Coronavirus turns the outdoor industry’s crucial spring season into its most challenging in years
Ashleigh Diaz should be wrapping up hiring for her busy season about now. When the coronavirus pandemic really took hold in her area, Diaz, the managing partner at 4Corners Riversports, based in Durango, Colo., was on track to finding the additional 20 employees she needs each summer to help sell kayaks, rafts, and camping gear.
But then COVID-19-related nonessential business shutdowns started, and Diaz quickly realized things were going to be different. She took down her job ads, and, when she can finally reopen her business, doesn’t plan on reposting. Instead, Diaz and her business partners, along with their staff of eight year-round employees, will adapt to what is going to be an unpredictable summer.
Outdoor retailers, of course, aren’t alone in their concern about business in the wake of COVID-19. But the nearly $900 billion outdoor recreation industry’s heavy reliance on the spring and summer seasons makes the common issues particularly acute, and the need to pivot immediate.
“It is a terrible time for our retailers to be shut down,” says Gordon Seabury, CEO at Toad&Co, a sustainable clothing company. “Yes, there’s a holiday cycle, but much more, spring season is the big season.”
There are some reasons to be optimistic: “People are gung ho to go outside,” Diaz says. Certainly, cities across the country are seeing their parks and greenways crowded, as being outside is one of the only permitted pastimes. When shelter-in-place orders are lifted, it is reasonable to expect that people will want to raft, hike, bike, and paddle, having exhausted all their Netflix streaming, says Lise Aangeenbrug, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA).
But if lockdowns last months, rather than weeks, and temporary unemployment becomes permanent, it is harder to predict what gear consumers will buy and what outdoor experiences they will be able to afford.
Pulling out a crystal ball to understand the coming outdoor season is further clouded because of supply chain issues. Many outdoor products—including paddleboards, water bottles, and mass-market bikes—are made in China. Even before COVID-19 there were concerns about retailers getting affordable products for the summer season, owing to additional tariffs, and many had been urged to place orders in advance or expect delays and price hikes. When Chinese factories shut down as a result of COVID-19, concerns about shortages continued to mount. Now, Chinese factories have largely caught up, albeit with a few weeks’ delay, but U.S. retailers are closed, or open for online sales only, and don’t necessarily have the ability to receive, store, and sell what they’ve ordered. Retailers who thought they were avoiding one problem by ordering tariff-free U.S.-made gear are getting whacked by the temporary closure of some manufacturers, like the Wisconsin-based Bending Branches, maker of its namesake and Aqua-Bound paddles.
So retailers are adjusting. Diaz delayed her orders for everything except oars and coolers. She doesn’t want to cancel them outright, because products are limited, and if demand comes back, she doesn’t want her shelves to be bare, but she also doesn’t want to get stuck with too much gear that she can’t move.
“We are more concerned about demand versus supply,” says Camilla Yanushevsky, an equity research analyst at investment firm CFRA, who covers Dick’s Sporting Goods and other retailers.
Big retailers, like Dick’s, REI, and Walmart, the country’s largest sporting goods retailer, have their orders in and, for the most part, on the shelves. Walmart remains open in most communities, thanks to its essential grocery business, and other large retailers have amped up their online marketplaces. Dick’s pre-COVID-19 investment in its e-commerce channel is why Yanushevsky and CFRA rate it a “buy.”
At the 31-year-old Gruene Outfitters in New Braunfels, Texas, setting up a website with an e-commerce component had been on owner Tiffany Yeates’s mind for several years. But while running two connected outdoor retailers (Gruene Outfitters is the fly shop and men’s clothing store; The Pomegranate carries women’s and kids’ clothing), she never had the time. Since shuttering their brick-and-mortar doors on March 20, she has gone full force on setting up as an online retailer. Yeates personally is receiving the shipments of product she thought would sell for Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, although space is getting tight, as well as delivering fishing gear herself while her staff puts products online and works on processes for online orders. While the shops get a lot of tourist activity, locals do support the fly shop. But the lack of spring breakers this year meant fewer flip-flop sales, and that’s a challenge for both sales and space. “We have nine boxes of OluKai flip-flops we’d normally be mowing through right now,” says store manager Ashlee Newman.
“This is the first time I have appreciated e-commerce,” Yeates says. “I appreciate the physical store, and I don’t like online shopping, but I see how it is important not to have all your eggs in one basket. We will always have an online store now.”
Manufacturers are aware of the challenges facing these retailers, and they’re trying to develop solutions. “It was specialty retailers who took a chance on us 20 years ago,” Seabury says. While Toad&Co sells through its own catalog and online shop, it also relies on independent outdoor retailers to sell its sustainable clothing. Toad&Co had been working on supply chain issues for months, and even pre-COVID-19 knew they might have to figure out new ways to support their retailers. The company had been testing a revenue-sharing program with Chattanooga-based Rock/Creek, that would give the retailer a percentage of corporate online sales. The test prepared Toad&Co to roll out several different initiatives, including one where retailers who have temporarily closed their brick-and-mortar doors can opt in to get 30% of sales from certain orders, either as a credit on balances due or as a check.
