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Outdoor Retailer Show Wrap Part 1

Outdoor Retailer Summer Market officials billed this show as their biggest ever, occupying 330,000 square feet of exhibit space including the traditional pavilion tent. It's little wonder OR was smiling as that translates into well over $6 million in revenue from simple booth sales alone.

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Outdoor Retailer Summer Market officials billed this show as their biggest ever, occupying 330,000 square feet of exhibit space including the traditional pavilion tent. It’s little wonder OR was smiling as that translates into well over $6 million in revenue from simple booth sales alone.

While the overall numbers and show size were up, signs of the times indicate trade show attendance patterns may be changing. Thursday, the first day of the show, and Sunday, the last day of the show, were very quiet. Friday and Saturday were buzzing. Theories abound about why, from retailers who stagger key staff attendance to retailers who simply attend for fewer days.

It didn’t take but a day before the aisle wags were appraising the wares offered in the Salt Palace. “2001 OR will be remembered as the sock, LED light, and stove show,” said one long-time exhibitor. “There’s enough of all three to shod and provide light and heat for the entire population of several small Third World countries.”

Jested another in return: “Yeah, the company who comes to next year’s show with a women’s specific LED-powered sock light that turns into a stove when needed is going to be the big winner.”

Yet again, OR became a big gadget show. That, and a show where it was clearly visible, by checking the crowds at booths, that the bigger and better known brands are garnering the lion’s share of the business. This battle for market share led to all sorts of rumors of this and that company being on the ropes or for sale. Team Marmot poked fun at the situation with a “For sale by owner – Inquire within” sign at the booth (click here to see our Summer Market photo essay).

What follows is our scattergun look at some of the key trends and highlights that caught our attention in footwear, sandals, apparel, family camping, socks, women’s, and kids. More to come next week, including fabrics, gadgets, tents, packs, sleeping bags, and ultralight gear:

A case could be made that there was enough footwear being sold to outfit the entire population of the former Soviet Union. The footwear situation only emphasizes the growing fragmentation of the market. Relying on a single manufacturer to fill your shoe wall is a thing of the past, although a few companies continue to give a valiant effort to that one-supplier wall that has something for everyone.

The No. 1 category that causes us to raise our collective eyebrows is the sudden rush to creating “water-specific” footwear. Salomon, adidas, and the Italian company Lizard were among the few that appear to understand what water-specific footwear needs to be.

No. 2 on the trend parade of trying to saturate a niche market is trail running where TNF is determined to make an even bigger impact than it already has. Montrail has the cult following. La Sportiva could be a surprise here. What we’d really appreciate is for someone to actually define the category. We lost count of the number of companies touting trail runners telling us they are great for adventure racing but you can also use them for mountain biking in a pinch — Isn’t that a multi-sport shoe?

Apart from the trend of the moment, Merrell seems to be the one company that has a grasp of what the market wants and needs. The company’s sport/fashion, fun footwear is a huge success proving that outdoor is going more lifestyle by the day. Yet Merrell hasn’t forgotten the core customer with a solid trail running shoe line and a new classic looking hiking boot (High Cascade) to keep the traditionalist happy.

Sticking to their tried-and-true, Lowa keeps delivering solid styles that blend traditional looks with up-to-date styling. Asolo has been nicely revived by Bruce Franks with traditional styles and far fewer SKUs. Montrail is yet another that sticks to traditional boots.

Next you have Five Ten, which becomes more SoCal/skate/lifestyle with every show. And then there’s National Geographic, which is oh so “me-too” at this time. But with 250 million impressions per year via the television show and magazine, a re-vamped line might take its footwear in yet another direction. And what about those golf sandal guys, Bite, now with hiking sandals. This could be an interesting story in the future.

The bottom line is outdoor footwear mimics the entire industry — companies pursuing a variety of paths none of which is, or appears to be a surefire winner. The big question they’re all pondering is how important will lifestyle become? Will it dominate the market in two years?

Finally, our hats off to Nike ACG that finally realized to play at the specialty retail level, you have to offer product with a projected lifeline slightly longer than that of the average tadpole. Nike is promising a two-year life on all footwear product now, giving retailers an opportunity to get behind a product, sell it, support it and actually develop a meaningful buying program around it — what a concept.

