The Dilemma of Growth in Action Sports

Help me out here. Name me one company that (1) has its roots in action sports, (2) has grown to have revenues greater than, say, $200 million, (3) has gone public, (4) hasn’t been acquired and, (5) is continuing to grow and prosper. In retail, I’d name Zumiez though I imagine some people won’t like that. A nonretail brand? I can’t think of one. Can you?

The genesis of this article is some recent thinking I’ve done after reviewing industry company annual reports. I’ve noted that the requirements of being a strong brand and meeting Wall Street expectations may be at cross-purposes. I have also watched companies struggle the further they get away from action sports and the more they find they have to focus on youth culture and fashion in broader distribution.
Why is that? The economy has something to do with it. But more fundamental are the characteristics of the “real” action sports industry and the dramatically different competitive conditions you discover when you step outside it.
What Is the Action Sports Industry?
To start with, it’s really small. Its customers include the people who participate in the sports and perhaps the first level of nonparticipants who follow the sports and are into the lifestyle. That’s it. Everything else is hype and glory. During “The Best Economy Ever,” anybody who could make or sell a hard good or figure out how to spell “EXTREME!!” was thought to be in action sports. The industry looked way bigger than it was as cash flow covered up evolving structural weaknesses.
Now, in “The Worst Economy Ever,” those structural weaknesses (over distribution, lack of product differentiation, weak balance sheets; I could go on) have been exposed and the action sports industry, bloodied but unbowed (well, maybe a little bowed), has returned to its roots as a community of like-minded enthusiasts that is too small for big companies to really care about unless they can co-opt the action sports ideal to reach the broader market.
I’m not saying this is good—more that it’s a survival mechanism for small action sports retailers and brands that are really in the market as I’ve defined it. And I’m certainly not suggesting nothing has changed and that we’re back where we started. Far from it. There’s the internet and consumer empowerment, the fact that there’s so much quality product everywhere, big companies trying to co-opt and extend the action sports ideal, a declining sense of exclusivity, and yes, the economy.
But if this is where we are, and if you accept my industry definition, what are the implications for growing in the space? Let’s start by looking at how brands used to grow and how they grow now before answering that.
The Process of Growth- Then
It was about patience. Somebody would start a brand or open a store because they wanted to work with their friends, have a job in something that meant something to them, or be able to get in extra days on the hill (little did they know). You’d hand out some stickers, print up some t-shirts, and visit local retailers with your first batch of products which your friends were already using. The process was a bit more casual than it is today and, initially at least, there didn’t seem to be a sense of urgency. Indeed, you couldn’t be in a hurry because the independent specialty shops were pretty much your only choice for retail distribution. There was enough margin to go around and you could rely on distribution being controlled—probably more than you wanted.
Not only did you have to be patient, but humble. You built relationships and waited for the intimate action sports community to look for your product. Spending a bunch of money (which you probably didn’t have anyway) on marketing to try and push your brand was counterproductive. Your brand became credible through supporting the industry and the retailers.
You knew you were succeeding once the marketing guy was trying to hold the finance guy hostage for more budget because the perception of the brand exceeded its actual size and financial resources. You knew you’d arrived when the first retailer asked you for terms.
What’s implicit in this process is the passage of time. I’ve arbitrarily suggested that it used to take five years to really establish your brand with the core action sports consumer. They and the retailers just needed that long to get used to who you were and what the brand stood for. It was hard to circumvent the need to be around a while no matter how good a brand builder you were.
In that time, you became established in the action sports market as I’ve defined it. You’d grown within the specialty retailer community. Next, to provide opportunities for your employees and, truth be known, because you wouldn’t mind making some more money, you looked for opportunities outside that niche.
And it was a niche. You’d work hard to be credible and establish your brand in it. Now you were going to ……”Sell Out!” Remember the outrage of core customers when brands took the first tentative step towards broader distribution?
But it was more like a leap over a chasm. Some of the changes in retail and consumer behavior that are unfolding now weren’t even on the horizon. Expansion of distribution by definition meant going from the “cool” niche market you’d created to the clearly “uncool“ outer circle. There was little of the tiered distribution we have now. Either you were core, or you weren’t. The dichotomy created barriers- both ways.
The Process of Growth- Now
With the coming of the recession forcing an accelerated reaction to trends already in play, the action sports market has devolved back towards what it used to be. In some ways—the number of independent specialty retailers comes to mind—it’s smaller. Meanwhile, the steps to broader distribution are more obvious—less chasm leaping is required–and probably more necessary.
Bluntly, the business model is tougher. Consumers have less money to spend and are more discriminating in where and how they spend it. Sales growth is harder to come by. Product that is truly distinctive is rare. Distribution is wide open and the action sports culture has been melded into and suborned by the youth culture/fashion market.
You no longer have five years to build brand recognition and acceptance. Interestingly, I don’t think you need it.  As soon as you start to get some traction and sales growth, you’ll find that some multi-store retailer or another is interested in giving your brand a try. That’s hard to resist given general market conditions. The retailer will tell you they are going to help you develop your brand. The blowback that used to accompany growing distribution too much and too quickly doesn’t exist. It’s so completely expected that everybody seems to take it for granted, or at least be resigned to it.
But you haven’t spent five years establishing your brand identity. Your customers aren’t all the same customers you would have been selling to had you launched in the past and they aren’t as committed to your brand. The further you get from core distribution, the truer that is. They may know your brand, but they don’t know your story. You are trying to sell to customers (because you’re being “helped” by the retailer) who don’t know the difference between your logoed plaid shirt and the same product at JCP with their store brand logo. The problem, as we all know, is that there may not be much difference.
You didn’t mean to be, or at least you probably didn’t want to be, but somehow you’ve found yourself in the much broader fashion market. You have become dependent on the good will of the large retailers. We all know how long that lasts if you don’t sell well at good margins (of course that’s true, though I like to think not as true, in core retailers as well). Even if you’re doing $100 million in revenue, the competition is ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty times bigger than you. Or more. They have resources you can’t think about competing with. The things that gave your brand strength in the action sports market aren’t as important in the broader fashion market.
The Usual Result
You know, succeeding and being acquired is a good thing. So is sticking to the market niche you know and maybe growing less but having a successful, profitable business. What’s bad is not understanding the impact of growth and the competitive environment it’s going to put you in when you take the step into the broader fashion market. What’s bad is not recognizing the pressures and requirements of being a public company. The requirements of being public can conflict with building and sustaining a brand.
The good news is that consumers are willing to trust new brands faster these days, sometimes at the expense of heritage brands. That’s one reason you can grow faster. No need for five years of building credibility.
Your brand positioning decision is now much more complicated than core or noncore. There’s a whole range of customers and distribution channels to pick from and it takes some hard, thoughtful work to figure out where you belong. Accepting the invitation of the first big retailer that wants to carry you is not the way to approach it. Remember, all those retailers are busy building themselves as brands and carrying lots of proprietary product. I’d approach retailers I think might be appropriate for my brand based on my customer analysis. Yes, I know that you can’t always been that “pure” in who you decide to sell to.  I also know I have the privilege of way over simplifying the decision process, but just think about the concept.
Finally, I’m implying that if you’ve done your homework, you could find yourself turning down some business you might otherwise have accepted. Hard to do, I know. Maybe that’s where the business model I’ve been pushing, where gross margin dollars and operational efficiency have a focus equal to sales growth, comes in. You can’t think of marketing and brand positioning as distinctive from operations and inventory management any more.
You don’t want the usual result. To avoid it, start by recognizing what that usual result has been way too often in our industry and how the environment has changed.

