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2009 Annual SNEWS® Specialty Outdoor Retail Survey: The best and worst

The 2009 SNEWS® Outdoor Retailer Survey is out -- the one place where outdoor specialty retailers get to speak their minds and offer industry observations and commentary on what is great, good, not so good and desperately needs improvement in the industry. Beginning with the much-anticipated "best" and "most difficult" categories, SNEWS will begin presenting the full survey results in sections over the next couple of weeks. You’ll need to be an All Access SNEWS subscriber to read the full survey and analysis.

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Welcome to the 2009 SNEWS® Outdoor Retailer Survey summary, where outdoor specialty retailers get to speak their minds, and offer industry observations and commentary on what is good and bad…or desperately needs improvement…in the industry.

This year, the number of responses we received from retailers set an all-time high — meaning we had to spend a lot more time crunching numbers. Could it be in this challenged economy, retailers felt even more passionately about being heard?

In a shift from previous years, we only offered up a one-page summary in the SNEWS Winter Outdoor magazine giving readers a limited look at whom retailers feel are the best companies to do business with. The reporting of the full survey results, including which suppliers retailers voted as the “most difficult to do business with,” complete with expanded and detailed analysis of each category’s results, as well as our methodology, begins today. You’ll need to be an All Access SNEWS subscriber to read the full survey and analysis. There, you can also gain historic perspective by comparing these results with those from past surveys.

Although SNEWS sends the survey to hundreds of outdoor specialty retailers all over the country, this survey is by no means scientific in its approach. We do believe the results are quite representative of the outdoor specialty retail market as a whole, and those surveyed are consistent from year-to-year, so comparing answers from past surveys presents a useful picture of trends, market conditions and retailer moods — one of the most useful features of this survey. It is important to note that retailers are presented with a blank survey form, listing only questions. They are never predisposed to an answer by being presented with a list of choices. If your company name is in the survey, it is because a retailer decided it was the best answer to write in for the question posed. And yes, the trust we have with our retail respondants is sacrosanct. We wil never, ever reveal who responded to the survey or offered up any particular answer — even with the promise of wonderful bribes.

The survey was available for retailers to fill out online from Sept. 1 through Oct. 23, 2009. Those completing it represent approximately $3.5 billion in outdoor specialty sales. More than 80 percent of those responding to our survey represent businesses with three or fewer storefronts. Seventy-two percent of our respondents classify themselves as “outdoor specialty stores.” Results are representative of the U.S. market in 2009 through September.

Who do you rate as the “best” supplier to do business with?

The North Face – 11%

Werner – 10%

Confluence – 9.5%

NRS – 8.5%

Patagonia – 7%

Osprey – 6.5%

Kokatat – 5%

Prana – 3.5%

Thule – 3%*

Johnson Outdoors (camping division) – 3%*

*Tied companies are listed randomly and all are considered statistically equal in terms of ranking. All answers have been rounded up to the nearest 0.5 percent, and since we don’t name every single company name or category with a percent, the percentages may not total 100 percent.

Also receiving multiple votes were (in alphabetical order): Arc’Teryx, Big Agnes, Cascade Designs, Hilleberg, Hobie Kayaks, Hurricane Kayak, Keen, Life is Good, Marmot, Merrell, Mountain Hardwear, Petzl and Yakima. 

The overall number of retailers responding to our survey actually doubled this year, but the number of paddlesports-only stores remained the same. Interestingly, though, the number of paddlesports companies near the top of the list increased this year. For the stores that sell both outdoor camping equipment and paddlesport products, could it be that paddlesports companies are shining a bit more in the service category than their outdoor brethren? It will definitely be something to watch in next year’s survey results.

A round of applause for two companies this year: First, we salute The North Face for locking down the top spot for the second year running. A nice change of pace for a company that until a few years back couldn’t buy its way onto the top list and seemed destined to languish on the list of those “most difficult to do business with.” Secondly, we commend Confluence. It has been a very long road for the company. Last year, it still sat solidly on the most difficult list, so vaulting from a no-show on the “best” list to a top three position, there is proof that retailers are recognizing and acknowledging positive change in a tough year. Confluence CEO Sue Rechner and her team are to be commended for their focus on serving specialty retailers not just well, but also with integrity and an open line of communication.

In all cases, as in years past, retailers seemed to speak with one voice as they cited reasons for voting a company into the top spot. They applauded companies for treating retailers as partners in a business, for open and honest communication, consistent on-time and complete delivery, fair margins and high-quality product. Why so many companies seem to struggle with these basic concepts of performing even adequate retail service year after year remains somewhat boggling.

Who do you rate as the “most difficult supplier to work with” in the business?

