Boots, Value Rule OR Show

Boots, especially heritage boots that combine function with timeless style, dominated the field at last month’s Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, held Jan. 21-24 in Salt Lake City.

“Our strongest categories in the winter are hiking boots and winter boots, so we’re looking for product that evolves there. I don’t know that we’re looking to radically change anything [about our mix],” said Frank Gibbons, footwear buyer for the three-store Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters chain, based in Brattleboro, Vt.

Gibbons, who said footwear constitutes 20 percent of his stores’ business, named Sorel and Kamik as key to his cold-weather boot business, with Merrell and Keen fueling the hiking side, but not owning it completely.

“We punctuate that with styles from Oboz, Hi-Tec and Asolo,” he said.

And while some customers are price conscious, he added, value sells. “[Price] is super important, unless it isn’t,” Gibbons explained. “We serve as a mainstay for a lot of [local] customers for whom price point is very important, but we have a tourist business, and we do a lot with better brands, and if it’s a hot item from a better brand, price doesn’t matter.”

Denise Friend, women’s footwear buyer at Kent, Wash.-based REI, said the price-value equation held true at REI stores. “What we have been finding is that if you have really good product that has good quality and good value — not necessarily a cheap price, but a good value — then that really resonates with customers. They’re willing to part with their dollars, you just have to give them value for the money.”

Friend also called boots, which she termed “massive,” a continued source of strength for the retailer.

Lauren Barra, footwear buyer for online retailer Backcountry.com, agreed. “Boots are a six-month business for us,” she said, with particular strength at the $110 price point. However, higher-priced boots move well later in the year, Barra added.

Mike Donohue, from Burlington, Vt.-based Outdoor Gear Exchange, said that climbing continued to be a strong category, and that while last August and September had been slow, business was good overall. Donohue also said he had been excited to see Salewa, a technical brand that has an established footwear presence in Europe but is new to the U.S., at the trade show. Outdoor Gear Exchange would be picking up the brand for its soft launch, he said, noting that the selling point was its reputation in the outdoor world. “We’re excited to be able to add an established brand,” he said.

SportsOneSource analyst Matt Powell said the continued growth of OR’s athletic segment contributed strength on both the exhibitor and retailer sides. Among the buyers walking the floor were Shoe Carnival, Famous Footwear and Dick’s Sporting Goods, according to Powell.

“It felt like this show is starting to get a broader audience than it has had in the past,” he said.

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