If you want to seek out a volatile category, sandals have always been front and center. That is, unless you play in the eddies along the mainstream, as Chaco has for years, and let the roller coaster ride of fad and fashion swim past you. . So where is the sandal market post-OR?

Obviously Chaco’s sticking to its tried-and-true also with a slow-growth philosophy has paid off handsomely for the company. It is considered the authentic outdoor sandal brand. So authentic that its basic styling was copied, some say
shamelessly, by another footwear company showing at OR.

The rest of the market? Talking to retailers, it’s apparent they want something fresh. The Israeli-made Source-Vagabond sandals are just that and got a lot of attention. In this case having a well-respected importer, Cima, didn’t hurt.

And witness the crowds at Bite. Sure they made their name in golf but they had a fresh idea for outdoor and retailers seemed to like it.

The big guns? Well they all seem to be struggling to hit on something fresh that will spark the consumer’s interest. So they try them all and hope hits the target (there’s that scattergun again). Perhaps they’ve spent too much time “clogging” and “sliding” as of late, and let their sandal innovation slip. We say this because retailers weren’t hopping up and down and praising the “name” brand goods.

Without question, casual climbing apparel is a hot category. Prana has opened eyes to the potential. Watch for more companies. The more, however, will not be the merrier as too much product from too many sources may kill the trend. Metolius may yet prove to be the smartest for getting out while the getting out is good.

As we reported last week, The North Face will be launching a new lifestyle apparel program under the A5 label as a means to grow the company’s business within the framework of its 1,250 North American accounts. Outdoor lifestyle continues to be big business, a fact evidenced by just about every apparel company in the show chasing after the fashion-rooted-in-function dollar.

In technical outerwear, the trend of offering alternatives to Gore-Tex rainwear continues apace with Gore-Tex parkas beginning to head toward an existence once considered unthinkable at specialty retail — becoming labeled as a niche category of high-end performance technical outerwear. Gore can thank Marmot Precip for that with its $99 waterproof/breathable jacket, which was one of the few hot sales highlights in an otherwise dismal 2001 selling season for jackets. Lowe Alpine is among many other companies taking the gloves off and offering waterproof/breathable jackets for $99 or less in the coming season.

W.L. Gore continues to work on expanding its presence in the next-to-skin category. SNEWS had been testing prototype, and we are so far very impressed. A garment of the new N2S fabric that is at the same time water-resistant, windproof, breathable while offering a soft hand and stretch performance is now a reality, with the first garments of this material to be available for Spring from several companies, including Marmot, Polo RLX, Mountain Hardwear, Jack Wolfskin, and Trango, among others.

Think Food and Gadgets For Family Camping
While not quite reaching the television fame of Iron Chef or Martha Stewart, food and its preparation are the big story in family camping these days. CampChef once ruled the large portable, heavy BTU output stove business, but now has serious competition from Rocky Mountain Range, Eastman, and Coleman Exponent.
And the item that everyone wants to talk about cooking on top of these stoves is turkey. That’s right, turkey cooking pots were the talk of the show. Camp Chef, for example, says its new convection roasting Dutch oven system will do up a 20-pound turkey to perfection in one hour and 45 minutes. Eastman offers a variety of turkey cooking pots as well as seafood-specific pots and a large assortment of cooking sauces, marinades, and flavorings. The SNEWSteam tested its garlic/butter marinade on steak during the show and it was, to use Ms. Stewart’s favorite phrase, “scrumptious.”

Away from the outdoor kitchen, there were many new tents from Kelty’s Mantra 5 and 7 models to Nebo Arch series with modular vestibule design and ALPS new Meramac series that look and act like the high-priced models but are incredibly inexpensive ($75 for a two-person dome).

Then we get to gadgets and trick gear, which can be the real appeal of family camping. There were two camp showers to see: Expedition Hardware’s shower runs on four D-cell batteries; Zodi’s is powered by propane canisters. Then there were the trick Athena International’s Burton line of 12-volt appliances you can use in an automobile’s power point receptacle. Items that can be plugged in include an oven, coffee maker, floodlight, and crock-pot.

