Monday, July 27, 2009




July 20th 2009
6:30 PM

Words, Images Judith Ecochard

After a sunny and FUN Demo Day, we headed over to the OIA Thought Leader Symposium, a networking dinner that brought together Outdoor Retailer attendees, government officials, and industry leaders- ready to press the flesh and “tackle important issues affecting the success and growth of the industry.”

It was also a night that marked an occasion- as this industry group was celebrating its 20th birthday. The Conservation Alliance too…

The three plus hour event was also one of reflection “…about where we’re going (and) how can we manage into the future,” noted Frank Hugelmeyer, President & CEO of OIA.

Especially poignant ===given the challenging economic times.

People were wearing everything from a suit and tie (government officials, natch) to river sandals, casual short sleeves, and long board shorts- for this packed event.

What particularly interested us was the panel gathered to discuss the topics the “new economy…new business models…the new consumer…and conservation and the environment.”

Beginning with a positive spin, the Lieutenant Governor of Utah, Gary Herbert, made a few opening remarks on how great Utah is for business, and how it’s a destination state for tourists.

“We’re friendly and believe in outdoor recreation,” Herbert commented.

We were impressed that there is a dedicated state employee to all things outdoors –a position staffed and FUNDED…as this area is one of the key eight “economic clusters” identified as being critical to Utah’s financial well being.


We also like how Herbert, who is soon to be Governor, thanked the current holder of that office, Jon Huntsman who is set to be this country’s Ambassador to China.

“He’s going to be a rock star,” Herbert opined. We hope so…given frienemy China’s 13 billion people, economic ties with the planet, sway over North Korea, and as the major holder of USA’s debt.

The panel discussion, moderated by the congenial Mike Wallenfels – CEO, Mountain Hardwear ---had the accomplished (SMART) participants, Steve Barker – CEO, Eagle Creek, Kim Coupounas – founder and Chief Environmental Officer, GoLite, Lee Fromson – Vice President, gear & apparel, REI, Sally McCoy – CEO, CamelBak, tackling one of the key “mega” issues affecting the future of the Outdoor Industry.

What got our brain cells swirling…

Lee Fromson’s (REI) remarked that he anticipates an economic recovery no sooner than 2010…and that if “you have cash and you have a relationship with a bank, you will thrive.”

“It’s got to be up compared to last year,” he added.

Fromson’s also observed how retailers are waiting till the last minute to put in their orders, as consumers are procrastinating too…waiting to see “who breaks prices first.”

Tellingly, Fromson observed that consumers seem to be more value oriented and conservative in how they spend $s… versus the who ever has the most toys wins mentality. The flashy buyers might be lying low, we thought…but we are a consumer driven economy…

But we agree that ‘we’ are pickier…

Fromson’s other concerns included long-term unemployment--- particularly white-collar jobs.

On a positive note, environmental ethics that seem to have really meshed into our nation’s DNA…”play into our sweet spot.” Agree!

Kim Coupounas (GoLite) made the on target point that yes, we “are now in a recession…but not to let people get trapped by the doom and gloom.” THANK-YOU.

“No one joins OIA for a pot of gold…we do it for love.”

The outdoor industry is not recession proof, she added…but it does okay in any economy as people “go to nature to regain their balance.”
Coupounas also mentioned the difference between “making the sale versus offering a solution,” and the upside of staycations, do-it-in-a-day jaunts…and how important it is to “make getting outdoors positive, affordable and accessible.”

Sally McCoy – CEO, CamelBak discussed new business models. Referring to Wal-Mart’s recent announcement to survey all suppliers in an attempt to “calculate environmental costs” and implement a type of eco lable …McCoy pronounced- the outdoor industry “can’t neglect social compliance.”

Naturally (ahem), the outdoor industry-that originated in the counter culture movement of the 60’s and 70’s-has always been sensitive and pro-active on sustainability issues---

We cover the fashion biz too and are sadly astonished how behind the eco curve that industry is.

We do agree with Coupounas that consumers born after 1980 will more willingly pay up (slightly, anyway) for ‘eco” goods…

Steve Barker, CEO of Eagle Creek commented on how manufacturers were “leaving China to look for the next cheapest spot.” He felt that this MO would be “tough” to do now, given the advent of regulations, sustainable business practices, social compliance etc.

What else is tough…is the ability of small manufacturers, “the backbone of the business” to compete in this business climate.

Barker also remarked on the shorter lead times between retail orders and deliveries…in an on demand environment. We feel that shorter everything is a way of life on this fast paced planet…and looked forward to our interview with the guys at 5.11+ Tactical® , a ‘clothing’ company that has inventory stocked at the ready for law enforcement and military types who don’t pre-order.

We had a ‘huh?’ moment when an attendee- who had a question regarding how her small retail establish can a ‘deal with it’ ‘tude. IMHO. We felt she could have gotten some positive spin…like developing multi-channel customers (not too costly), and the importance of white glove service via a tip top sales staff… and the VALUE of that knowledge, something we pay for when buying gear.

And we’re the type that hasn’t read a hard copy newspaper in five years.

We gave an amen though to the acknowledged need for the industry to be inclusive- as outdoor activities are colorblind…and the need for customers to see a diverse sales staff---aka someone that looks like them.

Living in NYC, we take ethnic blends as a given…but notice that when we go camping, rock climbing etc…that mash-up of humankind disappears.

And there were a few minutes devoted to the importance for retailers to earn the hearts and minds of Millenniums (Gen Yers)…who grew up logged on to something. Just having a Facebook page doesn’t count…but delivering the whole retail “experience” does. Companies adapt at that –that were mentioned included LuLu Lemon, Anthropology and MAC Cosmetics.

We would add Apple- as people pay a premium for those ‘toys’ and for that awesome customer service. We can think of no other bricks and mortar retailer open 24/7 (the Fifth Avenue store)…that’s always buzzing…and a destination for the hordes of tourists after the touchdown at JFK.

Lastly, the need to “differentiate your product” was also highlighted…as the “man in China will be launching their own brand.”

SPONSOR THANKS: The Economic Development Corporation Of Utah.