 

 

Some Interesting Numbers

I was lucky enough last week to be at IASC’s Skateboard Industry Conference. I was sorry to have to leave early, but among the things I enjoyed doing while there was making a presentation. As part of that presentation I showed some numbers provided by Snowsports Industries of America and I wanted to share them with you. Here they are for five complete snow seasons.

2007/2008
2008/2009
2009/2010
2010/2011
2011/1012
Units Sold
31,370,674
26,960,496
26,633,131
28,157,156
23,900,283
Dollars Sold
$1,980,551,677
$1,730,590,053
$1,798,552,214
$2,001,686,760
$1,854,581,370
Inventory Dollars
$487,541,750
$505,431,179
$441,593,937
$450,570,953
$571,271,999
Gross Margin
44.40%
42.30%
43.80%
46.50%
44.70%
GM Dollars Earned
$879,364,945
$732,039,592
$787,765,870
$930,784,343
$828,997,872
Remember when the economy went off the cliff in 2008 and the snow was none too good? Look what happened between the 2007/2008 and 2008/2009 seasons. Pretty much everything went south, except unsold inventory which went north. Not a pretty picture.
Then, in a completely expected and quite reasonable fear induced panic, the entire industry got rid of all that inventory. And to say they were cautious in ordering for next season is a bit of an understatement.
A funny thing happened. In the fall of 2009, when snow sliders walked into their favorite retailer to take advantage of the anticipated fall sales they found, well, nothing. It became very apparent that if they wanted the product, they needed to buy it now at full price. And that’s what they did.
Look at the numbers in the 2009/2010 column. Unit sales were down, but dollars sold, gross margin, and gross margin dollars earned all rose. That happened while year-end inventory fell 13%.
With product not quite so widely distributed and in short supply, and with limited left over product from the previous season, customers were willing to pay more and buy sooner.
Let me just say it once more. More gross margins dollars were earned on lower unit sales. With any luck at all, customers learned not to expect discounts all the time, to value the brand a bit more, and that they couldn’t wait until the last minute and expect to get what they wanted.
What I conclude from these kinds of numbers, and what I said at the conference, was that as long as the economy was weak and sales increases harder to come by, maybe you could strengthen your brand and bottom line by taking a different approach than you had in the past.
I’m all for sales increases, but don’t focus on getting them exclusively. Looks carefully at your distribution and who you are selling too. Distribution is no longer “core” or “not core.” Each new account needs to be reviewed separately for its fit with your customer base and brand positioning. You want to avoid the broad fashion industry, where you’re a small fish in a huge pond and where the customers, even if they know your brand, won’t know your story and what makes you legitimate. They may not even care.
Change your thinking a bit so you feel it’s okay for a retailer to sell out of your product and you have to tell him there’s no more right now. There’s nothing a retailer wants more than a product that sold well at full margin that he can’t get any more of. Let the consumers discover that your product is kind of exclusive and communicate that at the speed of light to their friends. Bet you won’t have to spend quite so much on advertising and promotion, your brand will be stronger, your gross margin higher, and disputes between brand and retailer fewer. There are other benefits as well.
This isn’t as easy as I make it sound in a couple of paragraphs, but I’m pretty certain it’s worth your consideration in a week economy and highly competitive market where most of your competitive advantage comes from a brand story and positioning rather than product differentiation.
I’m suggesting you could make more money with less risk. That has to be at least worth thinking about.
If you want a copy of the power point I presented at the IASC conference, let me know.

 

 

Let’s Review; Lessons for Being in the Winter Sports Business

Well, here we are in the middle of a new snow season. Among the things people are probably thinking about are:

“It can’t be any worse than it was last season.” That seems statistically likely to be correct.
 
“What am I going to do with last year’s product?” Probably something brands and retailers are both still thinking about that.
 
“I am never, never, ever going to order (or produce) more than I’m absolutely certain I can sell.” I do hope you stick to it.
 
“Wow! Am I glad I wasn’t over inventoried when last season started.”
 
And, if you’re a smaller, single season company, there’s the ever popular, “I hate having to finance this business and I’m really, really tired of personal guarantees.”
 
