The puzzle of inventory during the pandemic
2020 has been a year of supreme uncertainly for specialty retail. Empty shelves, cancelled orders, and lopsided demand have forced shop owners to get creative to meet customers' needs. Here's what several retail owners say about the challenges they've faced.
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“If there’s any pattern to all this, it’s to expect delays. Which categories, brands, or products—that’s anybody’s guess. It’s best to just assume everything will be delayed and end up pleasantly surprised if it’s not.”
That’s Eastside Sports owner Todd Vogel’s take on the state of inventory challenges at this point in the pandemic, nearly eight months in.
“If there’s a delay, you pivot. Delay, pivot,” says Vogel, whose shop is based in Bishop, California. “That strategy has kept us going. It’s all about flexibility.”
It’s no secret that sellers of outdoor goods have been scrambling this year, trying to keep pace with a retail landscape strained by supply chain disruptions, rapid shutdowns, unpredictable demand, and other hardships. Still, one way or another, many retailers are finding ways to keep their shelves stocked—to some degree—and customers happy.
To figure out what retailers are seeing on the ground level, and how they’re coping, we got in touch with several shop owners and buyers to ask about what’s going right, what’s going wrong, and how everyone is bracing for the upcoming season.
What’s causing problems
To start things off, we wanted to know about specific pain points. In some sense, we were looking for a pattern, but that exercise quickly proved futile. After speaking with shop owners in several different states, the moral of the story seems to be that there’s no rhyme or reason to what goods or which brands are causing inventory problems on a consistent basis. All the retailers we spoke with say they’re trying their best to prepare for anything.
“Our biggest vendor overall is Patagonia,” says Sam Barg, a buyer at Ute Mountaineer in Aspen, Colorado. “Those orders have come in anywhere from 20 to 50 percent complete. They can’t promise anything. But then other stuff trickles in that we didn’t expect. Our reps have no idea what’s happening either. Week to week, we have to reassess and chase what we can.”
Barg says Ute Mountaineer has seen cancellations from at least half a dozen vendors that are critical to the shop’s core inventory: Patagonia, KUHL, Columbia, prAna, HOKA ONE ONE, Black Diamond, and Sorrell.
“Those are the big brands a lot of people have had trouble with,” he says.
Marinna Merkel, co-owner of Round House Ski and Sports Center in Bozeman, Montana, says she’s also had a lot of trouble with Patagonia and The North Face.
“Patagonia’s Powder Bowl Pant always does great for our store, and I can’t get them, none. That’s a staple piece for Patagonia, so it says something about where they’re at,” Merkel says. She also says the company expects not to see the bulk of its winter order from The North Face come through until late November—a huge problem for getting product out the door before ski season starts.
Across the state in Missoula, Todd Frank, owner of The Trail Head, says he’s experienced similar cuts from Patagonia.
“Patagonia is our biggest vendor. They cut about 40 percent of our pre-season order, but customer demand also dropped, so it evened out,” Frank says. “This year, we’re making a lot of concessions with product—accepting different colors than we wanted, things like that—but we’ve found that people are less picky about color and other small details these days. They’re willing to support us, even if they can’t get the exact product they want.”
Down in Flagstaff, Arizona, Steve Chatinsky says he’s had a lot of trouble with survival items his shop, Peace Surplus.
“I ran out of Reliance water containers for two weeks. We’ve had three or four shipments of those since the summer, and we usually do one per year,” Chatinsky says. “We’ve been a little slow on freeze dried food, too. We went seven or eight days without any at one time. But we’ve been chasing it between multiple vendors.”
Perhaps Vogel, at Eastside Sports, summed it up best. “It’s hard to find a pattern,” he says. “Lots of things are in short supply, but it’s hard to predict. Tents have been hard to get your hands on; backpacking stoves and Black Diamond cams have been problematic. Bikes and car racks have been tough. Even bear canisters have been strangely difficult to get. What do all those things have in common?”
Answer: nothing. Inventory is simply tough right now across the board.
Areas of success
It’s not all doom and gloom, however, these retailers were quick to point out.
“For us, footwear has done well—though it’s hit or miss by brand,” Vogel says. “Other than Merrell, which basically ran out of shoes, we’ve done pretty well. La Sportiva and Topo Athletic are two that have been outstanding in terms of getting us product.”
Merkel says that while inventory hasn’t been easy in any category this year, there have been areas with fewer challenges. Round House has most of the downhill skis it ordered for the season, as well as a healthy selection of Nordic hardgoods. Some of that, she noted, is carryover product from last year, but that hasn’t posed a problem; there’s more of an appetite for older gear this season.
“There’s something to be says for reminding consumers that we do have carryover product from last year,” Merkel says. “Brands are cutting back expansion of their lines, so there’s probably going to be a lot more carryover for the next few years as well. It’s good to get customers used to that now.”
At The Trail Head in Missoula, Franks says he was pleasantly surprised by the performance of the vendors he uses for his watersports categories.