Johnson Outdoors (paddle division) – 15%

We stop working with anyone like that – 12%

Legacy Paddlesports – 8%

Kelty – 7%

The North Face – 6%

Confluence – 5%

Icebreaker – 3%*

Mountain Hardwear – 3%*

Terrasoles – 2%*

Burton – 2%*

*Tied companies are listed randomly and all are considered statistically equal in terms of ranking. All answers have been rounded up to the nearest 0.5 percent, and since we don’t name every single company name or category with a percent, the percentages may not total 100 percent.

Others receiving multiple votes (in alphabetical order): Crocs, Hobie, Jackson Kayaks, Patagonia, Royal Robbins, Seattle Sports, and Ugg.

Can we hear a round of applause this year for Confluence please? As we predicted last year, the company’s efforts, while still not fully there yet apparently, have resulted in the company climbing high onto the list of best suppliers, and down on the list of most difficult. Nice job!

Seems like where Confluence is improving, Johnson needs a bit of a wakeup call as this year it owns the top spot. One retailer wrote in, “The company has poor communication, apparent lack of leadership and clear direction, and some of the worst customer service I’ve experienced.” Ouch! If there is any silver lining, it does appear the company has been hearing its retailers as leadership changes are already being made, we’ve been told.

Kelty is also managing to climb onto this list. We’d suggest this is a direct result of changes the company made last year to go with a bare-bones rep approach. Even if your rep force has some of the most talented folks on it, there is simply no way any company can effectively serve the numbers of retailers Kelty has with the number of reps it ended up with. Word has it this trend is being reversed with more reps being brought in to serve retailers in 2010, and we’d expect to see Kelty slipping down or off this list next year.

One VERY big change manufacturers should take note of is the No. 2 response: “We stop working with anyone like that.” For the first time last year, retailers began writing this response onto their survey forms. This year, the numbers of similar write-ins exponentially increased. The message? There is so much good product out there, and so many good manufacturers, that if you are not holding up your end of the bargain with your retailers in terms of being easy to work with, retailers are more likely to simply kick you out of their store and stop selling your products. Now that is voting with dollars!

Overall, what we said in last year’s survey and the survey before that and the survey before that apparently needs repeating until manufacturers actually get it: As manufacturers who earned a “Most Difficult to Deal With” acknowledgment, you are continuing to fail your specialty retailers if you are: Breaking promises, not taking responsibility for your actions or inaction, being very difficult to deal with, not delivering, delivering poor quality product, not communicating, lying about what you have or have not done, and not showing retailers the respect they deserve.

What are the top-selling hardgoods categories this year?

Backpacks – 17%

Paddles – 16%

Rec Kayaks – 13.5%

Sleeping Bags – 11%

Tents – 8%

Camping Accessories – 7%

Climbing – 6.5%

Car Racks – 6.5%

Backcountry Skis – 4.5%

Daypacks – 4.5%

What are the top-selling softgoods categories this year?

Women’s Sportswear – 22.5%

Outerwear – 21%

Footwear – 16%

Socks – 13.5%

Men’s Sportswear – 12.5%

T-shirts – 12%

Underwear – 9%

Wool Base Layers – 6%

Technical Fleece – 6%

Hats – 5%

What were the fastest-growing product categories this year?

Women’s Sportswear – 7%

Outerwear – 6.5%

Rec Kayaks – 6%

Footwear – 5%

Merino Wool Base Layers – 4%

Backpacks – 4%

Paddles – 2%

Technical Fleece – 2%

Camping Accessories – 1.5%

Interesting to note this year is that we really did not have any category dominating as a best-selling or fastest-growing. Among the record number of responses we received, we tabulated over 100 different product categories from retailers as their fastest-growing or best-selling. Still, even with the diversity, women’s sportswear keeps its lock at the top of the list.

What is your total sales volume year to date?

Less than $499,999 – 27%

$500,000 to $1 million – 26%

$1 million to $2 million – 14%

$2 million to $3 million – 10%

$3 million to $4 million — 3%

$4 million to $5 million – 4%

$5 million to $6 million – 2%

$7 million to $10 million – 4%

$10 million to $20 million – 6%

$20 million to $50 million – 2%

Over $50 million — 2%

How are your sales this year compared to last YTD?

Up between 1% and 10% — 23%

Up between 11% and 20% — 11 %

Up between 21% and 30% — 6%

Way Up! (over 50% up) – 5%

Down between 1% and 10% — 22%

Down between 11% and 20% — 15%

Down between 21% to 30% — 8%

So far down we can’t see the sky – 1%

Even — 9%

In our next report looking at the results from the 2009 SNEWS Outdoor Retailer Survey, we’ll have detailed analysis in the overall camping market, including reports on best-selling brands for backpacks, sleeping bags, tents, outerwear, sportswear, footwear and more. Look for that report Monday, Feb. 22.

The Fine Print

The SNEWS Outdoor Retailer Survey may not be reproduced for redistribution of any kind, in whole or part, including for promotional or sales purposes of any kind, to consumers or the trade, without the written consent of SNEWS. Contact SNEWS at for reprint details and restrictions.