Shop Talk

3 Outdoor Specialty Retailers Answer Our 3 Pressing Questions

Which categories are strongest at your store, and what is moving the needle for you right now? 

“Camping/hiking and footwear are strong. We are seeing incredible growth in light hikers. Altra is the golden child and has been key in growth of light hikers, and as a reliable and trusted partner in business. Other major categories have been spikier in their sales curves.”

— Larry Desaulniers, Peak Sports (Oregon)

“Our store is primarily themed towards hiking, backpacking, and rock climbing. Our biggest categories are apparel, camping equipment, climbing equipment, and footwear. Apparel is starting to pick back up after it died in 2020, and our gear sales are up (even though the margins are not as good). Our biggest brands are Patagonia, Kuhl, Black Diamond, La Sportiva, and Cascade Designs.”

— Jake Dickerson, Wild Iris Mountain Sports (Wyoming)

“We have been incredibly lucky in Missoula. Lots of folks moved here during the pandemic’s darkest times and we have developed a much stronger traveling and visitor market in the spring summer and early fall months. We have had great sales the past two-and-a-half years and it has shifted as the pandemic evolved. We are a strong hardgoods mix so early on we did very well, then as people emerged from hiding the apparel business improved significantly. What is a major point I try to press on vendors is how quickly they all forgot how well everyone did when inventory was in short supply. Instead of saying ‘okay, we did well with not enough,’ they all — and I do mean all — got greedy and ramped up the production. Now for us the mix is back to pre-pandemic levels (55% apparel and 45% gear) and it has snowed! So hard goods (those that have shipped on time) are doing really well right now and so is clothing so far... but the bottom is dropping out fast, and we expect [2023] to be really challenging.”  

— Todd Frank, The Trail Head (Montana)

What are the biggest challenges you are facing in your retail business right now? 

“The biggest challenges are overstock due to over-forecasting demand, wage growth and wage compression.

Overstock: While most categories are overstocked, few are seriously so, and we should be okay by end of winter for F/W categories. Watersports and rental were seriously over-forecasted, and it’ll be another year before their inventory levels can be right-sized.

Wage growth: Payroll has ballooned due to all the factors that are well known. We do not yet have a reliable model for how we’re going to deal with it, and it’s certainly a long-term threat to the viability of the business. Cost of doing business is up across all expense categories except rent (that’s locked in), and initial and retained margins continue to erode.

Wage compression: Those most skilled and with longer tenure are seeing newbies hired at wages that make the differential unmotivating. Keeping them will be a big problem.”

— Larry Desaulniers, Peak Sports 

“Too much inventory. Manufacturers who all thought they were the smartest folks in the room nine months ago all seem to be buried in inventory. We all have trimmed our buys from specialty up through the dotcom and co-ops, but the brands who are publicly traded and leaned on REI and other big retailers are in the most trouble. The ‘Launch Code’ for [this season] has been punched in the computer so we are managing by being noisy about the bad choices vendors are making and asking for help via mark down credits and some RTV for things that did not ship complete. We are also cancelling all backorders and most back up orders have been put on hold or cancelled. In addition, we [trimmed] forecasts for spring orders by around 30%. Outside the inventory issues, the overall operational costs of labor, freight, utilities and all the other costs associated with inflation have created lots of challenges to the bottom line. Even though the sales increases we have seen are great, they have mostly been eaten up by cost increases.”

— Todd Frank, The Trail Head  

“Inventory management has always been a challenge and even more so since the pandemic. At the start of COVID we were overstocked and desperately trying to sell through our stock, then in 2021 we couldn’t get certain items at all and missed sales because of it. Now at the start of 2023 we have a better forecast, but it may change depending how people shop with the looming recession and inflation. We are planning for it by keeping our inventory levels a little tighter and choosing to ASAP over taking large preseason orders.

Secondly, inflation has been noticeable and will be interesting to see what happens. All of our vendors have raised prices and we will see if customers still find value in the same product. The Patagonia Torrentshell used to be $99, and this fall it will be $179! That is an extreme example, but most prices have gone up 5-10%. We have followed vendors’ MSRP and continue to provide our excellent customer service which is why folks choose to still shop with us when it is so easy to buy online.”

— Jake Dickerson, Wild Iris Mountain Sports  

What are you most optimistic about in 2023?  

“I am most optimistic about our used/consignment section in our store. I am convinced that it is a business category that [DTC] manufacturers and big online folks will never be able to duplicate what we are doing efficiently. The cost for a seller to list a single product online and manage that single sale is extraordinarily high. We can do it here every day and it is bringing in new consumers who have been mostly drawn to ‘discount online’ and been burned by the issues surrounding buying online (fit, timing, et cetera). It is another piece of our business that creates curiosity on the part of consumers.”

— Todd Frank, The Trail Head

“I’m most optimistic about the quality of the team I have. Higher wages have brought better people on board, and they function at a higher level, too. This makes it possible to execute on initiatives with a higher likelihood of successful completion.”
— Larry Desaulniers, Peak Sports

“We are optimistic that outdoor recreation will continue to be a constant driver of income to our area. There was a recent study (by the Central Wyoming Climbers’ Alliance) that shows climbers alone bring $4.5 million to our economy here in Lander, Wyoming. We also have a solid core staff that are experienced with our  POS and management that allows time off and peace of mind for the management team.”

— Jake Dickerson, Wild Iris Mountain Sports