Fall 2020 is a 1,000-piece puzzle that retailers and brands are working together to complete. As hardgoods like kayaks and bikes run out, store foot traffic is restricted, and Americans seriously scale back on nonessential trips, brands and shops are teaming up to figure out how to reshuffle available gear for the fall and how they should order for spring ’21.
Stocking The Shelves
When the pandemic struck, brands tried to curb cash flow and prevent the market from being flooded with discount products in the future by canceling what F20 colors and styles they could. The products retailers will carry in stores this fall will be determined by what’s available, not necessarily what they ordered preseason. Wes Allen, owner of Sunlight Sports, an 8,000-square-foot store near the eastern gates of Yellowstone National Park in Cody, Wyoming, says he is working with brands to understand what will ship and what won’t, and how to adjust where there are gaps. “Factories make rain- wear for 20 brands and base layers for 20 brands,” says Allen, who understands supply chain—he was formerly the sales manager for Chaco. “It’s not just Patagonia and The North Face we might not be able to get; it could be a whole category. It’s a big mess.” And product al- location is changing weekly.
“Big product launches and strategic stuff are a nonconversation with us,” says Allen. “We’re in survival mode.” F20 will be challenging, but brands say they’re on track to deliver a scaled-back offering of S21 products on time. Many brands will relaunch S20 products in S21 due to several factors, including retailers having not been open and selling at normal levels, retailers returning or refusing POs, and consumers not buying shoes and apparel when they couldn’t get to stores to try them on. S21 lines will be focused on close-to-home adventures.
“We heard from retailers that they were editing down to the meat and potatoes of what they carry,” says Christian Mason, Oboz Footwear’s VP of sales. “We made the choices for them to help us both remain solvent.” Brands with creative, retailer-friendly sales strategies in place pre-COVID-19 are well-positioned. For example, two years ago, Smartwool developed a system to shorten the lead time from 120 days to 21 days on core products so it can better assure in-stock availability. “We’re not sitting on inventory, and it gives retailers more flexibility in restocking, says Todd Givnish, Smartwool sales and marketing manager.
Even before COVID-19, the brand was being asked to take more inventory risk so retailers could be more nimble. “If we don’t have what the retailer wants when they want it, another brand can come in and take over that peg,” says Givnish. So Smartwool implemented Merino Mondays, forgiving freight on orders placed on Mondays, a program it has continued through COVID-19. “When retailers order every week or month, it drives their profitability, and it keeps Smartwool on the pegs,” says Givnish. “The program’s success has been insane.”
With travel restrictions still in place and the threat of another wave of COVID-19 on the horizon, store visits and in-person line presentations are extremely limited; Microsoft teams and Zoom line showings are now de rigueur. Brands are stepping up, training, and equipping their reps—the lifeline between brands and shops—with the skills and tools to support accounts. Oboz reps have digital catalogs, dual camera systems, and lightboxes for Zoom showings in order to keep things interactive “because it’s the relationship that’s most important,” says Mason.
Some brands say that this new normal could end up being a more efficient way for retail- ers to buy, especially as shops increasingly ask reps to present a personalized draft buy in- stead of the retailer choosing from a full line. “I’m taking my reps’ word for it on how the product looks and feels,” says Emily White, co-owner of Roads Rivers and Trails, a 5,000-square-foot shop in Milford, Ohio. “I’m putting my trust in my reps to help their lines be successful in my store. I’m letting my reps take the lead on my buy.”
Allen has been employing this strategy with eight of his top brands for the past several years, and he says that sales of those brands are way up. “Instead of logging into a Zoom call and the rep trying to tell us what a fabric feels like, we’re asking brands to show up to our meetings with a suggested assortment for us,” says Allen. “As a Wyoming mountain town shop, I don’t need to see 60% of most lines. Brands understand what we should be ordering.”
