While the impact of the pandemic has been catastrophic, an unintended and unexpected win for the outdoor market has been the fresh group of enthusiasts discovering the benefits of being outside.
As COVID-19 ramped up stateside in 2020, so did the numbers of people heading outdoors, but many wondered if the trend would continue.
After another strong year for the market in 2021, industry insiders are bullish about the momentum — but acknowledge there are some obstacles ahead.
“We’re going to have a good year, but I don’t think it’s going to be as good as last year,” said Matt Powell, senior sports industry adviser with The NPD Group Inc. “You’ve got a lot of macro issues — the child tax credit, unemployment benefits, stimulus — that [were in place] a year ago and apparently are not going to be repeated, which means there will be less disposable income. And as people start to return to work, they’re going to have less time to spend outdoors.”
Below, leading specialty outdoor retailers deliver a market forecast for 2022.
BUYING AMID SUPPLY CHAIN CHALLENGES
JON ZALINSKI (OWNER, TREADZ SHOES): “Some brands put on a happy face, saying, ‘We’re going to have product and deliver and ship it,’ knowing they don’t have any idea. Others are saying it is going to be tough, that spring and fall will start later because of the disruption. We’re placing orders as if there won’t be any product for fill-ins. We’re also being hyper-conscious of where product is made and trying to hedge our bets with whatever information the company is giving us. How is that business pivoting? Are they changing to air freight? How is that company addressing their issues with where their products are made, and how did they get that product to the U.S. and to my back door?”
ED MCCALISTER (OWNER, RIVER SPORTS OUTFITTERS): “It’s a game of chance. Customers finally have accepted the fact that it’s not just us experiencing problems. Back in 2020, they took it like it [was us not doing our jobs], but there have been shortages everywhere and people are accepting of all these issues. We’ve brought in some new brands to have something new in the store. A lot of time you buy what is selling, which is good, but if you’ve got six other stores in town selling it, you’re not unique. And we’re bringing some older vendors back — Asolo, for example, and we brought Toms on again.”
MELANIE COX (CEO, BACKCOUNTRY): “The relationships that our team has cultivated will help us with prioritization of inventory and early visibility to where inventory is and how its moving so that we can pivot when and where needed. We expect supply chain challenges to persist throughout the first half of 2022, at least.”
MAILE SPUNG (CO-OWNER, UTE MOUNTAINEER): “Everybody is asking for orders a lot earlier to try to get ahead of the supply chain issues, so we’re writing before we have sell-through numbers, we’re ordering [based on] data and sales. And everyone is doing a bit of overbuying to make sure they’re on the list for getting items. I’m worried that when the supply chain catches up we’re going to run into an excess in the marketplace. [The problem] will definitely last through next spring, and I’m guessing probably through next fall — at least into 2023 spring ordering.”
THE INFLATION SITUATION
MS: “In Aspen, we’re lucky in that price isn’t as much of a hurdle here. We sell things at MSRP and get some flak from local customers, but we continue to make sales even when prices bump up a little bit. It’s not as concerning for me, but in terms of spending power in the marketplace, it’s going to affect all aspects of our industry. It’s also going to affect all aspects of all retail, so I think consumers are going to get used to it and continue to buy.”
MC: “It would be foolish not to be concerned. However, we know our customer values quality and is willing to make an investment in gear. We haven’t seen resistance to moderate price increases but that could change and we will be monitoring it closely.”
BRANDS THAT WILL WIN IN 2022
JZ: “Any company that has product and lets their vendors know that they have product is going to do well because there’s demand. In the side conversations we’ve had with people trying to get product to the U.S., they’re asking, ‘Is it painful to consider moving production?’ Some have said Central America is on their radar.”
EM: “Oboz definitely will. That’s a brand that’s come a long way. Amy Beck came on board to help guide it, she knows what she’s doing, and being bought by Kathmandu is helping. That’s one of our big sellers. And Lowa. Peter Sachs knows what’s going on, he’s got experience, he’s got his feet on the ground, he treats retailers great. Birkenstock, kudos to them for dropping Amazon. Hoka is still on fire. A lot of it is how they treat retailers. We’re all looking at that more and more now. If they want to have their cake and eat it too, that’s not a good thing. If they don’t frolic on Amazon — which is not good for anybody but the brands playing there — I enjoy doing business with them.”
