Grassroots Outdoor Alliance’s latest sales figures report, which the group published on February 17, paint a rosier picture of the specialty outdoor channel than one might expect after the brutal retail conditions of the past 12 months.
Grassroots members reported 2020 sales dipped just 0.34 percent compared to 2019, a decline that many thought would be much steeper. But steady improvement in the latter half of the year—and now into 2021—has buoyed an industry that seemed to be on the ropes when the pandemic took hold last spring. From June 2020 through January 2021, Grassroots retailers nationwide were up 10.8 percent, bolstered by an 18 percent sales jump in the first month of the new year.
To better understand what this fresh batch of sales data says about specialty retail in 2021, we contacted Gabe Maier, vice president of Grassroots, who said the organization remains optimistic about the future for independent outdoor shops. While it’s unfair to lump all retailers together—clearly some have surged while others struggled during the pandemic—Maier said that some obvious trends have emerged for the industry. For example, retailers who adjusted their business model by pivoting to curbside pickup or increasing digital sales or shuffling their product mix to better align with pandemic-driven demands saw sales increase or at least hold steady.
“As a sector, the body of data shows that specialty outdoor retail is not just healthy and growing, but modernizing and adapting,” Maier said. “Like every other part of the outdoor sales ecosystem, specialty outdoor retail has been forced to dial in their digital strategy in order to survive the challenges of the pandemic. As in-person business moves back toward normal, that newfound digital strength of specialty outdoor retail will be one of the biggest assets for a sector that already corners the market on authentic shopping experiences.”
Plenty of threats remain, though. When we asked Maier about the dangers lurking for retailers as we near the end of the pandemic, the response was less about the usual suspects—Amazon, brands going direct, new big-box players—and more about the need for individual stores to continue adapting to the changing and increasingly challenging retail landscape.
“The largest threat that has emerged is the challenge of managing the overall increase of what is required to run a successful shop during Covid,” Maier said. “Many specialty stores have limited staffing and multitask on a variety of business operations. Across the board, owners and buyers of specialty shops have accepted increased workloads in HR functions and staffing, managing Covid protocols to keep their staff and customers safe, inventory and shipment management, and the buying process as a whole. All of these areas are significant in and of themselves, but the buying process disruptions are going to take the longest to rein back in.”
The disruption of the buying process is indeed concerning. Grassroots canceled its last two Connect buying shows and earlier this month scrapped the event scheduled for June. The organization is planning to hold its fall Connect show November 8-11 in Kansas City.
“Over the course of 2020, we saw the buying process move from a reasonably condensed monthlong process to a disjointed three to four months,” Maier said. “Grassroots certainly believes greatly in the value of physical gatherings like trade shows and putting hands on product, but we also understand that without physical shows acting as a deadline, many vendors have chosen to develop selling materials on timelines that work for their individual businesses. Unfortunately, this is creating a staggered and inefficient process for many retailers and is a huge disruption to writing good orders moving forward.”
The pandemic has also provided some opportunities for shops to shine, Maier added. Over the past year, many retailers and vendors have worked in harmony to evade supply chain disruptions and adjust to such issues as “wild demand swings in hardgoods versus softgoods, staffing changes, shipping issues, and some gaps in regular communication,” Maier said.
When such partnerships were strong, so was revenue.
“Where retailers have been able to be in close contact with their vendor partners, that’s where we’re seeing the strongest results,” Maier said.