With those in mind, I thought it might be useful to review the things you have to do to be successful in a one season business. Most of these ideas I’ve written about before, but I don’t think I’ve ever pulled them all together in one place.
 
Be Cognizant of What Is and Is Not Controllable
 
Business is good when it snows and bad when it doesn’t- and there’s nothing we can do about that. That means you’ve got to assume and prepare for an average season at best (though you might need to think about what you mean by “average” in a lousy economy with global warming).
 
You Have to Make Money 
 
I know this sounds kind of obvious, but if you can’t make money, don’t be in the business. We’re all aware of retailers who have pulled out of snowboarding after doing that analysis. Though I don’t like to see that, I say good for them for facing the reality. I guess the good news is that it helps those who remain in the business by reducing distribution a bit.
 
Unfortunately, the analysis is not as cut and dried as I just made it sound. You mean make money every year? How do you allocate your overhead to winter sports if that isn’t all you do? Is it cash flow positive even if it isn’t bottom line profitable (I doubt it)? Will it cost me customers who buy other stuff? Can I make it profitable by carrying different brands or inventory mix? Etcetera. 
 
Don’t Be a One Season Business
                               
I suppose the only snow only retailers left are shops associated with resorts, and they close in the summer. Except that winter resorts have figured out that not being a one season business is a good thing. Water slides, zip lines, mountain biking trails, golf, and other activities are allowing them to generate at least a bit of cash flow in the summer. What significant snowboard brand hasn’t, or isn’t trying to create year around revenue or isn’t owned by a larger company that has that year around cash flow?
You’d be stunned at what getting just 10% of your total revenue in the off season does for the ability of your finance person’s ability to sleep at night by improving the cash flow.
 
Basically, there’s no good way to finance a one season business except to make it less seasonal. You can do it with equity, but you really don’t need to tie up all that money all year and your return on equity will probably suck. You can do it with debt and pay it down in the off season but lenders, especially now, want to see a strong balance sheet (implying lots of equity) before they will lend you the money. It’s a bit of a conundrum.
 
I’ve been responsible for the financial management of a couple of snowboard companies and the only solution I see is increasing off season revenue.
 
Inventory Management
 
I would always prefer to bemoan a sale I didn’t make than inventory I had to liquidate. It was years ago I suggested that a focus on the gross margin dollars you generated rather than the gross margin percentage was a good idea, and it’s only gotten more important as the economy has become and remained soft. Sales growth is harder to come by, but maybe you can improve your bottom line anyway by growing your gross profit.
 
In a more formal sense, this method of looking at your inventory is referred to as gross margin return on inventory investment. To over simplify, it makes you confront the fact that you’d rather sell an item with a 35% gross margin that sells for $175.00 than three items with a 50% gross margin that sell for $12.00. 
 
That’s worth thinking about in any business, but especially in the seasonal snow business. To put it as directly as I can, if you’re stuck with much inventory at the end of the snow season, the chances of your making an overall profit in snow that season are slim to none.
 
And there are other advantages to managing inventory a bit more tightly and in a more sophisticated manner, as if making more money shouldn’t be enough to convince you. You tie up less working capital. You create a perception of value through scarcity. I think “Sorry it’s all sold!” does more to create value in the eyes of the consumer than all the advertising in the world. What exactly is wrong with selling a bit less, but paying the bank less interest, generating more gross margin dollars, and perhaps being able to spend a few less bucks on advertising and promotion?

I thought this was going to be a way longer article.  I know, I know.  Conceptually simple sounding, but not all that easy to do.  But much of what I’m describing just represents good business practices that these days you can’t ignore.

 

 

Miscellaneous Stuff; Not Your Typical Market Watch

I read a lot of stuff. From time to time I come upon something I want to share with you. Often I hold on to it until it fits into something I’m writing. But at this point, I’ve got a few articles I’ve been saving that it’s just time to spring on you in the hope you might find them interesting or even useful. 

The first, and the most eclectic of the three, comes from the investor George Soros. It’s entitled “The Tragedy of the European Union and How to Resolve It.” Soros has been a hell of a successful investor over many years and at this point is worth bazillions. Part of the reason for his success, I think, is his sense of history and culture and his ability to look beyond the next month or year or more. As an investor, that has allowed him to see more clearly than most and to have some patience.
 
This is written at a high level, but the quality of the writing makes it a pretty easy read, and there are no graphs or mathematics. Obviously, it’s not about action sports or youth culture or fashion. But many of you do business in Europe, are already impacted by what’s going on there, and know there’s a great deal of uncertainty about a how it all work itself out.
 
Soros has an opinion about what the choices are, or at least should be. Whether those seem reasonable to you or not, his historical analysis of how Europe found its way to its current mess is about the best I’ve seen in the space he uses. I recommend turning off your cell, disconnecting from the internet, locking your door and reading this thoughtfully.
 
The second article is called “A Seasonal Business Aims to Survive the Off-Season.” I imagine this might strike a little closer to home for those of you in the snow business. The business in question is a restaurant and specialty food store, and its lean months are October through April. Still, I think you’ll find some of the issues they face and actions they consider to improve their off season and manage their cash flow recognizable. From time to time, I’ve said that we spend, as an industry, way too much time talking to each other and confirming what we already think and want to believe. Here’s a chance to see how a small business not in our industry deals with a similar issue.
 
Building a Brand When You Can’t Afford an Ad Agency” will strike a chord with everybody in our industry who has built a business from scratch. Interestingly, it’s not about social marketing and the internet.   I like it of course because what this guy did is pretty much consistent with what I’ve told people who’ve called me to ask how to build their new brand.  If I can find some Tito’s Handmade Vodka, I might have to change from Grey Goose (straight up with a twist).                   
 

 

 

Retail Evolution and Industry Conferences: What’s the Connection?

