Late Winter Chills Buying at OR

SALT LAKE CITY — It might have snowed here during the recent Outdoor Retailer show, but buyers at the event weren’t convinced it would be enough to salvage this warm and mostly snowless season.

Anthony Clark, footwear buyer for Park City, Utah-based Backcountry.com, said that whatever happens now, the season is over for non-promotional boot sales.

“Even if we get two weeks of ridiculous snowstorms across the country, I don’t think consumers are going to be willing to pay full price,” he said.

And that reality, he added, will make his company more cautious for fall ’12. “We definitely have to take it into account,” he said. “We take a close look at carryover inventory and at the pace we’re going now.”

Similar caution should be borne out in results, explained Mitch Kummetz, an analyst at R.W. Baird & Co. “The holiday season was challenging, so retailers will probably take a conservative stance on writing orders. There does seem to be some excess inventory.”

Peter Hanig, president of Hanig’s Footwear in Chicago, said he would adjust his quantities for fall based on how much stock carries over at the end of the season.“It’s been a late, tough season, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop buying. We’ve had some very good successes despite the weather,” he said.

For Frank Gibbons, hiking boot buyer for Brattleboro, Vt.-based Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters, the warm winter has made him more cautious going into fall ’12, even if it means possibly coming up short later.

“We’ll look for carryover styles, and we write conservative pre-season orders with plans to rebook. [If the weather is favorable], we’ll revise up. It’ll be hard to get hot product, but we have good enough vendor relationships that we should be able to manage,” he said.

But one thing that will suffer is expansion into new brands or new styles, Gibbons noted. While some new product launches will make the cut — for example, insulated winter styles from Vasque that are backed by attractive programs — the store will take a wait-and-see approach to most other new product and vendors. “You can experiment and take some chances if the business has been good,” Gibbons said. “But if it’s new product, you don’t bring it in if you’ve had the year we’ve had.”

But buyers surveyed by Footwear News said that despite the disappointing weather, hot product offers an encouraging sign. Brian Trask, footwear buyer for the Boston-based City Sports chain, said he was interested in stylish men’s leather boots designed for fall. Specifically, he was hunting for styles with some insulation and waterproofing features, and had found them from standout brands including Tretorn, Timberland and Sorel.

City Sports’ male customer, Trask noted, is more and more willing to take a chance on a fashionable boot if there’s a compelling reason to buy and if it has a good price point, in the $110-to-$150 range.

“Apparel has always had transitional product, but footwear has always searched for a third-quarter transition [shoe or boot],” he said. “It lets you stretch the season.”

Hanig added that the strongest brands at the show were proven vendors such as Merrell and Cushe, as well as others. And the barefoot phenomenon continues to be top of mind. “We were pleased to see a real effort by the brands to grow this business,” he said.

And many buyers were optimistic about what next season could bring to footwear. “Usually, when you have a down sales year, everyone withdraws,” Gibbons said. “But I saw good, compelling new product in a poor sales year.”

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