MS: “Anybody that can deliver will have a good share of the marketplace. On has come on very strong. This used to be very much a Salomon town, but they didn’t deliver. On did, and that’s all you see on people now. I don’t see these customers going back to Salomon now that they’ve found something new that they like. Altra has also done a good job coming on in the marketplace. And we have very strong sales with Hoka.”
JZ: “Trying to have a three-week selling window and keeping that up is very stressful, but you’ve got to as an independent. This is how we eat. If I need product, I’ll find it somewhere. As an independent, we can pivot faster than the big guys to find product faster and have those products on the wall. The independent retailer is going to be the shining star [in 2022] because they can have products that other bigger companies cannot because they can’t pivot fast enough.”
EM: “We’ve got to continue to adapt to change. The biggest challenge for the last two years has been reacting and trying to get in front of the curve. And we need to be smarter. It’s very difficult being a one- or two-store business to be on top of everything. We utilize the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance that I’m in with 100 other retailers to share information with each other as to what’s working and what’s trending, what’s coming down the pike. There are smart people out there in those stores. That’s sort of a cheat sheet to learn what’s going on.”
MC: “We are focused on stepping out and taking smart risks with key brands. Customer preferences are evolving quickly, and our merchants know they need to be a step ahead with our offering. In 2022, you’ll continue to see us execute on our omnichannel strategy by delivering modern takes on brick-and-mortar retail. We see an outsized opportunity in footwear. It’s not an easy category to do well, but we’re confident about the strategy we have in place.”
MOST PRESSING CHALLENGES
JZ: “Community involvement to get people out more often. They bought all this gear, we have to find a way to get them out more often and use it. The big boom of people getting out to the outdoors, there has to be a follow-up to keep them interested — maybe it’s keeping the parks open and the trails clean and being more inviting.”
EM: “We’re all subject to the pro deals [for influencers] that so many vendors have. It used to be if I was an influencer, I would be eligible for 20% or 30% off retail by going straight to the company. I’d justify who I am and they would make a decision and say, ‘This is a guy of influence, we’d like to have him in our gear.’ But it’s gotten to the point where just about anybody can be an influencer with half the brands. They’re not an influencer, they’re just getting something for wholesale. When it’s open to everybody, it certainly erodes your margin at retail.”
MS: “The trade show conversation is shaking things up and nobody knows where that’s going to land. That needs to get settled. Everything was in a precarious state before COVID, and with not being able to get together, it threw things further into disarray.”
CATEGORIES ON THE RISE
JZ: “The pressure of COVID is making people move out of highly densely populated areas to get more space and be outside. There’s still opportunity in selling tents, sleeping bags, backpacks. I’m hearing that larger backpacks are selling better because people are getting three days or so to themselves. With two- or three-day overnights, I think people are going to try to hike more, get it further back. The trail runner will have to get a hiking shoe because they’re carrying weight in their pack. Because your pack is bigger, you’ll have to get stronger footwear, so the hiking boot market will take off.”
EM: “It’s in the hard goods section of stores. Here, the Smokies gets 12 million visitors a year. The more we can do to get people outside, the more they’re going to want to get outside. People are relocating here not only because of jobs in industry, but also because there are plenty of mountain bike trails and all of that to deal with. Boats and bikes are still high priorities for people.”
ADVICE FOR A STRONG 2022
JZ: “Be open to experimenting with newer lines. You might surprise yourself, which is the whole point of independents. The conversation on the sales floor is golden right now, explaining and telling stories of newer companies and product. It’s fun and energizing, it feels like a clean slate.”
EM: “We’ve got to continue to get people outside and exposed to things whether it be through clinics or rentals. We have five or six rental operations, which helps us expose people to the outdoors, whether it be boats or bikes, and some of those converted into customers.”
MC: “Chase whitespace, deliver more newness than ever. The customer wants product that performs and looks goods — it can’t be one or the other. Understanding the lifestyle needs of the customer and showing up in the right way and in the right places is critical for any brand.”
MS: “For us, it’s to continue to be welcoming to all types of people and not pigeonhole ourselves as super technical or only catering to high-experienced users. With so many people coming into the market, having entry-level products and a welcoming atmosphere is important to make them feel comfortable coming into our stores and to ask questions. For the greater market, it’s accessibility and focusing on sustainability. The group of users coming in with spending power is focused on environmental responsibility in products, and they’re going to gravitate to the styles that walk the walk in that category — and don’t just greenwash things.”