Blowback From the 4th Quarter; The SIMA Study and Snowboard Retailers

I received The 2008 SIMA Retail Distribution Study (highlights only) about the same time I got yet another phone call from another snowboard focused, core retailer that had been around a long time and was in trouble. I hate those calls because these are shops that I would like to see do well.

My little accidental, informal, snowboard shop survey can’t hold a candle to SIMA’s study. But I thought there was some value in talking about them together.

 
SIMA does its study every two years. 2004 was the first year and the current one is for 2008. It’s great information. We all need more of this kind of stuff to run our businesses better.
 
The retailers surveyed “…carry either surf product alone or a combination of both surf and skate product.” No snowboard focused shops included. It focuses on stores that have been labeled as “core.” “The CORE channel includes retail operations that classify themselves as specialty, lifestyle or sporting goods stores. Core stores do not include military exchanges, company stores, and national department stores.”
 
 Total core channel retail sales are reported to have fallen 3.45% to $5.32 billion in 2008 compared to 2006. We don’t have 2007 numbers because, obviously, they only do the survey every other year. Nor do we have a quarterly breakdown of sales changes in 2008, at least not in the summary I received.
 
If we did have a quarterly breakdown, I’m guessing we might see sales increases in the first three quarters of 2008 compared to 2006, and probably to 2007, and then a big decline in the 4th quarter. Which brings me to the calls I’ve been fielding from snowboard focused core retailers.
 
Last fall represented the convergence of trends that put a lot of pressure on snowboard retailers. First, they were operating in a market that wasn’t growing (There- I said that tactfully). A lot of brands, especially larger ones, in an attempt to move inventory and make money, expanded their distribution.   Awareness of the recession hit full force and consumers stopped spending. Meanwhile, discounted product was all over the internet and finding that product got easier and easier.
 
Snowboard retailers found they couldn’t hold prices almost from the day their preseason orders arrived. In a one season business, where most of the product (even a lot of the apparel) is useful mostly when actually participating in the sport, and participation is expensive at a time when consumers are cutting back, it was a perfect storm.
 
The SIMA report says that core skate and snow retailers didn’t have near as hard a time as core snow shops did, though I think maybe the press release headline, “Surf Industry Riding Out the Economic Storm” overstates the case a bit. I suppose that’s SIMA’s job. Certainly skate and surf retailers are better off than snow. Their categories are in better overall shape, they aren’t as dramatically seasonal, and lots more people need an attractive, comfortable shoe than need an attractive, comfortable snowboard boot.
 
But I wish we had some comparative fourth quarter numbers. Certainly there were over inventoried issue for skate and surf just like for snow. I wouldn’t call those issues easy to manage, but they are easier than in snow where if you don’t sell it, you have to practically give it away or keep it until next year.
 
SIMA includes a table that shows product mix contribution to retail sales for the three years the study has been done- 2004, 2006, and 2008. The two largest categories, each about $1.1 billion in core retail sales out of a total of $5.32 billion, are Surf/Skate Shoes and Surf/Skate Men’s Apparel. Third at about $1 billion was Surf/Skate Equipment, down 4.5% since 2006. There are a total of 13 categories, of which only five were up between 2006 and 2008.
 
 My point is that the 4th quarter of 2008 wasn’t just the worst quarter most of us have ever seen. It was the fulcrum of change from the old to the new economy. I’ve been writing that for a while, so I don’t suppose I need to go into detail again.
 
The one good thing that may come out of all this is that I can imagine some product shortages this fall and during the holiday season. Doing what they “perceive to be in their own best interest in the short term” retailers have cut orders and manufacturers have cut production. I know that doesn’t sound good, but read on.
 
Most everybody in this industry who sells stuff has suffered from over distribution. It turns products into commodities and reduces gross profits. It occurs because all companies, in their competitive zeal for more sales, do what they “perceive to be in their own best interest in the short term.” But at this stage in our industry’s development, it turns out not to be in anybody’s best interest.
So for a change, everybody dong what they “perceive to be in their own best interest in the short term” may turn out to work for the industry though obviously not for individual companies. Unless of course, they are managed very, very well.
 
The consumer may find that the product they want isn’t 20% off and isn’t available everywhere. They may find that if they don’t buy it now, they won’t see it. They might actually start to see more of our products as special again, and worth having even at a higher price. Retailers and brands alike will of course tear their hair out when they find they have a hot product they can’t get any more of. But as they’ve adjusted to this new economy, they’ve probably started to manage for gross margin dollars and not just for sales. They might find that the adjustments to their operating structure they’ve made leaves them with more net income even with lower sales. 

Or maybe I’m just dreaming. I guess we’ll find out.