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The pain of the pandemic has rippled through just about every workplace in the outdoor industry over the past few months, and those of independent sales reps are no exception. As the main points of contact between outdoor companies and the stores that carry their products, reps have been burdened with the duty of passing along bad news as the pandemic has developed, all the while losing income themselves.
Outside Business Journal reached out to four independent reps to get some perspective on their day-to-day experiences: Kurt Smith of Top Gun Sales; Vanessa Downey of Apex Outdoor Sales; Keith Reis of Sanitas Sales Group; and Stacey Gellert, regional director of 360 Adventure Collective, a nonprofit association run “by reps, for reps.” Here’s what they had to say.
The future is uncertain for everyone at the moment, but we’re all struggling in different ways. How has the pandemic affected sales reps specifically?
“Sales reps are being heavily affected by supply chain backup and associated costs. For reps, our spring sample bills will be due soon, but meanwhile no orders are going out the door. Samples are usually one of our largest fixed costs, there’s nothing we can do about that. We receive samples a year in advance and we don’t have to pay for them until the product ships the next year, at which point it’s deducted from our commission. When you only ship half of what you planned for March, and you’re looking at potentially shipping nothing in April, you start to feel the size of that bill. Most of our brands are trying to work with us, but they’re in the same boat. They need our sample payment as much as we need our commissions.” —Keith Reis
“For reps, one of the biggest problems is the shrinking timeline for planning. At 360 Adventure Collective, we plan a year to two years out, and we’ve had to completely throw that out the window. We usually host six shows over the summer and we’ve already had to shuffle and reorganize two of them. For reps working season to season, their timeline is shrinking, too. They’re working week to week now. They’re having to pull back and focus on the week ahead of them, which in many ways is counter to the basic nature of the work.” —Stacey Gellert
“As reps, we’re paid when the brands get paid. For that reason, this is going to hurt our bottom line for a really long time. The commissions are already starting to shrink and I imagine in another month or so they’ll go to zero. When shops do reopen, it’s going to take a while for them to sell through their inventory and get back to speed. There’s no question that it’s going to be a long time until we see normal commissions checks again.” —Kurt Smith
How are you managing to keep the doors open and everyone employed?
“At Apex, we won’t feel the full effects of the fallout until the next commission cycle. Until then, we’re operating on cash reserves and applying for various loans. And we’re focusing on the essential products in our offerings. The big question we want our retailers to ask is, ‘If I’m open, what are people going to buy?’ Some brands have started making and selling products that people are still spending money on. For example, Croakies has always made lens wipes, but now they’re converting those products to include alcohol for disinfecting surfaces. Water filters and other survival equipment is also selling well.” —Vanessa Downey
“I know that some of our reps have filed for Paycheck Protection Program loans, but many are unsure if they’ll use them, as it’s not 100 percent clear whether those loans will be forgiven for sales reps. But that option does exist, and I know some people are taking advantage of it.” —Stacey Gellert
How is everyone handling this emotionally?
“We’re all battling a spectrum of emotions. I get the sense that people are cautiously optimistic. One thing we hope, from a business perspective, is that people have reconnected with nature during the quarantine. Ideally, when this starts to subside, that might create a bigger demand for outdoor products. But I think depending on where you are in the country, the feelings are different.” —Vanessa Downey
“I’ve always been an optimist. It’s going to be hard for a while, but when restrictions are lifted, the pent-up demand is going to come rushing out. People are going to want to get outside. I’m trying to temper that hope with realism, though.” —Kurt Smith
Communication is a key part of your job. How do you manage that without breaking the rules of social distancing?
“Most reps are utilizing Zoom and other online presentations. The issue is, even if you have a state-of-the art show room to film a presentation, you can’t control how retailers are receiving the information. Is it on a tiny iPhone screen? Is the monitor 15 years old with terrible color resolution? Are they one click away from distraction?” —Stacey Gellert
The job used to be back-to-back sales meetings, trade shows, buying group shows, and a lot of travel. Now we’re trying to explore options for delivering messages virtually and meeting with people one at a time instead of in large groups. We’re working to pivot to a new and uncertain future.” —Vanessa Downey
Why are independent sales reps so critical to the industry?
“With all the layoffs that have happened at outdoor companies across the industry, I’ve noticed gaps starting to form between customers and brands. There’s a disconnect that’s happening. That, to me, has been one of the best indicators of the importance of independent agencies. I don’t know of any agencies who have laid people off yet. An agency helps maintain a continuity of relationship and messaging, even in times like these. I think brands have really seen the value of independent agencies through all this.” —Keith Reis
“It’s important to note that sales reps are brands’ direct line to retailers. A lot of buyers still want face time. We all want connect, and even more so now that we’re being sheltered. I’m ultimately an optimist, and I think that’s one potential silver lining for reps. At the end of the day, the sales rep is the person who keeps the story of your products alive.” —Stacey Gellert