Grassroots Outdoor Alliance Connect show went down as planned over the weekend, despite the cancellation of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, which was to be held in the days following Connect.

Connect is a critical microcosm and bellwether of the outdoor industry, and SNEWS was honored to be on the ground for the whole show. Here’s a quick recap of (just some of) what went down.

Future Grassroots Connect locations

Since co-location in November with Outdoor Retailer is no longer part of the equation since the cancellation of the November show, Grassroots has been exploring new locations for its fall shows. (The spring Connect contract in Knoxville goes through 2021.) “We’re without a home next fall,” said President Rich Hill. “We have three great locations in consideration—Denver, Reno, and Kansas City— and will be announcing our decision soon.”

Switchback: The Grassroots data project

The goal of GOA’s new data project, a partnership with the Parable Group, is to get accurate sell-through data across GOA retailers. 

Existing data was not comprehensive enough for what we wanted to use it for, which is helping stores make impactful business decisions, says Gabe Maier, vice president of Grassroots. “By the time something shows up in existing trend reports [i.e. NPG], it’s already too late for our retailers to react.”

Switchback, which lays on top of existing POS systems, aims to help retailers understand their own stores better. Maier gave this example of how Switchback will work: A buyer can walk into work on any given day and pull up a dashboard that might alert them to five items that are not selling. The buyer can react by marking those five items down to clear them out. Another alert might tell them about items that are hot—and running low—signaling it's time to reorder.

At launch, Switchback will be open only to GOA retailers, but down the road Maier says they will consider opening it up to other independent specialty retailers. The program is still in development. Beta testing will begin this spring and GOA is targeting a launch date within 6 to 12 months.

Grassroots sustainability initiatives

Grassroots launched its digital workbook program earlier this year to eliminate all the single-use workbooks that plague our industry (and ultimately make ordering more streamlined and efficient. They’re working to cut out waste from their shows, and are now aiming to tackle the polybag problem, which is a huge thorn in the side of retailers who ultimately have to deal with and bear the brunt of all the polybag waste when it arrives in their shops.

The store collects #4 plastic, commonly found in polybags. A local company, Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies, Inc., is able to upcycle the plastic into composite decking material.

Retailers have to work hard to recycle and dispose of the thousands of polybags that land in their shops each year.

Retailers have been storing polybags and paying thousands of dollars to ship ship them around the nation to recycle them, says Hill. Grassroots is working with REI and the Plastic Impact Alliance, a consortium of 300 outdoor brands committed to eradicating single-use plastic) to find solutions. REI is leading the charge and said in a recent statement to its vendors: “Next year REI will begin recycling all polybags entering our operations. To help offset recycling and handling costs, we will implement a non-compliance fee for apparel products that arrive in individual polybags beginning with Fall 2021.” This bold move is sure to drive vendors to find solutions fast.

Gear Rental Lunch and Learn

The gear rental industry grew by 25 percent last year said Justine Barone of Gearo, who moderated a panel of retailers who discussed the value proposition of their rental programs. Skis, snowboards, and boats are popular rental items. But the camping gear—especially high-end ultralight gear—market is also growing. Some key highlights from the panel discussion:

  • Chris Gerston of Backcountry Essentials agreed and added that it’s a great way to be authentic and build trust with your customers. “Trust is slow to build and quick to lose,” said Gerston, who said that that’s partly why he doesn’t rent avalanche transceivers to just anyone. “They need to demonstrate that they know how to use them before we’ll allow them to rent.”
  • Ben Rockis of Backcountry Experience says that his rental and demo program often leads to sales, and he allows customers to apply the price of a rental towards the purchase of the same product category in the same season (as do all the panelists). “Giving customers a positive experience is what gets them to come back,” he says.
  • Dave Polivy of Tahoe Mountain Sports likes that having a rental and demo fleet allows his staff to get really educated on the products they sell, learning to make small repairs and adjustments. Polivy puts together YouTube videos on rental repairs and his staff often emails the links out to customers in the field. 

Retailer panel: Successes and lessons learned trying niche products, new brands & non-outdoor markets

Tara Kuipers of TK Consulting moderated this discussion about how innovative specialty outdoor shops are “surprising and delighting” their customers by curating unique selections of non-endemic products in their stores. The panel suggested checking out gift shows like Magic, the Atlanta Gift Show, and WWIN (Women’s Wear in Nevada).

