Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, outdoor retailers have been fighting for their very survival. With communities across the nation closing national parks and ski resorts during the prime months of winter recreation, specialty store fronts and manufacturers alike are doing all that they can to keep their heads above water. Limited foot traffic due to stay-at-home orders and physical distancing requirements meant to slow the spread of virus only added to their misery. But in an industry accustomed to the uncertainties of weather and sudden shifts of economic stability, many smaller companies are taking this global health emergency in stride.
“Through the COVID-19 crisis, while it definitely shocked us and shut things down momentarily, we’ve actually come through this quite well,” says Adam Chamberlin, sales manager of the Norway-based apparel brand Norrona. “People have bought more clothing and gear this summer and spring than they have in a long time. The reorder business through wholesalers has been screaming! That’s been a real source of strength for us and justified our holding tight on our orders.”
By the time the pandemic hit in late January, most product orders for spring 2020 had already shipped. With a good ski season underway, at least a few retailers had begun placing reorders. But as business began to slow and cancelations started rolling in, some savvy suppliers kept products in stock and worked with retailers to shift their inventories to meet demand wherever possible.
“That’s just being a good partner,” Chamberlin says.
As shops started to struggle through the challenges of store closures and employee furloughs, managers had to scramble to both serve their customers and keep them safe from any potential exposure to the virus. That put a crimp in standard operating procedures and threw the best-laid plans out of whack. “Demand for bikes and paddle sports was crazy,” says Mike Donohue, co-owner of the Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, Vermont. “Apparel sales were good too. But we had spotty delivery from some vendors with incomplete size runs and missing colors. A lot of them though were willing to work with us to get what we needed.”
In some markets, despite the crisis, business has continued. Though many consumers were put out of work, many remained employed working from home. Economic stimulus checks combined with canceled spring break vacations meant there were many families with discretionary funds to spend on outdoor gear. Those suppliers nimble enough to meet this demand were the most successful.
“We haven’t taken our foot off the gas in any way shape or form in terms of the investments we are making on the supply side or the brand side,” says Bill Sinoff, general manager of Evolv climbing shoes. “For us, it’s business as usual. We don’t anticipate any dire consequences over time.”
A vertically integrated brand, Evolv controls pretty much every aspect of its supply chain. Significantly less affected by tariffs and the trade war with China or sudden restrictions in shipping products from overseas, smaller companies have the ability to better withstand the impacts of even a world-wide pandemic.
“We have retailers coming to us, saying, ‘We can’t get these products for X,Y,Z bands. Can we get them from you?’,” says Jon Frederick, country manager for the mountain apparel brand Rab. “We’re a smaller player in this market and that gives us an opportunity for better market share. I believe it will be a long-term gain.”
Building solid relationships with retailers during tough times has long been a hallmark of smaller manufactures. The current circumstances aren’t much different than a natural disaster or season without snow. Now is the time for these emerging brands to shine.
“Crisis is opportunity in drag,” says Norrona’s Adam Chamberlin, paraphrasing John Adams. “As awkward as it is in this catastrophic moment, retailers, especially small specialty retailers, have some new options, whether they want them or not.”