One Day at a Time
Q&A: Rich Hill, president, Grassroots Outdoor Alliance
Every individual and company has been challenged by the COVID-19 crisis in different ways. And clearly the past several weeks have been beyond challenging for outdoor retailers and brands from a business perspective. In late May, we caught up with Rich Hill, president of the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance to discuss some of the challenges of the past few months, and what the path forward might look like.
What are the biggest challenges Grassroots retail members are struggling with at the moment?
“Honestly, it feels both necessary and redundant to acknowledge that many of us in the outdoor industry — and every other industry — are surrounded by drastic changes both personally and professionally, and that many are understandably taking things one day at a time.
For retailers, while logistical challenges of re-opening are front of mind right now (how to do it, when to do it, what considerations are necessary, etc.), it’s really the downturn in consumer demand that has us staying awake at night.
As a group, February was the last good month and was up around 4% across the group. March was a 40% year-to-year decline, but it wasn’t even across the group. Some retailers were down quite a bit more than that, but a few were actually up due to selling some key categories like bikes, boats, and firearms. April numbers, due to stay-at-home orders nationwide, were down 70%.
A bright spot can certainly be seen in our most recent retailer survey, as our membership is confident those numbers will begin to improve pretty much immediately. The pace of that recovery is wildly uncertain though. Some retailers are anticipating a pretty sluggish recovery with a slow summer and fall, but others see it growing faster.”
What do you think a positive path forward looks like for outdoor specialty retailers as we move ahead in the next few months?
“This is going to be remembered as a year of business survival, whether you’re a storeowner or a rep or a vendor with 25 years of experience. To get through it, the willingness and the ability to collaborate is really the key. We’ve all got to do what we need to do for ourselves, but we also need to do what we can to help others around us.
What the positive path forward looks like to us is a scenario where retailers are collaborating with their vendor partners, holding honest and transparent conversations about their business realities and the importance of some key tools like discounts and dating on open invoices, as well as the need to hold MAP to maintain full margin. That scenario also includes vendors openly expressing their challenges and needs — the disruptions and delays and abundant inventory — and being heard by retailers.”
How have outdoor retailers come together to help each other during this crisis?
“Our retailers have been eager to share and learn whenever possible during this crisis. Grassroots hosted our first COVID-related panel discussion during week one of the stay at home orders — which seems like a million years ago — even though there wasn’t any real information to share yet. The response to that first session, as well as all the subsequent learning sessions and shared best practices calls have been overwhelmingly positive.
Our retailer best practice calls have been a blend of retailer-only gatherings as well as hosted experts in certain fields. They’ve included various topics ranging from inventory management and landlord negotiations to things like re-opening, rehiring and re-engaging employees. For those who can’t make the calls — for any reason — we record them, post them online, and make them available so that membership can listen when it works best for them.”
What type of things can vendors and retailers do to work together to get through this?
“Honestly, the best thing both sides of the sales table can do right now is make the effort to understand what the other person is going through. Retailers need to understand how brutal this spring has been for vendors, about the supply chain disruptions and shipping delays, the cancelled retail orders and the challenge of sitting on a ton of current inventory. And vendors need to understand that retailers will have low human capital, little time, and a lot to do in the next two months to keep the lights on and be a part of the recovery, so keeping things simple and flexible is the way to go.
Fortunately, we’re already seeing these efforts start to create some interesting programs linking vendors and retailers. Initiated by Toad&Co, we are seeing more brands roll out direct to consumer revenue sharing programs, and we’re all hopeful that these programs succeed.”
What kind of creative things have you seen retailers doing during this time to help them stay connected to consumers?
“Obviously, this has been a couple months where digital marketing has really taken center stage. Some retailers already had a decent digital presence, and others scrambled to get one together.
What was really interesting is that those small retailers frequently did way more than just put ‘things for sale online’ — they figured out ways to use digital tools to convey the personality of their stores and connect with their customers. Things like streaming trunk shows, trivia nights, and virtual travel nights became really popular with some of our retailers. In some cases those initiatives resulted in sales, but most of them would agree that the most important part was their ability to stay connected to their customers.
One of the other most impressive things we’ve seen is the remarkable community efforts by some specialty retailers. For example, the owners of Roads Rivers and Trails in Milton, Ohio, founded a downtown business association and giving website to help their neighbors. Their view is that they’re only as strong as the businesses around them, so by helping their neighbors they can also help themselves.”
With this summer’s Grassroots Connect trade show cancelled, what is GOA doing in its place? And what are your thoughts on how the Spring 2021 buying season will unfold?
“As much as we would love to wave a magic wand and guarantee a normal, predictable, and consistent one-size-fits-all solution for our retailers and vendor partners in Spring 2021, the reality is that depending on where you are — both in your business and in the country — there are many variables in play that are keeping that dream from becoming a reality.
Beginning in June, we [launched] an open online platform — the Connect Hub. This Grassroots tool will be free, flexible, and supportive of all levels of businesses from the most digitally advanced to those just getting started with online tools. It will gather all the key information from brands in a single place, and provide a straightforward opportunity to navigate Spring 21 product resources.
This approach is not a regimented and heavily scheduled ‘virtual trade show’ as some may have initially expected. It’s our belief that with so much uncertainty still on the horizon, a limited and time-constrained approach would potentially exclude many brands and retailers. We also believe that open accessibility for the most possible vendors and retailers is of utmost importance and we are designing the tool with that key in mind.”