industry. By using our collective voice to advocate for specialty retailers in the age of mega-retail, direct-to-consumer businesses, and the internet.

Grassroots history project panels

Attendees could follow the organization's 25-year history via a mini-museum that Grassroots put together.

“The biggest thing we noticed at this show is that it feels like we've begun to find ways to get back to the roots of the shop-to-shop networking that made Grassroots so compelling in the early years,” says Becky Williams.

As a relatively new member of Grassroots, it’s inspiring to see vendors and retailers who’ve been a part of Grassroots for all 25 years building an ever stronger foundation, supporting each other and using the power of network to combat the challenges of specialty retail. John Williams summed it up nicely: “The future seems brighter than ever” for Grassroots Outdoor Alliance. 

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