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Save the trees: Grassroots Outdoor Alliance shifts toward paper-free future

Replacing paper catalogues with digital files will cut waste, reduce costs, and increase efficiency, the group says.

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At the end of any given trade show, outdoor retailers are left with stacks and stacks of paper catalogues from various brands. They have to make the choice to either ship them home to their store, pack them in their luggage, or toss them out. 

“The carbon footprint gets to be pretty large,” said Mike Leffler, owner of Appalachian Outfitters in Peninsula, Ohio.

But today, Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, the consortium of 70 retailers and 69 vendors, is moving toward a paper-free future by encouraging membership’s shift away from printed catalogues or workbooks as sales tools. Instead, PDFs on tablets are the future.

The North Face 2019 digital catalogue
The North Face’s 2019 catalogue is 40 pages, categorized by insulated, rain wear, soft shells, fleece, and bags.The North Face

The North Face, a Grassroots vendor partner, inspired the initiative. After working toward an all-digital sales process for the last five years, they finally committed to digital-only in November 2018 at the group’s Connect Show.

The brand also contributed half of a $20,000 technology grant that Grassroots is using to help retailers acquire and update their digital tools, such as tablets, pens, and PDF-editing software that will replace pen and paper. Leffler said he was one of a handful of member retailers reimbursed for the upgrades.

“In a few years, we’re going to look back at paper workbooks the same way we look at phone books,” Grassroots President Rich Hill said. “With a digital PDF presentation, the working process of the industry remains virtually the same, the efficiency of the sales relationship vastly improves, and we’re able to eliminate thousands of pounds of unnecessary paper waste a year.”

Brands pay between $15,000 and $250,000 to print and distribute workbooks every year, depending on the number of dealers, company size, number of seasons, photography, and more, according to Grassroots’ research. But digital assets would cut costs and eliminate waste. Leffler said he has walked away from shows with a stack of 60-plus packets.

“The moment of truth for us was definitely Grassroots Connect,” said Pat Duca, national specialty sales manager for The North Face. “That show has a high pace of appointments, a large turnover of people in the booth, and everybody who comes through needs to efficiently edit, save and upload notes from their meetings.”

“As daunting as the changeover initially sounded, the whole thing was a success because the tool itself is really streamlined, simple and easy to use,” Duca said.

He, along with Patrick Fitzmaurice, The North Face senior sales planning manager, drove the changeover. They say the back-end software system—PlumRiver Technology’s Elastic Suite—is customizable, such as the ability to notate and rate products, create line assortments, account for real-time product color/style changes, stay abreast of pricing fluctuations, allow for sales segmentation, manage overall product curation, and create a more strategic product mix.

The retailer experience is even easier. They get a PDF catalogue that can be edited and annotated. And even better, retailers can easily share files with their buyers. No more leaving catalogues at home on the day of product order deadline.

“It’s like moving from books to a Kindle—once you make this transformation, you don’t got back,” Leffler said.

By next year, Leffler hopes to chuck at least two big filing cabinets from his store’s office.