Inventory challenges were top of mind for outdoor specialty retailers at the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance Connect trade show in Kansas City, Missouri this week.
Gabe Maier, president of GOA, said he’s hearing a lot of conversations about MAP policies heading into the coming season.
“Is price going to hold?” Maier said. “We’re hearing a lot of retailers say, ‘From the closeouts we’re seeing, it feels like a lot of brands have excess inventory.’”
Over the next couple of months, GOA member retailers expect promotional behavior to really pick up, according to Maier.
“It always does this time of year,” he added. “But this feels a little different.”
Running from Nov. 5-9 at the Kansas City Convention Center, Grassroots Connect brought in more than 400 buyers from 145 independent specialty stores to meet with 190 brands, including 123 on the main floor and 68 in the Discovery Marketplace, which is a showcase of up-and-coming brands.
This week, a total of 1,151 people are attending the show, which started Sunday and lasts through Thursday.
The Daily attended education sessions and the Discovery Marketplace on Nov. 5, and checked in with retailers to find out how business is shaping up for the year.
Return to Earth
Heading into the event, Grassroots retailers reported a flattening of overall sales in the trailing 12 months prior to September, an expected return to earth after back-to-back record growth seasons in 2021 (+32%) and 2022 (+11%).
Within those numbers, 32% of Grassroots retailers reported growth of more than 3% in 2023 (YTD), while 46% showed a decline of more than 3%.
“It feels like demand is slowing a little bit,” Maier said. “But it is really category specific.”
Categories such as lifestyle apparel, running footwear, travel, and technical apparel are still holding steady, he added. Hardgoods such as paddlesports, bikes, and camping equipment have struggled.
Looking ahead, Maier said most of the brands he has been speaking with say the supply chain has normalized, which means retailers are normalizing their buying behavior.
“We’re still in the shockwaves of the (COVID-19) pandemic, but they’re lessening,” he added. “Now everybody’s eyeing PFAS.”
As far as the show, Maier is reporting a 5% uptick in the number of appointments among brands and retailers compared to the previous event. Grassroots Connect had more than 9,500 pre-scheduled appointments for the week, according to GOA.
New Outdoor Entrants Sticking Around
Emily White, owner of Roads Rivers and Trails, a specialty outdoor retailer in Milford, Ohio, said the store budgeted to be down about 15% for the year, coming off the boom COVID-19 year. However, they will probably finish down about 1% or flat compared to last year.
“Which is amazing, considering 2022 was another record year,” she added. “But a lot of that expendable income we saw during COVID has dried up.”
Compared to pre-pandemic sales levels, White estimates her business is up 40%. Roads Rivers and Trails is seeing customers who got into the outdoors in the past few years sticking around.
“We won them over,” White said. She credits that to a knowledgeable staff who educated these customers before they went out so they would have a good experience in the outdoors.
“They get out there and they’re going to have this amazing experience,” she added. “They’re going to come back to us.”
During COVID, entry-level products were the No. 1 selling category, according to White, and those customers are now returning to upgrade their beginner gear, including buying backpacks and equipment for car camping.
“Because we’re a smaller store, we were easily able to shift that inventory over to service that customer,” White said.
As far as brand standouts, Rab is Roads Rivers and Trail’s No. 1 apparel brand, and it’s starting to “take a bite out of equipment and gear, as well,” according to White.
“A lot of the legacy brands that we used to stock, about two years ago we completely stopped stocking them because they didn’t sell when the customer compared them to the Rab piece,” she added.
White said attending GOA was a nice way to get all the store’s buying done in one week and to have all the brands there she wanted to see. She also enjoys talking with other retailers and pooling knowledge and resources, especially as the business fluctuates from month to month.
“We’re all feeling this together,” White said. “The community is probably the most important part of GOA, and we get more from that than anything else.”
(See lots of photos of the retailers and brands at the Discovery Marketplace in our slide show below.)
Paddlesports a Tougher Market
For John Williams, co-owner of Pack and Paddle, an outdoor specialty retailer in Lafayette, Louisiana, it’s “been a challenging year.”
Paddlesports make up about half the store’s business, and that segment is struggling more this year than the apparel, footwear, and camping segments.
Williams believes that the new entrants to the market will likely stick around to participate in outdoor activities, and agrees that they will need better, more technical equipment as they progress with their experience level.
“Now it’ll be, ‘Oh, I’m going to Kathmandu, and I need to get some new boots,’” he added.
But there is a concern that the paddlesports market is saturated. People don’t buy a new boat every year, Williams said.
“The life cycle of the product is even longer for paddle than it is for outdoor,” he added. “Innovation happens at a slower pace.”
The difference between the paddlesports market and other outdoor goods, at least according to Williams, is people bought high-end paddlesports products during the pandemic. They had more disposable income, so they bought $5,000 fishing kayaks like the Hobie Mirage Pro Angler 14.
“Where does that leave us for an upgrade?” Williams said. “That’s part of the saturation problem.”
Pack and Paddle has been a member of GOA since 2010. Williams partly credits the show with keeping his store going. GOA helped his business build connections with other retailers and get better at what they do, Williams said.
“The community that was developed through GOA probably kept us in the industry,” he added. “Maybe we’d still be here, but I’d say it extended us in the industry five or six years.”
Women’s Sportswear a Bright Spot for Great Outdoor Provision
Chuck Millsaps, president at Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Raleigh, North Carolina, said he expects to end the year flat or slightly down compared to 2022.
Paddlesports continue to be strong for his business despite lower demand and overproduction in the sector.
Similar to Pack and Paddle, Great Outdoor Provision concentrates on selling the higher, technical-level boats, including Hobie’s Pro Angler and other watercraft that cost at least $3,500.
Great Outdoor Provision has been a member retailer at GOA since 1994.
“This Connect show is our most important vehicle for meeting with vendors and the rest of our peers,” Millsaps said. “It’s a very important show for us.”
Aside from paddlesports, women’s sportswear has been a bright spot this year, with Vuori and Toad and Co. leading the way in that category.
Bart Schaneman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.