Women’s Socks
Now that so many companies “get” the fact that shoes need special lasts for women’s feet and clothes need different cuts and design, accessories are next up. And this year seems to be the year of The Sock. Bridgedale, Fox River, Dahlgren, and ThorLos are all introducing women’s socks faster than you can say blister. Features commonly include a narrower heel and Achilles area (so socks don’t bunch at the back of your foot), seams across the toes placed differently so they don’t hit at the toe joint, higher-knit instep area for better fit and support, and lower volume toe area.

Each company is of course applying its traditional specialty to the women’s line, be it padding, different fiber mixes, or seams and contours. Bridgedale has four new women’s socks coming out for spring ’02 (ascent, trek, active, and traveler). Fox River has an entire line from anklets to cycling to triathlon to trekking, with four new ones. Dahlgren has several styles too, including a City Walking sock, as well as new and clearer packaging. Thorlos is adding a women’s light hiking sock to its already bulging line.

Women’s Shoes, Clothing, Accessories
There may be a few curmudgeons who still harrumph about women’s stuff (Why the heck do you need that? You’ve done without it for years?), but until they can walk a mile in her shoes (and jackets and socks and packs and…), they’ll never know. Thankfully, companies that have led the charge (Sierra Designs, Wild Roses, Moving Comfort, ISIS, among others) are finding company among more traditional brands that are now expanding a gratuitous women’s line or putting more thought into it. Not that all is perfect on the front yet, though. Some items are works-in-progress, but women applaud the effort. Now, if retailers could only understand the loyal following they’d reap if they took the category more seriously and bought into it more fully. Said Jim Meyers of Outdoor Research/Wild Roses, “It’s just getting retailers to carry this stuff.”

The aforementioned companies continue their charge, expanding into the fitness area (but don’t call it that) with the likes of yoga pants and “lifestyle” tops and pants. (Does anybody really know what a “lifestyle” item is?). But shoes are still key. Asolo, for one, introduced two lines designed just for women called Vogue (a youthful, more urban look) and Enduro (the light hikers and such), both taking an entirely new look at a woman’s needs that goes beyond lasts. They include different colors and combinations, padding in different places, and cushioning. Very euro-looking.

But women’s items aren’t limited to shoes and clothes … or even socks. Ultimate introduced a ground-breaking new line of women’s hydration gear that is not only technical but also showcases more subtle design and color combinations, per Ultimate’s focus groups, says Bryce Thatcher. The four items (at retail in January) are slimmer, and position straps and contents differently for a woman’s body. We can’t wait.

And then there are the little guys: The Macabi Skirt is one woman’s one-product company. It thinks waaaaay beyond the box with an outdoor adventure travel skirt that can clip, hook and Velcro in different ways so it can be shorter, or longer, or even pant-like for things like fishing or hiking.

Kid’s Stuff
Must be that company heads and designers have those little ones tugging at their shorts too since lines of kid’s stuff are blossoming all over. And we aren’t just talking tiny tees here. Oh, no, we’re going technical. Both Camelbak and Cascade’s Platypus have new hydration systems sized just for the kids — finally, an answer to the problem of how easily kids overheat and that adults mostly don’t get that kids need water almost more than we do. Camelbak’s is for kids ages 5-10 (at retail in November): The Skeeter (MSRP $25) is just a water pack, while the Scout (MSRP $40) not only has a bladder but also a small cargo area for snacks and gear. Platypus introduces its Twister pack for ages 6-10, also with cargo mesh pocket for snacks (MSRP $25), available in January.

Shoes are still a big issue, and getting them at a low price is even bigger since the kids grow out of them so quickly. Hi-Tec, for example, has several hitting retail in fall and early 2002, from a hiker (Altitude Jr), a trail runner (Perpetua Jr.) to water play and sneaker types. Not only are prices low but they look just like mom and dad’s. That in itself is key for most companies that now have a line of kid’s footwear. But even if the look is practically identical, the materials are lighter so they are more wearable by littler bodies. Plus, lighter materials can help keep cost down.

So if you got the “technical” shoes on the tykes, what about socks? Thorlos continues its push in that area as its socks for kids (Sport, Outdoor, and Snow) is available in two size ranges, and are now at retail.