Maybe ten days ago, I wrote this article that talked about JC Penney’s new pricing policy and strategy and referred you to an article on that strategy and why it might not work. I thought that article had some implications for our industry and I discussed them. 

Now, my ultra-sophisticated research department (thank you dear) has identified another article called “Retailers Rethink Stores to Fight Online Competition.”   It talks about all the things retailers are trying and concludes with a quote that from Wendy Liebmann, CEO of WSL Strategic Retail saying, “If retailers aren’t experimenting, then they are doomed to fail.”
 
The way you’ve heard me put it is, “The biggest risk is not taking a risk at all.” I’m thinking Ms. Liebmann and I would agree.
 
Meanwhile, speaking of retail chaos, my ever vigilant research department also forwarded this article on foreign fashion brands aggressively moving to open retail locations in the U.S. Well, I guess somebody has to fill up all that empty retail space.
 
You know, it’s funny- the suggestions in the above referenced articles seem equally applicable to retailers from Costco down to a 750 square foot specialty shop.
 
Being reactive in a changing environment has often been a bad idea, but now it seems like it’s damned near impossible given the pace of change in retail. You’re on to change number two before you can react to number one. Do what’s right for your own business.
 
That probably includes spending some money on technology, having the best numbers you can have about what sells (and what doesn’t) and the gross margin dollars you earn, taking chances on brands, taking a new hard look on who your competitors are (finding out where else your customers shop would be great), making decisions with an eye to your balance sheet, and not stressing too much about distribution (as the cat is largely out of the bag).
 
Don’t worry so much about what the other guy is doing. I think I might have first suggested that approach back in 2002, when I wrote after the Surf Industry Conference that maybe they should focus on running their own businesses rather than worrying about skateboarding. Ten years later, it holds up pretty well. You can read it here.
 
Speaking of industry conferences, the snow, skate, and surf conferences for the year are history.   I only made it to the skate conference. I’ll do better next year. Assuming the people that run the companies are attending, that is.
 
But here’s the dilemma for me. Let’s call it a suggestion for conference organizers.
 
I am not expecting many calls or emails telling me that I’m wrong about the changes in retail and the speed at which it’s changing. I don’t even expect to get told my “what to do” list is out of line (though if somebody told me that listing them is a hell of a lot easier than doing them, I’d have to agree).
 
But if the retail and competitive environment (with its implications for brands as well as retailers) is changing as much and as quickly as I think we all agree it is, why is it our conferences still have a tendency to feel like membership meetings at a private club?
 
Look, I love seeing friends I’ve known a long time and don’t see that often. It’s low key, low stress, and fun. We have a great time validating each other’s point of view in a non-threatening environment. I want more people there, as both speakers and attendees who will rattle our comfortable cages.
 
Where’s the skateboard buyer from Amazon? How exactly does the offer of ten blanks for $100 end up right next to the branded deck for $48.95?
 
Can we get somebody from PPR who’s not Volcom to talk about their perception of and plans for our industry? Just how many branded stores for their luxury brands are they going to open in the U.S. and who’s their target customer?
 
Is the Chinese manufacturer of soft surfboards there?
 
How about a retail panel made up of representatives from Sports Authority, Target, Costco, and Dick’s? Or maybe Zumiez, Journeys, and Tilly’s.
 
Have companies in our industry moved their production out of China due to higher prices? Let’s put them on a panel and find out where they moved and how it went.
 
How about a sociologist talking about how long, leveraged caused recessions impact consumer attitudes and spending over decades and maybe generations? There are marketing implications that could be valuable right now. Get Neil Howe, one of the authors of The Fourth Turning, which you should all read, as a speaker.
 
It’s possible nobody could afford Mr. Howe. Well, unless of course we had one conference instead of three. And looking at the strategic issues I’m suggesting we should be addressing, maybe that’s not so silly. Consider the overlap across customers in the industry.
 
I want to invite people to conferences who, whether we wish it or not or like it or not, are powerful players in our space but don’t usually attend. I want us to address issues we’re uncomfortable with, or hope will just go away- because they won’t. I don’t want what I already think to be validated because I’m talking only to like-minded people I’ve known a long time.
 
I’d like all these industry players that make us uncomfortable to be there not just as speakers or panelists, but just as participants. I don’t know if they’d want to come or if they’d be interested in telling us the kinds of things we want to know, but we’ll never know until we ask. They’d be a like more likely to come if there was one large conference instead of three.
 
I didn’t have the idea of consolidating conferences in mind until, honestly, the last paragraphs. I know that by raising the idea, I’m blithely stumbling into issues of industry politics, relationships and revenue sources. Yet it seems to make some sense if my premise about the issues we should be addressing at conferences is reasonable.
 
Don’t you agree?  Or not?
 


 

SIA’s Numbers Through January: The Silver Lining

Like me, you probably got the SIA press release this morning with the snow sport industry’s numbers through January. And, if you’re like me, you know that SIA always cherry picks the good news and leads with those numbers, so you immediately clicked through to the Leisure Trends web site where, as an SIA member, you can see the actual top line numbers.

What those numbers show is that through January, sales in dollars were down 4.5% to $2.657 billion compared to the same period last year. What you will also see, however, is that unit sales for the same period are down 12.2%. In chain stores, the dollar decline was 10.6% while units fell 17.2%. Specialty dollar sales fell 7.5% while units were off 15.6%

I’m sure you’ll all be stunned to learn that internet sales grew 12% in dollars and 10% in units.
 
If you break the numbers down by equipment, apparel and accessories, you see the same pattern.
 
Well, not a great year. But we all knew when our snow dances didn’t work that it wasn’t going to be.
 
What I want to point to, however, is that for all three categories in chain and specialty, the decline in dollars was less than the decline in units sold. Why? Because we’re genius sales people in tough conditions? I hope so, but doubt it.
 
