Out of Context

Out of Sync

Boeing makes planes faster than the Outdoor Industry makes jackets.

They moved the trade show again. Pushed back another month, the Outdoor Industry’s big powwow now asks buyers to purchase a summer season’s worth of product without any idea of what worked for them the summer before.

The buying cycle doesn’t work very well anymore. Originally trade shows followed a sales season. Buyers could look at their sales numbers and put together a logical open to buy plan for the next year. Eventually the shows were pushed back because the supply chain moved to Asia and the brands needed more time for knitting, weaving, sewing and shipping. Buyers got bigger discounts and better terms, however, they still had just enough sales history with the current season to confidently forecast the purchasing for the next year.

Now the supply chain needs more time.

In this just-in-time world Boeing makes airplanes faster than the Outdoor Industry makes jackets. From the date an outdoor brand knows what product it is going to make until the delivery driver rolls boxes into a brick-and-mortar retailer is about 18 months. When goods are made half a world away with material logistics that snake through multiple countries and cultures the result is product disconnection. Too much product, not enough, wrong time, wrong color, something is always off. Production continues to be in step with the seasons at the expense of efficiency.

Seasons seem quaint when it snows in May and the temperatures are in the 90s in October. Customers purchase when they need something, want something or are enticed by price. The Internet feeds off the latter two and just-across-town retailers have held on to “need” which traditionally has been related in some way to the calendar. Increasingly that calendar and sales seasons are disconnected as well.

That leaves the industry exactly where it is. Big players that can stock everything all the time and sell off-price when the brands over produce can sit back and ride out the turbulence while the little brick-and-mortar retailers with limited floor space and scant money are forced to place risky bets on their inventory matching cultural trend and crazy weather.

The Outdoor Industry was built on the backs of these smaller independent shops. With creaking floorboards and bells on the door the outdoor specialty retailer sits at the intersection of application and innovation. They sell really cool tools and they personally know how to use them. While the legitimacy of outdoor product is increasingly found on Internet forums and website reviews, there is no substitute for an expert summarizing the community’s collective knowledge tailored to the circumstances of an individual customer. The word we used to use for this interaction was called “service.”

Specialty retail is inherently prescriptive. The needs of the customer are considered and satisfied in real time by a real person. In contrast, Internet retail carpet bombs categories and leaves it to the consumer to pick up the relevant pieces and make some sense of their meaning. Without the stabilizing effect of the outdoor brick-and-mortar stores the entire industry becomes much more caveat emptor.

Instead of standing behind those specialty retailers working in the trenches, the brands and trade shows seem to be betting on the Internet’s air superiority. They bend and flex their business model to accommodate antiquated supply chains and massive production minimums to the benefit of businesses that have virtual stores, not real ones.

In order to support the real live actual people that spend their days working in outdoor shops, the industry will have to make product more in sync with reality; the reality of political change, the reality of climate change and the growing overall feeling in our society that people make a difference.

Disclaimer: Mr. Gray often uses chopsticks to get out of sync. His opinions and eating habits are his own and the Publisher may not share them.