Other manufacturers are offering similar promotions, including Austin-based Duck Camp and EcoVessel of Boulder. Hala Gear, based in Steamboat Springs, Colo., is offering retailers a rare preseason boost of 15% from the sale of its inflatable paddleboards, but only through the brand’s brick-and-mortar shops, not through its own online store. Many outdoor manufacturers are using hashtags such as #saveyourshop and #saveyourlocalgearshop to bolster their retailers just as supporters of independent bookstores and restaurants have.
But Seabury wanted to go beyond that. “This is not time to panic, but rather to work together collectively and thoughtfully,” he says. With the support of OIA he is encouraging brands to stop discounting product via their e-commerce sites and, instead, to hold prices steady through June or July. If manufacturers must discount, he recommends passing that discount on to retailers, so that they can cut prices for consumers without cutting into their margins. OIA is also recommending that manufacturers push back delivery of fall merchandise so that retailers can catch up once they reopen.
“The stimulus package is at least giving people some surety,” Seabury says, noting that online orders for gear direct to consumers have remained as high as 75% of what’s normal for some retailers. But shuttered specialty retailers, like Gruene Outfitters, are faced with winter inventory that would have sold on sale this spring.
“While we hope that people will be able to find enjoyment and some stress release in getting outdoors and on the water during this time, unfortunately the short view looks grim for Main Street retailers and those of us who supply them,” says Lili Colby, chief PFDiva at MTI Life Jackets of Plymouth, Mass. “We have a warehouse full of product that our largest customers—Dick’s Sporting Goods and REI—have put the brakes on. It’s unlikely that we can make up this volume through our consumer direct sales on mtilifejackets.com.” Colby is concerned about the seasonality of the industry, and the fact that the 29-year-old business may not have the liquidity to see it through to 2021.
OIA’s Aangeenbrug agrees that outdoor specialty shops might not truly face the fallout from this year’s temporary closures and supply chain disruptions until next year. “There might be a shortage of product in 2021, or if I still have product from spring 2020 and haven’t sold it, do I keep that and sell that in 2021? Are we going to have a glut of product in the market? If you are a supplier or manufacturer the last thing you want to do is lose your retailers,” she says.
Even before COVID-19 temporarily shuttered factories in China and delayed shipments of sporting goods leading up to the spring and summer season, the outdoor industry was already pushing back on what Richard W. Harper Jr., manager of international trade for OIA, calls already high tariffs: “When you place a 25% tariff on top of an existing 17.6% tariff on a backpack, it is hard to try to absorb those costs.” Some manufacturers had planned overseas trips to look at alternatives to production in China in response to the latest tariffs, but those trips were postponed owing to coronavirus travel restrictions and concerns.
Suspension of payment on import duties was not part of the stimulus package, but Harper and others hope that a 90-day delay could be passed administratively to help manufacturers adjust.
“Initially, we were having supply issues in January,” says Jon Fox, CEO of EcoVessel, which produces its sustainable water bottles in China. One music festival got delayed because of the COVID-19 outbreak in China, and an order of custom cups was delayed. Fox hired two drivers to hightail it from the port to the festival. They arrived in the middle of the second day of the festival; EcoVessel supplied compostable beer cups for the first day.
Dana Howe, retailer relations manager at Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, a trade association with 73 retailer members (representing 130 stores nationwide), says most members are reporting that they can get what they need for online sales, save for items like freeze-dried foods, because demand is up across the board. But they do expect they will be more conservative in what they order for 2021, a process that typically starts in June (and one of the reasons Seabury is urging manufacturers to consider pushing back this timeline).
Like Seabury and OIA, Grassroots Outdoor Alliance is asking manufacturers to extend dates on invoices, place incoming orders on “call before ship” status, and remove order cancellation and hold restrictions. But Howe knows that may not be possible. “While many have been very supportive of these requests, lots of vendors in the outdoor industry are small companies, too, and have greater difficulty in helping with some of those asks.”
Still, the outdoor industry tends to be recession-proof, and its advocates are optimistic. “A couple of years ago we had a huge drought, and we are still recovering from that,” says 4Corners’ Diaz. “But we can crawl out of any hole and get back to what we love, getting people back on the water.”
More must-read retail coverage from Fortune:
—Retailers that are smartest about shopping tech will finish on top after the coronavirus has receded
—Target’s April e-commerce has nearly quadrupled as crowd controls slam in-store sales
—How Home Depot and Lowe’s are preparing for their busy season during coronavirus uncertainty
—The comfort economy gains momentum during the coronavirus pandemic
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEOs
—WATCH: The greatest designs of modern times
Follow Fortune on Flipboard to stay up-to-date on the latest news and analysis.