Prices held up because two year ago and more as an industry we made some decisions to control inventory. We benefitted this year from decisions we made way back when. How would we be talking right now if the revenue decline had equaled the unit decline? Ugly would be an understatement. Imagine having lower revenue and higher inventories.
 
I’m not trying to cheer you up in what’s a poor year no matter how you look at it. But this is a clear example of the benefit of considering the impact of your decisions beyond a week, a month, or even a season. True, we were all kind of terrorized by the economy into managing our inventories better, but look at the long term benefits in terms of inventory, working capital investment, and consumer perception of the product.
 
Find some time to think longer term. The benefits are amazing.            

 

 

Do Retailers Really Need to Carry All That Inventory?

I suppose that seems like a stupid question. But having just been through another Christmas shopping (and return) season, I’m not so sure it is. I’ve shopped on line. I’ve been to too many malls too often (I confess it- I hate shopping). In those malls I saw way too much product on sale at way larger discounts than I like to see before Christmas.

As an aside, I’m wondering if the increased holiday sales being trumpeted by the media were at prices which will generate bottom line profit which, I take as a matter of faith, is still the idea.

I’ve made an effort this week, as I usually do this time of year, to catch up on my reading. Some of that reading included retail trends, pop up stores, inventory management, Sears closing 100 plus stores, and various other mostly business and action sports related topics. It all got me thinking about the retail environment.
 
Inventory is where retailers tie up most of their working capital. Retailers (and brands) have made heroic efforts to control inventory in recent years, but I think there might be still an opportunity for improvement by following the ongoing process of integration between brick and mortar and online retailing. I want to talk about that and ask what you think.
 
The Online Experience
 
I’m not going to tell you anything here you don’t know, but I want to build a (hopefully) logical argument. Consumers like online shopping because it’s efficient, it allows ease of comparison, it may be cheaper, and you don’t have to leave the comfort of your desk chair.
 
They dislike it because they can’t physically interact with the product (which is more or less important depending on the product), and they don’t get it the moment they buy it. They may also miss the personal interaction with a sales person. Or not.
 
The improved functionality of web sites and the development of logistics to get products to the customer (and back from them if necessary) faster and easier has accentuated the reasons for the consumer to shop on line, and reduced the reasons not to. You need look no further than the growth in online sales in a soft economy to know that’s true.
 
Brands and retailers (remember it’s getting harder and harder to differentiate between the two) see a role for web sites and social media in brand building. The competitive environment requires them to be on line and sell there either independently or in coordination with retailers.
 
Building, maintaining and keeping fresh a quality web site with ecommerce capabilities cost a bunch of money. The expense is not just in designing and creating it, but in keeping it up. Servicing online customers generates additional expense.
 
See- I told you I wasn’t going to tell you anything you didn’t already know. Let’s continue.
 
Is the brand building from being online worth it? That is, does it generate enough new customers, or increased sales to existing customers, to pay for all the incremental expense? Being the way I am, I guess I’d ask if it generated enough gross profit dollars.
Maybe you sell to new customers who are too far away to get to your store. Maybe your online communications program increases traffic and/or the average sale. Maybe, as a brand, you sell products in your line that retailers didn’t typically have room to carry and consumers didn’t previously know much about. Maybe a lot of things. Or maybe not.
 
So, competitive pressures require you to be online. Being online in a competitive way is expensive. You have to earn enough incremental gross profit to at least pay for the cost of being online. Cannibalizing brick and mortar sales for online won’t do it. If you accept those points, then you have to agree that total sales, including online, have to rise enough to pay for the online expense or overall industry profit will fall.
 
Let’s say that again in a slightly different way. With the existence of online retail, in the absence of any change in the brick and mortal expense structure, sales have to rise just to break even because of the additional expense of being online. And not, I’d estimate, by a trivial amount.
 
But consumers don’t automatically and graciously just spend more just because we’ve boosted our expense structure. What might we do about that structure?  
  
A Lesson from the Airport
 
Last time I was at the airport (not over the holidays happily), I was struck by how the airlines have learned to use online to manage their business “in their store” so to speak. Pretty much everything happens at the monitor unless you’re changing your flight, checking baggage, or have some other variety of crises. You can do most of it at home, or you can wait and do it at the airport. At the airport or at home is pretty much the same for the airline and its passengers. They’ve gone a long way towards integrating brick and mortar, if I can call it that, and online. And they’ve done it in a way that the passengers seem to like. Although now, instead of standing in line at the airline counter, we stand in line to get through security. Oh well.
 
How does this translate to our retail business?
 
Taking Trends the Next Step
 
Retailers are already giving consumers the online or in store choice. They are dealing with the brands they carry (when the brand and the retailer are not one and the same) through not only the traditional model of purchasing inventory but of taking it on consignment or even having the brand run its own store in their existing store. My point (and once again, you already know this) is that the traditional model of see it, order it, receive it, sell it, pay for it is evolving. 
 
In general terms, what I’m seeing is independent retailers take less and less inventory risk. The brands may not like this but have been dragged towards supporting it. Bluntly, they can’t afford to sell product to retailers who can be hard pressed to pay them, may dispose of the merchandise at prices and through channels the brand would prefer they didn’t use, and can’t really merchandise the complete line the way the brand wants. 
 
We’ve got retailers becoming brands and brands becoming retailers. Zumiez, to use one example, thinks of itself as a brand. And go look at a Buckles someday. I’ve got to write about that.
 
We’ve got the merging of online with brick and mortar and the rapid growth of online sales. Through pop up stores, renting space in existing retailers, consignment and other gyrations we’ve got inventory risk migrating to brands. The relationship between brands and retailers is more codependent than it used to be. Brands want to capture the higher retail margins, and have the ability to better control and accelerate the process of creating and getting product into stores. Retailers are selling their own brands.
 
