Want an honest opinion on where things stand in the outdoor sales representative world? Talk to Ray Ferrand.
The East Coast sales rep has plenty experience on front lines, from his start with Paragon Sporting Goods in New York in 1973 to launching his own rep agency, Ferrand Associates, in 1986. He helps sell brands such as Sherpa Adventure Gear, Eagles Nest Outfitters, Point6, TrekSta, Perfect Storm, Snow Peak and Tilley Hats.
He’s twice been the board president of the Eastern Outdoor Reps Association, and in 2001, was awarded the Outdoor Industry Association’s Leadership Award in the sales representatives category.
He didn’t shy away from the tough questions we asked earlier this year at Winter Market, including the largest challenges in his field and how Outdoor Retailer can become a better show.
What are some of the biggest issues facing the outdoor rep community today?
Deadline mania is the first. It has become impossible for rep groups to stage effective shows as the larger, typically apparel brands have very early order deadlines, while hard goods lines aren’t even sampled before Outdoor Retailer.
Secondly, it’s easy for brands to expand and be in numerous categories now, due to the fundamental shift to outsourced manufacturing where any brand can, pretty much at the drop of a hat, choose to add accessories or clothing or gizmos to their offerings just by finding a factory to create it. Reps can get squeezed out of the best-focused specialty lines in order to keep or secure larger brands that choose to be in the same category.
Another issue is that customer service at companies has been scaled back and replaced by information systems. This puts loads of data at reps’ fingertips, which can be good. But the reality is that the services once provided by the company are now provided by the rep — tasks such as data entry, availability reports, pro deals and more. These services typically have not been compensated for with a raise in commission rates.
Finally, Internet sales drastically impact business. Manufacturers who are also online retailers are a major source of friction between reps and retailers. If the rep is the lubricant to good relationships with retailers, then you can imagine how it’s harder to keep relationships well-oiled in this situation. Also, where have all the hardgoods gone? It seems the more techie hardgoods or clothing is, the more impractical it is for the local retailer to offer the depth of selection customers expect, and therefore, to compete with what’s online. Because of this, some of the best specialty shops in the country have shifted to becoming outdoor lifestyle shops. This is a loss for everyone, in my opinion.
What makes for the best relationships between the brand, the rep and retailer?
There are brand and sales managers who understand that the right reps are a valuable source of feedback for product and program development. Typically, the rep is considered part of the team, and there is plenty of dialogue, sometimes through formal steering committees, and sometimes just through open channels of communication. When feedback is accepted, or even better, sought after, goals become easier to agree upon by the company and its reps.
The goal of every rep should be that they are thought of as a trusted consultant to the retailer and not just a sales person. A good rep is always thinking about the best way for an individual retailer to benefit from the products and programs of the company they represent.
What are your goals when you attend Outdoor Retailer?
I get a few things out of the show. Of course I fulfill the expectations of my brands that I will be there. I also show products for the first time from brands that consider OR to be the beginning of the selling cycle. Last, but not least, I get to socialize with a number of very dear friends.
Some Say Outdoor Retailer is too much of a “western show.” Do you agree, or do think the folks out east enjoy coming west?
I don’t think that the issues of the OR show are about location. It’s about timing, relative to the deadlines we now face. Excitement is an issue, too, I think. OR used to be where every retailer and everyone wanted to be to see what was new, but it’s just not the kick-off it used to be. Make it more relevant and people would come from all over again.
What if the show were to move to Las Vegas for more space?
Bigger doesn’t mean better from where I sit. The show has many very large and very slow booths. Some are slow because their deadlines are over a month past by the time OR rolls around. Others have outsized egos or budgets, and buy too much space for their traffic requirements. Of course the idea that the show management would actually monitor space and traffic needs of exhibitors would erode show profits, and that trumps the idea of making a manageable show for buyers. Meanwhile, innovative new companies have a hard time getting good or adequate space at the same time irrelevant new exhibitors with deep pockets can buy a strong presence at the show.