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The Magazine

Should outdoor sales reps unionize?

Thousands of industry reps might be better off if they did.

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Keith Reis’s typical week has changed a lot since last March. As a sales rep, he’s used to being on the road, hosting clinics, meeting with clients, and visiting stores. These days, though, you’ll mostly find him on video calls, negotiating inventory, untangling supply chain issues, and mediating discussions between clients. “It’s a lot of one-off communications,” says Denver-based Reis. “Back in March, it was all hands on deck, and it still is.”

While some reps work in-house for brands, the majority, like Reis, are independent contractors, operating solo or for a sales agency. When the pandemic struck, independent reps were left on their own to navigate underemployment and job uncertainties. The industry shakeups of 2020 also magnified preexisting issues, like lack of workers’ compensation or salary security. Adding to the stress: waves of returned inventory from some retailers, and demand from others that brands couldn’t fulfill.

“When brands stopped shipping products, reps stopped getting paid,” says Cami Garrison, director of the Western Winter Sports Rep Association (WWSRA). “Reps spent March, April, and May canceling orders, reordering, and emotion- ally navigating what was going on for them personally, as well as for their retailers and brands.”

Rich Hill, director of Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, worked as a sales rep before he spent 25 years managing them. Grassroots serves specialty vendors and retailers, but sales reps have no such representation. Hill believes a national organization would help reps stay relevant and support collective initiatives, such as health care, commission management, the overhauling of data systems, and contract negotiations. “Reps are powerfully effective, but as a group, they’re stuck in the ’70s,” says Hill. “They need to elevate their game, become easier to work with, and organize to have a seat at the table.”

Read more: Should sales reps have to pay for their own samples?

According to Dana Caraway, founder of the sales agency Caraway & Co., regional associations already provide many of these perks and cooperate regularly (six, including the WWSRA, form the United States Reps Association). Still, she’s for larger-scale collaboration, especially if it gives women and the younger generation a say in an industry dominated by older male reps. “It would be cool to have a co-op where we could trade resources and ask questions,” says Caraway. “We’re an important part of the ecosystem and we need to have a bigger voice.”

As the uncertainty of Covid-19 persists, reps are as crucial to successful retailer and brand operations as ever. But sometimes, they need a champion. “The more I sell, the more I’m supposed to do for my retailer,” says one rep, who requested anonymity to preserve working relationships. “But the more I sell, the more my brands want to cut my commission.” Without a unified voice, many ongoing issues or similar grievances never get aired publicly.

Read more: How independent sales reps are fighting to stay relevant in a shifting retail landscape

Working conditions for sales reps vary by brand and contract, with little to no oversight, so a national organization could also help provide transparency and minimum rates. “Contracts are so one-sided—there is zero protection for the rep,” says the anonymous source, noting that reps are also discouraged from disclosing their contracts. “No one wants to stick their head out unless everyone does.” And when brands break contracts, reps must decide if they want to fight for pay and risk losing a client.

Why then, hasn’t a union gained steam? Reps’ schedules remain diverse and overloaded, leaving little time for organizing. Sales is also naturally competitive, contributing to a lone-wolf mentality amongst reps.

“I think the regional organizations would be the place to start,” says Reis, citing their membership and unique insight. “But do they have the bandwidth or finances?” Garrison, from the WWSRA, confirmed that although the organizational capacity is there, time and resources are the limiting factors. Still, she says, “I think we would all be up for it if the industry wanted to mobilize.”