Adjusting to Changes in the Outdoors Market

How the COVID-19 pandemic and increased outdoor recreation is affecting a Wisconsin business

Adjusting to Changes in the Outdoors Market

This year brought a number of unforeseeable challenges to outdoor retailers. COVID-19 has changed business as we know it, and adapting is now more important than ever.

The downtime many stores experienced in the early months of the year were challenging and uncertain. This industry is fortunate, however, to have a large portion of the population turning to outdoor recreation to remain active in a world of social distancing.

In a survey conducted by CivicScience in late March, 43% of Americans over the age of 13 reported they’d be doing more outdoor activities with 15% specifically saying they would like to do more hiking due to COVID-19 social distancing protocol. Increased traffic on the trails doesn’t necessarily mean increased traffic in your store. It’s up to you as owners to adapt with the changes to remain successful.

Many businesses were required to close their doors this spring, including The Hiker Box in Eagle River, Wisconsin. The Hiker Box carries a large variety of outdoor products with their specialty being gear and accessories for long-distance hiking, and with a change customer circulation upon reopening, there has been a learning curve. 

“We were closed for seven weeks,” says Tom Stephens, co-owner of the store. “And we were requiring masks from the moment that we opened the doors back up. We had a fair number of people that simply weren’t prepared to put on a mask and come through the door.”

Since then, business has come back around, and sales are being made. But those sales didn’t just happen without a little preparation and change.

Preparing for the unexpected 

“The biggest thing that I think we do is we watch our numbers every single day,” Stephens says. “Watching it, comparing it and knowing where you stand allows you to be in a good situation when things like this come up.”

Preparing ahead of time for seasonal shipments may now be more crucial than ever. The down time did not just affect small business owners but has set back production from manufacturers as well. “Even though we were closed, we still accepted our preseason shipments,” says Jessica Allen, co-owner of The Hiker Box.

Stephens and Allen knew that even if they didn’t have the sales that they wanted right away, eventually they would come, and having full shelves in their store was important.

Obtaining certain items has and is still proving difficult. Budget friendly large family tents are proving difficult to find and even items like bear spray and fillet knives are backordered for several months. It pays to look ahead to the upcoming seasons’ inventory and get orders in as soon as possible. When sought-after items are difficult to find even online, your store will stand out if you have them on the shelf. And your customers will remember. 

Adjusting to a change in sales

“We’ve seen some categories down, and some categories up,” Stephens says. Backpack sales, for instance, decreased. One reason could be that fitting a backpack is very hands-on and not everyone is willing to work that closely with sales staff for an extended period of time. 

It’s important to focus on the gear that is moving now instead of concentrating on the gear that was more commonly sold in past years. Customers might be hesitant to spend a lot on certain gear right now with uncertainty in their own careers, or they are part of the 43% of newcomers looking to purchase entry level gear, so make sure to offer a variety of options to fit every budget. 

A noticeable change Stephens and Allen have experienced is a cutback in the local traffic and regular faces that used to frequently browse their store. “There are some familiar faces that are just getting by with what equipment they have because while they might like to come in, they are avoiding the unnecessary exposure,” Stephens says. 

Utilizing an online storefront or listing current inventory on your website is a great way for customers new and old to browse your stock without unwanted risk. Keep up to date on what you have in stock and advertise on your site and social media when shipments of new items come in, especially when you receive items that are hard to find and backordered from manufacturers. 

Another way The Hiker Box is accommodating customers is by placing a bench outside the store for customers who are uncomfortable going inside. Workers come out to assist them and bring them products to look at and try on. Taking steps to make all customers feel comfortable and welcome will go a long way during the pandemic and well beyond.

Stick to your values

Your business’s brand represents you as a company owner. Demonstrating your values now will leave a lasting impression on your customers and the other businesses in the area. Do what you can to build and keep a positive brand name. 

“We are trying very hard to keep up with donations to organizations that we regularly donate to, keep up with our sponsorships and our subscriptions to other organizations,” Allen says. “You’ve got to keep everything flowing.” 

Stephens says they have slow times and fast times, but they enjoy running the business and making it work regardless of the circumstances. “We are going to continue to be there and support our customers.”


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