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Real Talk: Grassroots Outdoor Alliance Q&A

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In the midst of a summer season expected to be filled with plenty of consumer demand for outdoor gear, the coming months are filled with both opportunities and challenges for outdoor specialty retailers. According to Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, the network of independent outdoor specialty retailers, its retail members reported a robust (101 percent!) year-to-year sales increase in March, 2021 versus 2020, and based on Grassroots member sales reports, independent outdoor specialty retailers are enjoying an exceptional year-to-year sales rebound that has both met and surpassed “business as usual.” In addition to the 101% gain in March, the group reported being up 8% on a rolling 12 month basis, with Q1 2021 reported figures showing a 34% increase over Q1 2020.

“The data is totally accurate, but should still be viewed with cautious optimism. Coming from the depths of the shutdown to robust outdoor demand paired with widespread supply chain issues, we’re clearly headed into a pretty crazy data phase in the outdoor sector,” says Rich Hill, president of Grassroots Outdoor Alliance.

We caught up with Hill to talk about what’s happening now at retail, what challenges and opportunities he sees ahead, and what programs Grassroots Outdoor Alliance has in the works.

Economists suggest the worst is behind us and the U.S. economy will continue to expand through the remainder of 2021. How do you think the outdoor community will be able to benefit?

“Most people have seen the strong sales numbers reported by independent specialty retailers in the last 12 months, like how our category was up more than 101% year to year for March 2021, as well as 34% up over March 2020. Those results are certainly worth celebrating, though at the same time it’s also important to recognize that those overall numbers include many specialty retailers who were up quite a bit more as well as a few who were down substantially. As the economy moves back toward some semblance of normalcy, we’re looking forward to a rising tide that evens out those low spots and brings everyone in the outdoor community into a stronger position.”

What are you most optimistic about heading into the summer months from an outdoor industry perspective?

“There’s two unarguable factors in the marketplace right now. The first is that Americans everywhere are pursuing outdoor recreation at unprecedented levels, and the second is that they’re also craving personal interaction. The combination of those two things is a strong indicator that the personal touch which is such a trademark of independent specialty retailers is going to be in high demand this summer and fall.

Internally at Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, we’re also incredibly excited about the launch of our Switchback data platform this June. We launched to early adopters a year ago, and as of this month it has hit all of our key benchmarks and has graduated from pilot status to general availability. That means that all Grassroots members now have the opportunity to take advantage of this unprecedented tool, which provides business performance and inventory insights using real-time anonymized data-sharing from its members. What that means to Grassroots retailers is that they’re going to be able to immediately improve their knowledge of what to stock, what to sell, and what to mark down. This is a tool that was built from the ground up to benefit independent specialty retailers, enabling them to harness and take control of their own data, and to bring it into an environment that is built specifically to support their success.”

What are some of the biggest challenges outdoor specialty retailers are facing right now?

“The ongoing supply chain issues for outdoor products is continuing to create some real uncertainty and lost sales opportunities for retailers, which is incredibly stressful. Fortunately, our best vendor brands have been really great about keeping open lines of communications, which is the best tool we have for navigating unpredictability in the next couple seasons.

Small service-oriented businesses everywhere are also struggling with staffing right now. The combination of changing COVID regulations and challenging consumer interactions has been physically, emotionally and financially draining. We’re also seeing significant demographic changes in small outdoor towns, which is impacting available housing and making it harder to find younger employees. Our member retailers have been very open about all these challenges with each other, and are putting their heads together to identify solutions.”

The next Grassroots Connect buying show is scheduled to take place in November in Kansas City. Any updates on that or any other GOA initiatives in 2021 we should know about?

“It’s going to be amazing. The November Connect show in Kansas City was sold out by the end of April. It has been almost 600 days since our community of retailers and brands have gathered, and people are truly fired up to see each other and reconnect. We’re embracing this positive energy and are expanding our evening social events to make room for this.”

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