  • Wes Allen of Sunlight Sports emphasized the need to keep his customers surprised. Allen brings in small batches of things like potted herb kits and higher-end cast iron skillets on a rotating basis.
  • Dianne Morgan of The Base Camp says think seasonally. At Christmas time, she tries to stock items in the store (like slippers and sleepwear) that keep customers from having to go to the mall for other presents. Take categories you’re already carrying and push the boundaries, she says. “You carry packs, why not try a few wallets and purses?”
  • Lisa Hollenbeck of Alpine Shop says retailers looking to bring in new categories should start small. You don’t need to go into these niche markets with big orders, she says. Start with 30 pairs of earrings or 10 scarfs and see how it goes.

Growing Grassroots

Over a lovely sit-down meal of salmon and wild rice, Dana Howe, Grassroots retailer relations manager welcomed the organization’s six newest members:

  • Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa, Colorado
  • Mountain Sports in Arlington, Texas

Keynote speaker: A refreshing, outside perspective from Dave Ratner of Dave’s Soda and Pet

Grassroots reached outside our outdoor bubble for the evening program, bringing in Dave Ratner, founder of the Massachusetts-based Dave’s Soda and Pet City. The quirky septogenarian is a fierce champion of independent retail, having founded his business to outsmart the big boxes. Ratner shared from his arsenal of scrappy techniques to build local buzz and create evangelists within his community. A few examples:

  • Ratner says he donates to every single cause that knocks on his door. But not with cash, not with product. With gift cards that require those people to walk back through his door.
  • Ratner doesn’t ask customers if they want to join his mailing list because so many of us shy away from spam mail. Instead, he asks them if they want a $5 off coupon for their next purchase, then promises to email it to them. A totally different tactic that nets the same result: capturing that customer’s email address.
  • Ratner has each employee sign a statement that says, “I am empowered to solve problems on the spot.” The intention here is that everyone who works in the store needs to know that it’s up the them to make every customer have an amazing experience, so they’ll tell their friends. He told the story of one employee who refused to refund a customer for a bad-smelling can of cat food because it had been opened. “How would the customer have known that without opening the can?” said Ratner, who noted that that employee is no longer with his company, but hopefully working for the competition.

Other nuggets heard and seen in the aisles…
  • Build toiletry kits for Denver neighbors in need | KEEN sign

    KEEN enabled GOA attendees to build 1,000 toiletry kits for Denver homeless people.

    • KEEN does a good deed: The company hosted a toiletry kit packing station in the lobby of the show. Attendees were asked to give a few seconds of their time to load up Ziploc bags with toothbrushes, combs, razors, and other essentials. One thousand kits were donated to Denver Health Paramedic Division. The goal was to share a little warmth this holiday, said Jennifer Linse of KEEN, who was manning the station.
    • OIA expects to have a new executive director in place before the January OR + Snow Show.
    • Outdoor Retailer says the January show is almost sold out and that every corner of the Colorado Convention Center will be filled with exhibitors.
    Woman with long brown hair, black blouse, and gray jeans standing in front of colorful table at GOA trade show. Signs behind her for NOSO patches.

    When Jones received the GOA Connect exhibitor list, she went online and found every exhibitor's logo, then made custom patches for them. Nice move!

    • Kelli Jones, founder of NOSO, was a first time Connect exhibitor. Jones manned a table in the lobby and gave out hundreds of her colorful repair patches (and Halloween candy). And in a scrappy move designed to push her custom patch business, Jones created and delivered branded patches for every exhibitor. "The response was off the hook," says Jones. "It really elevated our brand."
    • Columbia's matriarch, Gert Boyle, passed away on day 2 of the Connect show and many attendees were heard sharing stories and words of respect for the beloved leader. "Women leaders are few and far between in this industry," said Dana Caraway, a longtime rep of pRana, one of Columbia's brands. "Gert's energy and big personality were hugely inspiring to me." Christian Castellani, pRana's national sales manager said, "Gert was amazing. She brought a real family touch to the business when Columbia bought us."
    • Things blew up for e-tailer giant Backcountry during the connect show. Despite being onsite at Connect during the show, SNEWS scored the first exclusive interview with CEO Jonathan Nielson. Get the low-down here.

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