The State Of Specialty Retail: Staying Strong During A Pandemic

    It’s clear that the past 11 months have been some of the most challenging our industry has seen. Brands and retailers have had to be flexible and adapt to tough new conditions in order to continue to do business together.  The outdoor industry has pushed itself hard to innovate new systems, adopt new technologies, and maintain growth.  

    And for many retailers, it paid off.

    I was recently able to spend some time interviewing retailers across the country, seeking to get an in-depth understanding of their struggles and how they are persevering to keep their businesses in a positive place. All while maintaining the health, safety, and comfort of their employees and customers.

    Tough Start, Strong Finish

    A clear picture has developed throughout these conversations. March through June of 2020 were some of the toughest months in the history of many storefronts. Most everyone spent 4 weeks completely shut down, followed by a limited ability to sell through curbside pickup and online presence around the end of April. This created a slight uptick in business, but many stores were still challenged to keep staff employed and the lights on.

    As some states began to reopen, it was apparent that folks were a little stir crazy and wanted to embrace the outdoors more than ever.  June 1st was a major step up for many as biking, paddle sports, camping, and running erupted with sales. Many retailers sold through their on-hand inventory in the first few weeks upon returning to in person sales – crucial in the sense of specialty fittings. While the feeling of dwindling inventory was nerve wracking for many shops, knowing that there would be a fall product release gave hope in the coming months.

    Nearly everyone I spoke with noted that October was one of the absolute busiest in the history of their store. The reality of seeing an even higher amount of sell through if vendors had ATS would have been even more substantial. The top categories mentioned were all focused on specialized expertise, with Snowsports (ski, snowboard, XC ski), biking, fishing, and niche running continuing to dominate. It was additionally noted that some categories like Casual Outdoor and general soft goods were not nearly as substantial, mostly correlating that with competition in Direct-to-Consumer sales.

    Direct From The Retailers

    Tom Fernandez, Owner - Tailwater Lodge/ Tailwater Fly Shop - Altmar, NY

    “The Tailwater Lodge and Fly Shop has seen an incredible number of challenges through this pandemic but is thankfully thriving and pushing forward. Our Lodge and Fly Shop shutdown on March 13th for what would be two and a half months. These were clearly the most challenging months we have seen as a business but thankfully we were able to get the wheels turning with a slow opening at the end of May/beginning of June. We did not stop seeing challenges as state protocol made for a very slow start once reopening, but PPE was an incredible benefit and gave us some ability to limp along with the ebb and flow of state guidelines. Losing our summer season was horribly painful, as it’s a major time for our outdoor community to engage in this part of New York state. Thankfully New York saw some progress and was able to open up at small capacity in late summer. This resulted in an unbelievable amount of participation as the constant response was how “Stir Crazy” everyone was. Consumers were ready to embrace the outdoors, and it quantified with an unbelievable ability to sell through product, book our lodge, and fill our guides’ calendars. Overall, we are thankful for the ability to keep our doors open, create a place that is safe for both our staff and customers, and look forward to the future past pandemic. This year has brought its challenges but has also brought the largest new customer base that we have seen to date. We are excited to see these customers return to enjoy this beautiful part of New York.”

    Mort Nace, General Manager/Buyer - Medved Running & Walking - Rochester, NY

    “While we have had our challenges it hasn’t been all doom and gloom for us. The two months of closure were tough, but we were thankful for having a strong web presence and close longstanding ties to our community. There was a definite rebound for us upon reopening, but we were missing the typical sales we see from our cross country/high school sports patrons. It was an interesting fall transition, but we had a phenomenal holiday season. Our ability to adapt to the times was so commendable to our staff! Utilizing virtual fittings and consultation kept our history of customer service top notch. Some of the biggest challenges continue to be supply chain/shipping issues, but we are aligning and excited to keep moving forward. We are missing our community connection, especially our group events, and cannot wait to get back to them ASAP!”

    Jon Holmes, Marketing Manager - Bill and Paul’s Sporthaus - Grand Rapids, MI

    “COVID-19 brought us some of the most challenging and uneasy times we have seen in our 60 years of business. The closure of our store for 6 weeks was perhaps the least terrifying aspect. It left us with the looming uncertainty of possible re-open dates, ability to employ our staff, and what it would look like if, or even when, we reopen. Thankfully we kept our heads high and did what we know best – focus on our community and customer service! We had a slow reopen in June with a skeleton crew of staff focused on their safety and the safety of our customers. It was easy to see the community was there for us and was ready to get outside. The summer months were absolutely on fire as we sold out of our paddle sports almost instantly. In addition, camping, footwear and virtually anything getting people into the outdoors, sold out. As we transitioned into our fall season, the uncertainty resurfaced as Michigan started seeing a resurgence of COVID-19 cases. We knew we had to take every step in increasing our protocol for the safety of our staff and customers alike. We have seen a lot of positivity overall and feel that being conscious, thoughtful, and proactive has allowed us to thrive during these troubled times. Our fall season was incredible, as we sold nearly every single item in our Snowsports department. We are beyond thankful for our community of customers, their ability to understand the challenges we have faced, and even more their ability to continue to keep us moving forward.”

    Communities And Consumers Showed Up For Retailers

    This pandemic was definitely a struggle for the outdoor industry, but overall we are still seeing a high level of success. Research from NPD shows that the Millennial and Boomer generations are here to embrace every aspect of the outdoors. Urbanization is undergoing a drastic change and many are moving to places where they can spend more time being active and more time embracing their passion.

    While data collected from Grassroots Outdoor Alliance is showing that overall, the industry’s profitability is close to being flat for the year, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Consider that most retailers were closed for at least 6 weeks during what is typically their busiest season, and the picture starts to look a little different. Looking at the previously cited NPD data we can see that participation in outdoor activity spiked to incredible levels. Biking was up 63%, Paddle sports were up 56%, and Camping was up 31%.

    As an industry made of passionate people doing what they love and supporting each other, I am thankful to say we will persevere and move forward from this pandemic stronger than ever. From where I'm sitting, the future of our industry looks pretty bright.

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