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Warmest recorded March in U.S. had outdoor retailers scrambling to stock spring goods early

With store shelves still full of leftover winter gear, outdoor retailers faced an early rush of consumers looking for spring items in the midst of a record warm March.

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Outdoor retailers rushed to stock their shelves with spring inventory in the midst of what turned out to be the warmest March in the United States on record.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Monday that the nation experienced an average temperature of 51.1 degrees in March 2012 — 8.6 degrees warmer than the 20th-century average and half a degree warmer than the pervious record high, set in March 1910.

“Every state in the nation experienced at least one record warm daily temperature during March,” NOAA officials said, and 25 states (mostly east of the Rockies) had their warmest March on record. Only one state, Washington, experienced colder than normal average temperatures in March.

The warm weather has helped fuel sales of spring sportswear and footwear, outdoor retailers told SNEWS, but it’s been a scramble to get the inventory out on the floor early enough.

“It was 83 degrees on that last day of winter here,” said Doug Baker, head buyer at Benchmark Outdoor Outfitters in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Like a lot retailers, after the year with no winter, our floor was still full of leftover winter items, but consumers were coming in for new spring product. We had to get those out a lot earlier.”

Baker said sportswear, particularly women’s sport dresses from Horny Toad, Patagonia and Prana, have sold well, along with summer footwear from brands like Chaco and Teva.

March outdoor sales figures, which are still being processed, will likely continue the trend of spring items outperforming winter ones, said Liz Stahura, account executive with Leisure Trends Group.

Year-to-date, through the end of February, winter equipment sales fell 31 percent, while climbing gear rose 19 percent, packs gained 12 percent and tents increased 8 percent across the specialty, chain and Internet channels, she said. In footwear, boot sales fell 10 percent, but shoes were up 15 percent fueled by trail running, water and causal categories.

As for all that remaining winter product, many retailers told SNEWS they’re looking to online sales and holding inventory to next winter.

“The web has been a useful tool to move unwanted merchandise and still stay within vendor guidelines that dictate dates and discounts,” said Geoff Brugler, owner of Appalachian Outdoors in State College, Pa. Many outdoor retailers are advertising winter product sales of 30-40 percent off. Those sales will wrap up in stores soon, but likely will linger online where sales floor space is virtually unlimited.

Stores also are prepping for early fall 2012 sales to move last season’s goods, retailers told us. “We traditionally don’t do Black Friday sales and the like, but we’re considering it for this November,” Baker said.

With consumers expected to snap up winter bargains from this season, retailers told us they’ve cut their preseason orders and tightened their open-to-buy dollars by as much as half for next winter. Manufacturers such as Columbia Sportswear are already feeling the negative effects, and upcoming first-quarter 2012 results from other public outdoor companies such as The North Face parent VF Corp. and Black Diamond will provide more insight.

In the immediate future, the best-case scenario will be for the spring temperatures to hang around the 70s, “so that we actually have a spring,” Baker said. “We’re bracing for a brutally hot and muggy early summer now, and when it gets into the 90s with 90 percent humidity that isn’t so good for business.”

–David Clucas