The North Face was well positioned for a touch-free buy. The company has had digital catalogs for three years. It introduced 3D cads for the S21 season, and it shot hi-res imagery early—a task made easier by the scaled-back line. But for the first time ever, The North Face is selling its lines with no physical samples in the field, according to Pat Duca, The North Face sales director. Duca’s reps are crafting personalized buys for their retailers, which The North Face has been working on for several years. They’ve segmented the line, creating curated assortments and clear direction for retailers in all channels. “We highlight key styles and give a suggested flow for a collection,” says Duca. We have supporting styles retailers can plug into suggested assortments. Our sales teams are practiced in selling the assortment and selling within a segmentation; retailers are used to hearing that language from us.”
Retailers and brands concur that the buy for S21 should be scaled back to core product—a combination of tried-and-true styles and colors with a dash of newness to keep customers interested. Plenty of S20 product is getting bumped to S21—retailers and brands both still have S20 product in their warehouses, and re-introducing it rather than dumping it at heavy discounts is far preferable for both.
However, there is no formula for how much will sell. Normally, when planning for the next season, retailers rely on a percentage calculation based on the previous season’s buy. Now most brands and retailers are using 2019 sales and what was intended for 2020 to make an educated guess. “It’s important not to get hung up on percentages and look at dollars as a guideline,”says Marcie Peters, Prana’s VP of global sales. Peters says everybody expects the rest of 2020 to have a fair amount of promotional activity due to the near screeching halt of retail in March and April, and lots of leftover product from F19. But Prana and other brands are doing everything they can to keep the market from being flooded with discount gear.
Allen says he is having a good summer to date, but he’s concerned about the bigger economic picture and consumer confidence as the U.S. approaches the end of fiscal stimulus and people come off unemployment in late summer and early fall.
It’s also unclear how small brands that don’t have rep forces will get their product in front of retailers if they can’t easily walk into a shop for a showing. Allen wishes for an online Venture Out, where retailers can see and buy small brands efficiently. Multibrand selling platforms exist in other industries like the gift market, but, to date, there is no wholesale-focused online buying platform for outdoor.
As brands scale back, there could be less big launches and early exclusives. But Allen also wonders who gets the goods when a brand has limited styles and quantities. “For the survival of specialty, that’s the key question for the next year,” says Allen. Most specialty retailers rely on brick-and- mortar sales, even when they have established websites, which many don’t. So, as brands dial in their digital buying assets, some are also working to help their retailers up their digital game to drive sales.
Oboz is pushing stores toward locally.com, which sends customers to their local shop; while The North Face is partnering with Grassroots Outdoors on digital initiatives launching later this year. “We have to do this together,” says Duca. “If brick-and-mortar doesn’t come back, the landscape has permanently changed.”
Consumer buying is a wildcard. “We don’t know where the consumer is going to shop in the future,” says Peters. “Not all retailers are going to survive . Does that create new opportunities for other retailers or a new retail model of the future? And what does that look like?” It’s possible the last four months have permanently changed consumer behavior. “Once the initial surge of support for brick-and-mortar shopping wears off and people redeem their gift cards, is going into a store convenient and desirable?” asks Duca.
Peters says there’s no cookie-cutter solution for brands and shops moving through COVID-19 and its repercussions. “You really learn who your true business partners are when you go through something like this,” says Peters. “You see how people do business.”
In many instances, the novel coronavirus was an opportunity for a renewing of vows in the retailer-manufacturer marriage. “Brands are no longer the frenemy,” says Allen. “Most have been exceptionally good partners in the last couple of months, and conversations around the next 12 to 14 months are positive.”
Allen is bullish on S21. “We’re going to be enthusiastic and buy as if things will be kind of back to normal next year. Maybe there’s a vaccine and people will be less apprehensive about going somewhere other than their house. We’re not planning to have the same year as last year, but we are planning to have a good year.”
Seeing which brands committed to her store during hard times altered White’s product selection permanently. “The brands that have been flexible are the brands I will buy deeper,” she says. White is scaling back from seven to four women’s apparel brands, and working with manufacturers that are supporting her store with buyback promises, terms, and more. “Some brands won’t see me come back; some will see growth from me,” says White.
“Business as usual is changing, and we have to acknowledge that it will continue to change, and we need to be nimble and continue to evolve,” says Peters. “We’ll continue to learn and to be as proactive as we can, and to acknowledge progress as we strive for perfection.”