We tend to look at these developments as independent events. I don’t think they are. How might they be addressed in a positive, structured way?
 
Here’s a Wild Idea   
 
What if a brick and mortar retailer cut the inventory it kept in half? Maybe by two thirds. Like the airlines, they let their customer decide whether they want to “check in” at home or at the airport (the store) and handle various purchases or changes at either place. The customer can come into the store, see the product and decide what they want to buy, but it gets shipped that day to their home (or they can come back to the store and pick it up).
 
Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m crazy. And the world is flat and real estate prices only go up. Maybe I am crazy. That’s why I’m asking you.  
Maybe for the first time a retailer, due to the much lower inventory I’m proposing, is able (and can afford) to display most of a brand’s line rather than just the pieces they bought because they thought that was what would sell and it was all they had room for. The quality of the presentation, and the customer experience, might increase significantly. Part of the reason brands want to get into the retail business is so their brands can be controlled and presented the way they want.
 
The customer would come to the store either because they want help and like the in store experience (which I’m suggesting would improve), or because it’s a product they don’t want to buy without seeing and touching it. But they wouldn’t necessarily walk out with it. The very broad but not deep inventory would mean that the product would not necessarily be available for the customer to take home. The customer, after having had the opportunity to look at the biggest selection of a particular product they’ve ever seen, would make a selection and have the clerk swipe their card and tell them, “It will ship to your home tonight.”
 
The biggest objection, I suppose, is that customers who come into stores want to take the product with them. But we know that more and more customers are making the decision to wait a few days for their product. We also know that they are coming into stores to evaluate products then going home and ordering on line. And there is some benefit to not having to carry the product around with you.
Another interesting problem would be for the retailer to determine (in consultation with the brands it carries) exactly what to carry in inventory and how to price it. Do you charge some percentage more for product people walk out with? Which products will people be most determined to take with them? How do inventories get replenished under this situation of in store scarcity? Will you need to replace the product on the floor because people are playing with it so much? The gross margin return on inventory investment approach I’ve discussed before might be a tool that could add some value in figuring some of this out.
 
What I’m proposing is an approach to brick and mortar retailing where the role of online and the melding of brands with retailers is recognized. The retailer would tie up a bunch less working capital in inventory. The quality of their merchandising could improve and I think the customer would have a better experience. Thinking globally for a minute, this might also play to the U.S.’s competitive strengths in logistics and distribution.
 
Brands would take less collection risk and would be better presented at retail. They’d have more inventory risk but, as I said, that seems to be where we’re heading anyway.
 
I don’t want to trivialize what I’m suggesting. There would have to be some interesting negotiations between brands and retailers to sort out a lot of details. Retailers would have to invest in some new fixtures and other merchandising expense. In addition, I imagine there’d be some in store technology costs. Hopefully this is more than made up for by a massively lower inventory investment.
 
I’m suggesting this brick and mortar low inventory internet fulfillment approach because that’s where I see the trends taking us anyway. I figure you might as well ride the wave rather than have it break on your head and drive you into the sand. If the trends I’ve highlighted are valid, I’m not sure there’s much of a choice.

 

 

September’s Leap in Outdoor Sales

The Leisure Trends Group does a lot of good work. On October 20th, they sent out an email you may have seen announcing record September outdoor retail sales of $462 million up 17% over a year ago. Leisure Trends analyst Scott Jaeger said it was the strongest September since they started keeping records in 1998.

Great news obviously. But I’d like to offer a perspective on those results that’s a bit different from what Leisure Trends offers. Here’s a quote from the release.

"As we have seen over the past several years in both our consumer studies and the retail tracking numbers, consumers will spend on their passions, even in uncertain and difficult economic times," states Jaeger. Jaeger continues "Most Active Americans recently shared with us their current attitudes towards their favorite outdoor recreational activities and the products they buy to do those activities, and the following quotes sum up this willingness to spend on what matters." 

"These are the things that bring our family and friends together. They are very important to us."

"My sports are not a luxury, they are a necessity. They keep me healthy, both physically & mentally, make me more effective & competitive at my work, and improve my family relationships."

"I am so pumped to be able to actually spend a little bit more money this winter on my favorite gear."

I’m not saying this is wrong. But there is a sense of glorying in our own wonderfulness that bothers me a bit. Actually it bothers me a lot, but I’m trying to be subtle here. Not my strong suit.
 
Back in April I wrote about SIA’s end of year sales report. SIA (using numbers provided by Leisure Trends, he points out with only a minor sense of irony) reported that through February for the season, winter sports sales were up 13% in dollars but only 8% in units. In February, unit sales fell by 2% and dollar sales by 1.5%, but gross margins rose by 8%. I suggested the results were at least partly because, as an industry, we were controlling inventory. I wrote:
 
“Won’t it be fun when customers start coming in [next fall- as in now] looking for cheap stuff and you can tell them that not only isn’t there any, but if they don’t get what they want now, they may not get it? You’ve already improved your gross margin by next year just by not having a bunch of inventory left and we’ve collectively improved our brands’ images.”
 
“As an industry, we go to conferences, hold trade shows, create learn to ski/ride programs, run all sorts of programs, do studies advertise and promote, and spend overall millions of dollars trying to get people to try riding/skiing and stick with it.”
 
“But I’d hypothesize that we could forgo a bunch of that if we just didn’t get so damned greedy and continued to control our inventories. Oh, and we- you, that is- could make more money with less risk.”
 
“Now, I’m the guy who’s always said every business is going to (and should) make the decisions that they perceive to be in their own best interest. That’s true. But it looks to me right now that what’s good for your business is probably good for the industry in at least this one instance. Everybody left standing in the ski/board industry has figured out, finally, that there’s no way to make money in winter sports if you’ve got a pile of left over inventory. And also you won’t be able to pay your bills.”
 
