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2011 Annual SNEWS® Specialty Outdoor Retail Survey: The best and worst

The 2011 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 present 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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It’s time for the curtain to be pulled back on the results of the 2011 SNEWS® Outdoor Retailer Survey, 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.

Building on our record last year, the number of responses we received from retailers once again set an all-time high — meaning we had to spend a lot more time crunching numbers. There is little doubt in our mind that, more than ever before, retailers are even more passionate about being heard!

In a shift from previous years, we are only reporting survey results on the SNEWS website, including which suppliers were voted by the retailers as the “most difficult to do business with,” plus expanded and detailed analysis of each category’s results, as well as details about our methodology. You’ll need to be an All Access SNEWS subscriber to read the full survey and analysis. On our website, you can also gain historical perspective by comparing these results with those from past surveys (Click here to see past survey results)

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 given a survey with only questions asking for responses. 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. And, yes, the trust we have with our retail respondents is sacrosanct. We will never, ever reveal who responded to the survey or what exactly any one person answered — even with the promise of wonderful bribes.

The survey was available for retailers to fill out online from Jan. 3, 2011, through Feb. 13, 2011. Those completing it represent approximately $2.8 billion in outdoor specialty sales. More than 88 percent of those responding to our survey represent businesses with three or fewer storefronts. Seventy-eight percent of our respondents classify themselves as “outdoor specialty stores.” Results are representative of the U.S. market from Jan. 1, 2010, through Dec. 31, 2010.

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

Patagonia – 18%

Werner – 9%

The North Face – 6.5%

Horny Toad – 5%

Cascade Designs – 4.5%*

Black Diamond – 4.5%*

SmartWool – 4.5%*

Kokatat – 4%

Sea to Summit – 3.5%*

Keen – 3.5%*

Also receiving multiple votes (in alphabetical order): Arc’Teryx, Big Agnes, Columbia, Hilleberg, Ibex, Icebreaker, Merrell, NRS, Osprey, Scarpa, Smith, Thule, Vasque and Yakima.

A round of applause for a number of companies this year:

First, we salute Patagonia for vaulting into the top spot after a hiatus (the company owned this spot in past SNEWS surveys). Its customer service, warranty department, and rep force are so good, it appears from retailer comments, that most appear quite willing to forgive the company for selling direct and even competing with retailers via its own direct-to-consumer promotions. We can assure our readers that few if any other company would receive such latitude. In fact, more than several retailers pointed this fact out to us in their commentary.

Second, applause for Horny Toad. This is a first-time appearance on the SNEWS Best Supplier list for the company — and well-deserved. A number of retailer responses noted that the Horny Toad staff was not only very responsive, but that they were “fun” to deal with. One retailer in particular summarized the comments by stating, “We always know when a product will ship and what is available from the company. Horny Toad makes it easy and fun to do business with them.” 

Third, we are smiling for the team at Cascade Designs who made no bones about telling us at the start of 2010 their goal was to be back on the Top 10 list of best suppliers. It was an all-hands-on-deck effort that garnered results, and retailers noticed the care and attention given to on-time deliveries, customer service and a strong mix of new products retailers could make money with. Nicely done.

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.

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

Salomon – 6.5%

Confluence – 6%*

Vibram – 6%*

Cloudveil – 5.5%*

Johnson Outdoors – 5.5%*

Patagonia – 5%*

The North Face – 5%*

Under Armor – 4%*

ExOfficio – 4%*

Arc’Teryx – 4%*

Others receiving multiple votes (in alphabetical order): Barbour, Brooks, C4, CamelBak, Columbia, Deckers, GSI Outdoors, Jackson Kayak, Legacy Paddlesports, Marmot, Mountain Hardwear, SmartWool, Spyder, Ugg, Umpqua and Yakima.

Perhaps it is a sign of the times since it appears vendors have realized either they must step it up a notch or retailers will look elsewhere. As a result, not one company garnered a significant percentage of votes this year — for the first time ever in the history of the SNEWS Outdoor Retailer Survey. That’s the good news. The bad news is there were more vendors named than ever before, in part certainly because we had more retailer response than ever before, but certainly not exclusively.

It is crystal clear that in this economy, retailers are going to hold vendors to high standards of performance, and that includes customer service and reps. So, if one person on your team has a bad day, just isn’t forthright with a retailer, or makes promises the company can’t back up, the votes are going to come down on the negative side of the ledger. There’s far less room for patience or forgiveness it seems.

Retailers did seem to acknowledge that in a wide spread of instances delivery problems were not unique to any one manufacturer and were more a symptom of the economic climate and labor challenges in China. We doubt folks will be so understanding next year, though, if problems continue.

Given all that, we weren’t at all surprised at the names in the top 10 this year with the exception of one glaring performance – Salomon: Most companies go from low on the list or at least have garnered multiple votes in past surveys before they leap to the top spot in the “most difficult” category. Salomon, however, managed to go from a few mentions in the best category last year to top dog this year as “most difficult.” And each retailer said pretty much the same thing – customer service doesn’t seem to know what is in stock or when something will ship, and they don’t seem very friendly to retailers when inquiries about orders are made.

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 (you’d think by now this should be cut out and posted to the top of every executive’s and customer service rep’s computer screen): As manufacturers who have earned a “Most Difficult to Deal With” acknowledgment, you are continuing to fail your specialty retailers if you are doing one or more of several things. They usually iclude: breaking promises, not taking responsibility for 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.

In our next report looking at the results from the 2010 SNEWS Outdoor Retailer Survey, we’ll have detailed analysis of store size and performance plus overall report on best-selling categories. Look for that report March 23.

-Michael Hodgson

*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.

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.