Thoughts from Outdoor Retailer/Snow Show

The first thing you think when you walk into the show is what an incredibly great idea it was to consolidate The Snow Show with Outdoor Retailer.  The second thing you think is, “What took them so long?”  I imagine the answer to that is quite a soap opera.

The next thing I thought was whether I’d gone to the dog show by mistake.  I like dogs, but the sheer number was rather remarkable this year.

For the two days I was there, it was a vibrant and active show.  Not so sure about the third day, given the number of attendees who were on the Friday morning flight back to Seattle with me, but that’s what happens at trade show; the last day is typically slower.

What the hell did we do when the show was even longer?   Oh, that’s right- we were younger and it was a lot more fun.  It was amusing when the people who were supposed to show up first thing in the morning didn’t make it till noon because they’d been out “networking” all night.  Somehow, it made you credible.

Before the world (inconveniently) changed on us, shows focused on retailers writing orders and brands “getting paper,” whatever that is, from them.  Now, as a show veteran pointed out to me, buyers want to get on their computers, put orders from all their brands into their systems, and see how things look over all before finalizing orders given their sell through and new brands they may have discovered. 

Which is how it should and has to be in a digitized world where, if you aren’t using big data to figure out what to buy and who to sell it to, and how the brands you carry relate to each other, you may not be around after the next recession, whenever that is.

But even if orders aren’t written like they used to be, the show validates the importance of having face time with customers and other industry folk.  That’s especially critical for what used to be The Snow Show, where we gather once a year.  It will be interesting to watch how the trend towards shows that include consumer involvement play out.  Is it just a way to sell some product, does it bring consumers to the sport and the brands, or is it a way for show producers to solidify their financial positions?  I don’t have the answer to that one. 

And then, in quick order, I noticed two things that kind of book ended the show for me.  I looked down and saw (besides my size 14s which are hard to miss) concrete- not carpet.  First time I remember seeing that.

My take is that Outdoor Retailer, owned by struggling public company Emerald Expositions, is trying to save some money.  Well, why shouldn’t they?  We’re all a bit tighter on our spending than we used to be.

The second thing I saw, like the first moment I got to the section where the snowboard companies congregated, was the announcement in front of Volcom’s booth telling us, “Volcom is the official outerwear partner of the U. S. Snowboard team through the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games.”  Not saying that this is a good or a bad thing for the brand.  It just struck me how much the industry has changed.  This is definitely not “Youth Against Establishment.”

To nobody’s surprise and not for the first time, Burton wasn’t exhibiting.  But neither was Mervyn Manufacturing (Gnu, Lib Tech, Bent Metal).  Mostly, I was just disappointed not to see those guys and their booth concept.  It was years ago I suggested them as a brand that may be could find something better to do with their dollars than go to trade shows.  Kind of disappointed they decided to agree with me.

Sims had a small booth off in the corner with five or six boards in it.  I don’t have a point here- I just have some history with Sims and waxed a bit nostalgic when I saw it.  Always wanted that brand to succeed.

DC characterized some of their footwear as “winterized.”  I don’t know what functional differences there might be, but I thought that an intriguing attempt at differentiation.

Tracey Canaday at Never Summer showed me their new towable camper.  For those of you who think that’s a weird thing for them to produce, look at it this way.

First, it sounds like they’re really having fun doing it, and that might be a good enough reason.  Second, they own their factory and have all those CNC machines that aren’t doing anything at night.  Those machines cut out all the parts and they’ve got a place to put it together.  The only out of pocket cost is for materials.

I didn’t find it incongruous.  Felt like it worked with the brand.  The one they were displaying is only the 3rd they’ve made. Each gets better based on the pictures I saw.  Will they sell a lot of them?  Will snowboarders buy them? No idea.  Is there a market for them outside of the brands traditional customer base?  Haven’t a clue.

But it’s low risk/cost, something they are enthusiast about, and certainly won’t damage the brand.  I highly recommend that way of thinking about product extensions to all brands as they consider new ideas.

Finally, if I can wax macroeconomic for a minute, I was struck by the functional sea of sameness I saw at the show.  This is hardly new.  Everybody makes good product now and there’s a whole lot of it not differentiable by anything but marketing.  Apparently, there can be too much of a good thing, though I suppose not if you’re a consumer. 

Worldwide and certainly not limited to the active outdoor industry, there is too much production capacity and too much product.  As I see it, that’s the fault of low to negative interest rates kept low for way too long.

There are companies in business that would simply not be around if their interest rate doubled for example.  There are companies that would never have been financed in the first place.  These low interest rate dependent companies are called “zombies” in financial parlance.

Go look at your balance sheet and, if you’ve got debt, ask how your cash flow would look if the interest rate was twice what it is.

We’ve adjusted to the quantity and sameness of product at least partly by controlling our distribution- something I’ve always been a fan of. 

At your next trade show, you might look around and ask, “If this show was smaller and the zombies had all gone away, would I be able to sell more product in more places at better prices without damaging my brand?” 

Just something for you to consider as you walk the show.

4 replies
  1. Charlie Ninegar
    Charlie Ninegar says:

    The concrete got me too… first thing I noticed on the way in. But the isles were busy and I suppose if brands can slim down their footprint and overall investment in the show, the show should be able to trim in acceptable ways too. The concrete felt acceptable.

    What did you think of the continuing Venture Out section?

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Charlie,
      Somebody told me that in Europe they were not using carpet in trade show aisles as a way to be more environmental friendly. No idea if that’s the case here, but certainly they saved some money. I’m sure I walked through the Venture Out section, but don’t really remember it as a distinctive section. Which I suppose says something about what I thought in that I didn’t even notice it as being distinctive.

  2. David Cutler
    David Cutler says:

    Hi Jeff – thanks for the insightful and enjoyable POV. As a “Ski Industry Rat” (my dad is, the infamous, Dick Cutler), I have seen the natural ebb and flow of the trade side of the business get lost in the mad rush for exponential growth that progress seems to demand. I am not harkening back to a simpler time (being a human has always been complicated)… but I am realizing that focusing your business on a purpose to impact a more relevant type of customer can lead to discovering new opportunities to help who you now know better. A camper is a perfect “vehicle” to all sorts of products and services. On the road again!

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi David,
      These are mostly not the days of exponential growth. Actually, it never is because if you grow exponentially, pretty soon you need to be selling to customers on planets around other stars. Which would be cool, but is not quite practical yet. Every business has to be focused on a relevant customer type, and it’s not an easy thing to discern. These days, in our sea of sameness, it’s especially important to collect and utilize good data to find those customers. Those who do will have the chance to survive and maybe even prosper.
      Thanks for the comment.

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