Leisure Trends is talking about the outdoor industry and I’m talking about the winter sports business, a subset of outdoor. Still, I don’t think winter sports is the only industry that has had to learn the hard way the lesson, and opportunity, of inventory management since the economy went south. And in September, I suspect a whole lot of outdoor sales are winter sports related.
 
We do ourselves a disservice if we conclude that our customers bought our products because they really, really love us and can’t get along without us. I hope that’s part of it, but I think what you’re seeing is more the result of your smart business practices last year then a renewed gushing of affection.
 
Your customers are responding to a lack of closeouts and an understanding that they need to buy what they want at full margin now if they want to get it.
 
Keep up the good work.    

 

 

Inventory Management and Customer Conversion/Retention in the Snow Sliding Business

SIA was kind enough to feed me a nice breakfast this (Friday) morning before the show opened. While I ate and drank coffee, people from the various industry organizations that are and have been involved in the industry’s programs to convert first time snow sliders talked to us about what they’ve accomplished and what more needs to happen.

I guess the headline number was that conversion of first timers has increased 2% over ten years to 18%. There was a sense of “that’s not so good and we can do better” in how it was presented. I am sure we can do better, but I’m not quite sure that’s such a bad result. When you talk about trying to change people’s fundamental behavior, ten years isn’t very long and I’m not quite sure that 2% is so bad. We’ve learned a lot over the last ten years (both about what to do and what not to do) and I expect more progress over the next ten.

One thing that didn’t come up was how our inventory management can contribute to conversion. One of the stories in the Snow Show Daily for Friday is called Sold Out and Stoked. It’s about how hard goods inventories have reached equilibrium.
 
If there’s one thing every retailer, resort, and brand has learned over the last couple of years it’s that having leftover snowsliding inventory at the end of the season sucks. When you’ve got to carry over or close out a bunch of inventory, it can easily mean you make no money on your snow business for the year. Not to mention the impact on your cash flow and balance sheet.
 
I’ve been arguing for years that you might be better off focusing on your inventory management and gross margin dollar generation than on getting every last sale you could. Now, in the midst of our little ongoing economic inconvenience, I feel even more strongly about that and I want to discuss how it ties into the conversion issue.
 
Every brand I talked to yesterday told me they were managing their inventories tightly and had next to nothing left. I’ve heard a couple of stories about retailers exchanging product with each other to meet customer requests because they couldn’t get any product from suppliers. This morning at breakfast one long time industry participant I chatted with bemoaned not being able to get a pair of boots he needed for himself.
 
I’m in favor of tight inventory management, but I sure hope it doesn’t come to us all having to pay retail for product.
 
So what does this have to do with conversion and retention? Suddenly, the harder to find product looks special to the consumer and finding whatever they need at a discount isn’t something they can take for granted. Under conditions of uncertain supply, price can’t always be the driving factor in a purchase. Retailers are making a good margin, which means they are better positioned to service their customers. Price increases are more likely to stick. The money the retailer would like to have to pay his suppliers isn’t tied up in inventory. There won’t be excess inventory that will keep him from ordering for next season and he won’t go out of business.
 
Brands will have happy, solvent retailers. I’d even suggest they might be in a position to spend a bit less on advertising and promotion because there’s no better marketing than customers and retailers who want more of a product and can’t always get it.
 
Want more people to go snowsliding? Or to do almost anything for that matter? Make the product just a bit hard to find and require that the consumer make a conscious, active decision to seek it out because if they don’t, it won’t be there. I think that’s an important step in creating commitment.
 
And now what’s happened? We go and have all this great snow (unless you’re from the Northwest like me where we have floods instead of powder) and I know that somewhere out there some management team at some brand is planning for next year. And they’re going, “Wow! We had a great year! We’re great managers [We always are when it snows]. We could have sold more if we’d had it!”
 
And some retailer is thinking, “Damn! I have got to make sure I don’t run out of product next year! I’m boosting the hell out of my preseason orders.”
 
Well, you can see where this is going. Not for a minute am I suggesting that “the industry” should control inventory levels. It won’t happen and isn’t legal. Every business will and should do what they perceive to be in their own best interest.
 
I know.   If you’re a retailer that it just felt awful when you didn’t have the product your customer wanted, though hopefully you sold them something else. But forget that bad feeling. Think of the good feeling when you had great margins and less discounting and closing out to manage. And look at your bottom line and balance sheet. What I’m suggesting is that it’s not in your best interest to boost those orders too much. Clean inventory and high margins may well give you a better bottom line result than a boost in sales. I talked about that a while ago in an article you can see here.
 
As a brand, when that wild eyed retailer comes to you with a greedy look in their eye and wants to books their order for next season 58%, try and calm them down. And you calm down too. Talk about how much it sucked when they couldn’t pay their bill, and you had to either take product back or they had to sell it for cost or through some ugly distribution channels you’d rather have stayed away from.
 
Both of you try to remember how nice it feels when inventory is clean, margins are high, and customers are clamoring for product they see as special. You just don’t want to return to the days of overbuilding and overstocking for hoped for incremental sales.
 
 If we can maintain the mentality that has led to just a bit of product scarcity we just might contribute to getting more people snowsliding. And we could make some more money besides.

 

 

Inventory Risk and Inventory Management; Our Own Version of Musical Chairs?

Janet Freeman, owner of the small but well established women’s snowboard apparel brand Betty Rides, has a problem. On October 17th, she told me, “It’s weird but Betty Rides has ALREADY been getting lots of re-orders for snowboard jackets and pants. We cut to order, and are sold out on most things.”

Naturally, I was sympathetic to her terrible problem and said, “Which means that you are holding margins, selling through at good margins at retail, creating demand without running a big promotional campaign, being important to your retailers, and minimizing your (and the retailer’s) inventory risk?  I predicted some products shortages a while ago and I think, for the industry overall, it’s a great thing.  I think you are also seeing that small retailers are dependent more than ever on small brands that have not blown up their distribution and on which they can make good money.”

