What Does the Future of Outdoor Retailer Look Like?

Although the industry has been eager for Outdoor Retailer’s in-person return, last week’s summer market event in Denver was noticeably lighter than in the past — due in part to the Delta variant and rise in coronavirus cases across the U.S.

Many core outdoor footwear brands that typically attend opted out well in advance, and several executives chose to stay behind in the days leading up to the event. Also, market leaders such as Keen made the tough decision to pull out within days of the show’s start after making plans to present spring ’22 looks.

Marisa Nicholson, SVP and show director of Outdoor Retailer, told FN that she believes the lighter turnout was an anomaly for various reasons, not just COVID-19, and expects future expos to return to normal.

“Most of our larger corporate companies still have travel restrictions or have employees that are nervous about traveling, so they’re playing it more cautious, choosing to sit out this particular show,” Nicholson told FN. “Also, the show being in August is really at the tail end of the buying cycle.”

On the morning of day one, which took place Aug. 10, Nicholson told FN that there were more than 13,000 people registered for the event. Typically, there would be about 25,000 people verified at that time.

Nicholson said Outdoor Retailer came to the decision in February to host the show in August — which is two months later than usual — amid several challenges and uncertainties.

“We had to make sure there was availability. We worked with Visit Denver and the Colorado Convention Center to help us identify dates that would still work for this market,” Nicholson said. “There are many different events that take place in the convention center, and [OR] is three days but requires almost a week on the front end to move in and several days on the back end. Once we made the decision to move forward and saw that these August dates were available, it was just all about focusing on producing the most valuable show for the people who could be here.”

Todd Dalhausser, president of Altra, explained to FN that the brand’s reason for opting out was strictly timing.

“The timing is unfortunate because we have already closed out our program for bookings for spring ’22,” Dalhausser said. “With it being in August, exhibiting didn’t have a benefit that it historically has when we could meet with retail partners and present the line in that venue. The investment to be on the trade show floor is pretty significant, and it just didn’t make sense to exhibit.”

The North Face president Steve Murray agreed, noting timing could be a factor for industry attendance moving forward.

“What we struggle with is who actually is going to attend this show as part of the seasonal buying routine. That seems to be very disrupted by the pandemic,” Murray said. “When you can eliminate the pandemic from that equation, then I think we’ll have a much better idea as to what the future of the outdoor retailer is.”

He continued, “We are very committed to supporting the independent — the local or regional specialist in the community that everybody goes to in order to buy their outdoor footwear, apparel, equipment — whether it’s the outdoor sector or the outdoor-oriented sporting goods retailers. But it’s hard to figure out even what their support of this show is. Ultimately, it only makes sense for us to go if they show up, and that’s not really clear.”

Despite scheduled for a time after orders are typically placed, Nicholson said there was still big demand for the summer trade show.

“Our community was telling us they need an in-person event, they need to get back to meeting in person,” Nicholson said. “This show is about more than orders. It always has been. Orders are one element of it, but it’s top-to-top meetings, it’s the networking opportunities, the collaboration, discovering new, it’s still that ability to tell your brand story in a way where you’re able to control that. That’s the benefit of everybody coming together for the show.”

Despite the later timing, there were still plenty of transactions taking place on the convention center floor, Nicholson noted.

“What we’re hearing from retailers who are coming is that they still need product. The pandemic has impacted the supply chain and getting product on time has been challenging. With more consumers embracing the outdoors, the supply to demand is off and retailers are anxious to find as much new product as possible,” Nicholson said.

Tom Kennedy, global president of the Wolverine brand, confirmed with FN that two of the brand’s top 10 accounts stopped by on day one.

Looking ahead, Murray said the future of Outdoor Retailer would benefit from more clarity of purpose.

“What is it really for? And what is the value proposition to both retail and the brands that are exhibiting? Once it’s clear what it’s for, then you can have a more intelligent conversation,” Murray said. “If it’s going to be order taking, then it needs to be at a period within the futures program that allows you to do that. If it’s more about making a statement for the sector, then that’s a different proposition. I just don’t think it’s clear, and I think the pandemic has probably reinforced or emphasized that.”

Also, given the way selling to retailers has changed because of the pandemic, some market leaders believe it may be time for the show’s intent to be refreshed.

“We’ve pivoted to not having catalogs and sales reps showing a line through Zoom. And I’ve heard that some brands aren’t even going to have samples for selling fall ’22, they’re just going to have printed or digital catalogs,” Dalhausser said. “The pandemic has caused so much significant change in the way we’ve operated. If we’re not going to have samples and we’re not going to print catalogs, what would we be doing in an exhibit hall and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars with a booth?”

He continued, “But the community still wants to be together, we long to be together, we love these shows, we love to connect with old colleagues, with the retailers, with the media. We need to partner with everyone and decide as a community what we believe this can be and how it can benefit everyone.”

As for placing orders, Kennedy said industry-wide challenges, especially the shipping crunch, could impact trade shows across the board.

“There is the reality of the lead time for supply chains, and I think fairs and trade shows are going to have to figure out how to adjust for that because I think it’s going to be with us for another year, at least from what we’re hearing from the marketplace,” Kennedy said.

Outside of business potential at the show, Lowa GM Peter Sachs believes Outdoor Retailer provides a purpose.

“I haven’t written an order at a trade show for 20 years. Shows are not about ordering. They’re about relationships, they’re about branding and marketing, they’re about the trends, they’re about understanding what’s happening in the industry. They’re about all those intangibles,” Sachs said. “Those intangibles are really important, more important today than ever before because we’ve all been looking at each other on Zoom camera. This is the first time you can shake hands, talk to your your colleague, your buddy, your customer, your supplier and get the body language, get the reality.”

Looking ahead, Nicholson believes Outdoor Retailer will offer something for everyone, with an emphasis on shaping the industry’s future. “It’s going to be continuing to have those conversations that help make sure that this industry can keep growing because the participation is growing,” she said.

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