“All of our boat vendors did a really excellent job,” he says. “We struggled with kayaks and paddles and accessories a little, but not as much as you might have imagined.”
Softgoods vs. hardgoods
Slicing things a different way, there’s no clear trend in supply differences between softgoods and hardgoods, according to the retailers we spoke with. Here, though, there’s at least some pattern in demand difference.
“Apparel is down by double digits this year,” Frank says of overall sales at The Trail Head. “The more casual it is, the more people don’t want it.”
Franks says that technical clothing has done well and hardgoods are flying off the shelves. He attributes the demand change to one simple factor: caution. Customers don’t want to try things on unless it’s something they absolutely need, like a raincoat, or something they feel safe trying on, like a ski boot.
“On the hardgoods side, we’re up 100 percentage points on uphill gear,” says Barg of his sales in Aspen. “Brands like Dynafit, Blizzard, and Technica are flying out the door. And surprisingly the inventory from those guys has been pretty good thus far.”
Again, though, there’s no clear pattern from a supply perspective, taking into account an experience like Merkel’s. She noted that, even though Round House has most of its pre-season ski orders filled by now, special orders are another story entirely.
“Our story with hardgoods is shipping delays,” says Merkel. “Companies are short-staffed, they don’t have the manpower to get special orders out, and that causes a trickle-down effect. We’ve been turning people away on the hardgoods side for special requests, just telling customers we’re sorry, but we can’t get them what they need.”
Add to that a massive fire this fall that burned down the main ski factory for Fischer—one of Merkel’s big vendors at Round House—and it’s been wildly unpredictable, even with some modest success at getting orders filled, she says.
Solution: Sourcing from multiple vendors and leaning on relationships
One workaround many retailers have pursued is quick pivots to different vendors.
“We’ve been able to keep things going because we have three or four vendors for each of the items in camping, which is a big category for us,” Chatinsky says of Ute Mountaineer. “For instance, in the past we’ve ordered solar showers from Tech Sport, Coghlan’s, and Reliance. Those channels are all open, so if one of them closes, we lean more heavily on the other two.”
Chatinsky says that, in his view, that communication and multiple channels to source product are key to managing inventory chaos as the pandemic progresses.
“Of course, that’s just another way of saying it’s all about relationships,” he says. “When it comes down to crunch time, relationships will sink you or keep you afloat. When you call a vendor and get a friend on the other end of the line, that’s when things get done for you. Pay attention to who you do business with and why. It’s not all about price.”
Vogel echoed the sentiment, and says that another important factor is nimbleness.
“You have to be quick on your feet,” he says. “You have to anticipate shortages and either stock up ahead of time—like we did with fuel canisters this summer—or pivot quickly and look for smaller quantities of similar items from different vendors.”
Of course, pivoting to new vendors and maintaining relationships are two strategies that don’t always play well together. Frank, at The Trail Head, says he chose not to introduce uncertainty for his vendors out of respect for their business. They rely on him just as much as he relies on them, after all.
“We talked about pivoting to new suppliers, but we wanted to stick with the people we’ve always been working with,” Frank says. “We’ve had some new vendors reaching out. I got an email yesterday from a big brand—I won’t say who—that started as a direct-to-consumer operation and now wants to get into wholesale. We’ll probably take a hard pass on that. We want to support people who have supported us in the past. That’s just how it works.”
For Merkel, the courtesy of sticking with your old partners has another benefit—it gives you room to ask for flexibility when needed. That give-and-take might include discounts, shipping assistance, or changes to invoice dating.
“The willingness to flex is different for each company,” Merkel says. “When we go and ask our vendors to ship additional product or cover freight, we know they’re in a hard spot too. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t done it. One area we’ve succeeded in is asking our vendors to pay for expedited freight. We tell them we need such-and-such product, we can’t wait weeks, so we need you to ship it overnight and cover that cost. And most of the time they’re willing. Yes it’s a big ask, but ultimately it’s to support sell-through, which benefits them too.”
Frank says that his big ask always comes down to invoice dating. He doesn’t push his vendors too hard to ship product faster, but he does insist on keeping the timeline for payment at its agreed-upon length if an order arrives late.
“My standard approach is, if you ship something 30 days late, I’m adding 30 days to the dating for payment. I’m going to call up and ask for more time, because we had less time to sell it,” he says. “To me, that just makes sense.”
How are customers handling it?
In the end, all these retailers seemed to agree that customer flexibility is a big factor—perhaps the biggest—in dealing with inventory challenges during the pandemic. If customers are willing to wait a little longer for their gear, reserve pickiness about color and other details, and occasionally shop around for carryover product from last season, much of the inventory chaos can be buffered enough to keep retailers and brands going until things even out again.
“Thankfully, there’s a push this year to shop local,” Merkel says. “People know that shipping is backed up, and they’re sympathetic. Many consumers still want to buy things locally. Even if we can’t guarantee special orders or promise to have every single new product in stock, the forgiveness of our customers can get us through. And we won’t forget that when things get back to normal.”