SALT LAKE CITY — At the Outdoor Retailer show held here Aug. 8-11, the message was clear: While business isn’t alarmingly slow, it could certainly be better.
Several retailers and vendors said they approached the show with a cautious attitude given the weak economy.
“What we’re seeing is that buyers are being more careful. They’re buying deeper in SKUs that work,” said Fritz Taylor, SVP of footwear at Brooks.
“[Buyers are] being conservative on re-ordering because they don’t want to get stuck with product,” added David Helter, general sales manager at Ecco. “And they’re buying less because the cost per pair is up. It impacts their ability to test new brands.”
The rising cost of goods was a hot topic for several brands, including Zamberlan boots. “As a company, we’re taking a loss. We haven’t greatly increased cost at retail,” said sales representative Tyler Palmerton. “One of our boots only went up [by] $5.”
Despite buyers’ hesitations, many vendors maintained a positive outlook on business.
“We saw Nordstrom and REI. This has been a good show,” said Aaron Guerra of Washington Shoe Co.
With a booth situated in the new exhibitor lounge in the Energy Solutions Arena, three blocks from the main show floor at the Salt Palace Convention Center, Guerra said mediocre traffic doesn’t mean an unsuccessful show. “If I make one contact here, then it’s worth it. This face time is so important.”
Some vendors even argued that a recession and so-called “staycations” (vacations spent close to home) actually fuel business.
“In the outdoor industry, people are looking to stay closer to home, and there are a lot of outdoor activities you can do near the home,” said Bobbi Parisi, VP of marketing at Keen. “The trend we see is that sales are up in the spring, when tent sales and other camping equipment go up as well.”
Kenji Haroutunian, the show’s organizer, agreed. “I’ve weathered a few recessions being in the business for 22 years, and what happens in my experience is people might not buy a luxury outdoor item, but they are still going to go camping, skiing or hiking,” he said. “The access [to those activities] is not very expensive and the gear, compared with a new boat or jet ski, is relatively inexpensive.”
Hiking gear, especially lightweight hiking boots and trail runners, topped buyers’ orders at the show, from brands such as GoLite and Scarpa. Several companies, including New Balance, also showed multisport shoes used for light hiking, running, biking and casual wear.
Across running, water sport and lifestyle shoes, nearly all vendors were showcasing their lightest footwear yet, such as END Footwear’s new water shoe collection, in which all pairs weigh less than 10 ounces. And eco-friendly features were a main story at Timberland, Hi-Tec and Terrasoles.
This year’s show boasted new elements, including a white water rafting competition at the Open Air Demo, a two-day event that drew 1,500 show participants at Salt Lake City’s Pineview Reservoir. It allowed exhibitors to show off their product while hosting sport competitions. Other new features included a paddle sport networking lounge and Project OR, an onsite competition where five design students from five universities competed against each other to create a winning prototype for an outdoor apparel piece, sourcing materials and using components available at the show.
On the show floor, however, activity was noticeably uneven day to day.
“The first two days had a lot of energy. The last two days were pretty darn slow,” said Curt Smith, head footwear buyer at Schnee’s in Bozeman, Mont., who has attended the show several years in a row. “I also noticed that [sales] reps weren’t as busy as last time.”