Better ringing your hands over sales you missed then inventory you can’t sell. Of course, I recommended this strategy for smaller brands especially years ago but, for some reason, it’s suddenly gotten popular. You can track the article down on my web site if you want.
 
What’s Inventory Risk?
I imagine most of you don’t need that question answered, but there are a few points I want to make and that seems like as good a subheading as any. Mathematically, I suppose your total inventory risk is the cost of everything you purchase or make for resale. If you want to eliminate that risk, you don’t make or buy anything. But that seems a little extreme. Instead, let’s define inventory risk as the potential decline in the value of your inventory from what you expect it to be; from the anticipated selling price, that is. Once you sell it, it’s no longer inventory risk. It’s credit risk if you weren’t paid before you ship it. Retailers, of course, are typically paid before “shipping.”
 
Inventory risk gets managed in two ways.  First, by buying well. Hopefully, that helps you with the second part of inventory risk management- selling well. My last article for Canadian Snowboard Business actually talked about that. Maybe they’ve put it up on their web site and could put the link HERE?  I’ve also written about using a concept called Gross Margin Return on Inventory Investment (GMROII) as a tool to increase your gross profit dollars and, incidentally, reduce your inventory risk and you can see that on my web site here. 
 
You can never get rid of inventory risk, but if you’re buying well and using GMROII, you’ve probably done everything you can reasonably do to minimize it.
 
Who’s Inventory Risk?
It’s impossible to completely eliminate inventory risk and be in business. In a perfect world, a retailer would love it if the brand could give them only the stock they need to merchandise their store and then have replenishments show up over night. Oh- and they’d prefer it if everything they got was on consignment. The brand, sitting on the other side of the equation, wants the store to buy everything all at once and pay cash in advance. Obviously neither is going to get their way.
 
The original premise behind this article was that inventory risk was a zero sum game. That is, it existed and somebody- the retailer, the brand, or the manufacturer- had to shoulder it. Zero sum means that you can pass it around, but not reduce or eliminate it. The only question is who takes the risk.
 
I’m not so sure that’s completely true. After some thought, and some conversations with some smart people, I’m beginning to look at inventory risk as an indivisible part of systemic business risk. You can manage it, but it’s just not independent of overall business conditions and your relationship with your customer or buyer. It’s not zero sum because you can work together to reduce it.
 
Some Real Life Examples
 
“One you find the demand line and are honest about it, and start producing under it, you really start building your brand,” Jeff says.
And of course both the retailer and the brand reduce their inventory risk because they aren’t kidding themselves about demand. You can see where I’m going with this. Good demand planning at all levels of the supply chain can reduce the inventory risk for everybody- not just transfer it from one player to the other.
 
Sanction is a snowboard and skate retailer with shops in North Toronto and the Kitchener/Waterloo area. Co-owner Charles Javier says he dropped a lot of the larger snow related brands or lowered the quantity he bought this year. He’s been bringing in smaller brands, and does better with them than with some of the larger ones. In fact, they upped their total buy this year. “How we manage inventory risk isn’t about how we put risk off on the brand, but about how we buy,” he told me.
 
And he’s not particularly concerned that his smaller preseason orders with some brands will keep him from having enough product later in the season. “There’s always going to be inventory available,” he said.
 
A consistent theme in my conversations has been brands warning that they aren’t making product much beyond orders, and that retailers who want it better have gotten their orders in, and retailers not quite believing them, or not quite caring, or thinking they could substitute another brand. I guess by the time you read this, we’ll know how it worked out. I hope to hell there are some product shortages that make some of this stuff a bit scarce and special again.
 
Darren Hawrish is the president and owner of No Limits Distribution. Located in Vancouver, it handles Sessions, Reef, Osiris, Capita, Union and other brands in Canada. He and Charles at Sanction would probably get along just fine, as Darren, like Charles think you manage your inventory risk by how you buy. He’s been more diligent on inventory this year, looking at it weekly instead of monthly.
“Inventory is the make or break part of your business,” he told me. “You can’t increase sales [which they expect to do, though not as much as in previous years] without it.” But posted on their walls is a sign that says, “Inventory Is Death” so it seems they have a healthy balance in how they handle it. “The discount doesn’t matter if you can’t sell it,” he reminded me.
 
He’s seeing tightness all along the supply chain. He thinks it’s a lot tougher to make in season buys than it was 18 months ago or so. His goal is to sell what he gets in. On the face of it, that sounds kind of obvious. But in his mind inventory and buying are closely tied to having clearly defined growth and margin goals, so there is a strategic component to inventory that a lot of people may not be thinking about. And that is another way that Darren works to reduce inventory risk.
 
I’m not quite sure the musical chairs analogy I used in the title holds up. Inventory risk can’t be isolated from general business risk, and it’s not a known quantity that just gets passed around. A brand that sells its product and gets paid for it still hasn’t eliminated its inventory risk. What happens when all that inventory doesn’t sell and the retailer has to dump it? What’s the impact if they go out of business and aren’t around to buy anything next year? What if the value of the retailer’s inventory goes to hell because of the distribution actions of the brand? What’s the brand suppose to do when a retailer grey markets stuff outside of normal distribution channels?     Seems to me that inventory risk exists all across the supply channel and we’re all in it together.
 
It gets minimized when the sales plan is realistic and consistent with the brand or retailer’s market position and strategic goals. Not to mention market conditions. It is further minimized when you buy based on your best estimate of demand regardless of terms, discounts and or other incentives.
 
Current economic conditions are requiring us to reduce our inventory risk and to pay closer attention to all the management accounting and operations management things that, frankly, aren’t much fun. But we’ll be a much better run industry as a result and might even bring back to at least some of our product the sense of exclusivity it has lost over time.