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Following flat fall, early winter looks brighter for outdoor/fitness retailers

Early winter season cold and snow, plus strengthened e-commerce sites helped outdoor and fitness retailers get off to a good holiday sales start.

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The government shutdown, slightly higher interest rates and comparisons to last year’s Sandy-related survival retail boost left outdoor retail sales flat for October, according to industry data analysts Leisure Trends Group and OIA VantagePoint.

But there are early signs winter could bring more cheer, at least for some.

Online retailers were the biggest winners to kick off the holiday shopping season. So-called “Cyber Monday” sales rose 21 percent, according to IBM. Mobile sales — purchases made from phones or tablets — soared 55 percent and accounted for 17 percent of total online sales.

Meanwhile brick-and-mortar retailers saw sales slip 2.7 percent over the Thanksgiving weekend, according to the National Retail Federation. The group attributed the drop to retailers offering earlier deals, yet still predicts that overall holiday sales will rise 3.9 percent versus a year ago.

Perhaps more importantly for outdoor and indoor fitness retailers, is that the cold weather and snow is actually showing up this early season.

A winter storm that moved across much on the country around the Thanksgiving holiday, including the South, spurred cold-weather sales several retailers told SNEWS and a second storm with heavy snowfall for the Rockies and Plains is expected move through this week.

The cold snap is putting holiday shoppers in the winter mood at the right time, retailers said, who have suffered through early warm winters the past two consecutive seasons.

“Traffic was very good over the Thanksgiving weekend, especially with the colder weather,” said Pete Carleton, store manager at Alpine Shop in Kirkwood, Mo. “People were buying a lot of coats, gloves and hats … ski and snowboard sales were strong, too. Some folks were already heading out to the mountains for vacation this week.”

Carleton said in-store Thanksgiving weekend sales topped last year — Small Business Saturday was the strongest day for the local shop, but Black Friday provided the strongest gains — and an additional boost came from its online channel.

“We’ve had e-commerce for two years now, but this year, it really picked up as we did more advertising, including Facebook, and provided some exclusive web-only deals that were very popular,” he said.

The colder weather and anecdotal evidence bodes well for outdoor winter apparel and equipment sales, which already exhibited gains in October, according to OIA VantagePoint and Leisure Trends. Still, there are some slumps to work though. Outdoor footwear sales continue to decline, driven primarily by a drop in minimalist footwear. 

The cold winter also should help home fitness equipment brands and retailers, who finally are starting to dig out the trenches. As reported by SNEWS Fitness earlier this year, specialty fitness retailers increased their number of doors for the first time in six years in 2012 and some of the industry’s biggest names — Nautilus, Life Fitness and Precor — all reported higher third-quarter 2013 sales, up 3 percent, 9 percent and 3.7 percent, respectively.

“The nastier the weather, the better,” said Tim Bowman at Fitness Experts in Chicago. “People don’t mind running outside in the cold, but once there starts to be snow and ice on the ground, that’s what really helps us.”

–David Clucas