Every spring, consumers descend upon the annual Canoecopia tradeshow at the 100,000-square-foot Alliant Energy Center in Madison, Wis., to rub elbows with fellow paddlers, and rub fingers on and shop for the latest goods in paddlesports. As well as giving Wisconsinites and others a glimpse of the new goods, it also gives those in the industry a glimpse of how the upcoming season might fare.
According to all reports, this year’s first barometer is flying high.
“I was receiving text messages from other paddlesports retailers all weekend,” says Darren Bush, owner of Rutabaga. “They wanted to know not just how much was selling, but who was selling what.”
The good news, he says, is that attendance was well above 22,000, about a 3% increase over the average of the previous two years. “There were times the fire marshal was nervous,” says Bush. “We definitely pushed the capacity of the exhibition hall.” The speaker rooms were full too, with over 38,000 speaker seats filled. “The speakers are definitely an integral component of what makes Canoecopia an event, not just a sale,” he adds.
The sales were on par with expectations. “We didn’t expect a large increase due to the economy, but we didn’t expect a huge decline either,” says Bush. “We were basically on par with last year’s sales numbers, with some variations in the product mix.” Lower-end canoes and kayaks didn’t move much according to Bush, and that customers seemed willing to spend a little more to get more value. “No one mentioned price, but a lot of people did mention they had been thinking about this purchase for a few years and felt that this was the time.”
Accessory sales were also strong. “Perhaps some of our customers were making their dollars stretch a little by purchasing better accessories to use with their existing canoes or kayaks,” says Bush. “Kokatat sold way more dry suits than last year, and Werner Paddles were selling out of carbon paddles by Saturday afternoon.” This trend stretched across the board as boat sales dipped slightly and accessory sales made up for the deficit and then some.
“At Werner we look to early season sales in Florida and consumer events hosted by Mountain Man, Rutabaga, Jersey Paddler and Kittery Trading Post as key indicators for the upcoming season,” says Werner’s Jim Miller. “If the 2009 early season trend holds true, consumers are out there ready to spend. Both our traffic and dollars were up at this year’s Canoecopia.”
The highlight of the presentations was the Second Annual Aluminum Chef, a takeoff of the popular television series Iron Chef, where three chefs compete in a timed competition to cook meals using only the ingredients available to them. The Aluminum Chef allows the three cooks/chefs to use only camp cooking equipment, donated by Mountain Safety Research (MSR). “We had two experienced outdoor cooks who were accustomed to using this equipment, and one local executive chef who hadn’t cooked with camp stoves or cook kits, but being a good sport, threw himself into the mix,” says Bush. “He was great, and it was standing room only in a room that seated over 450 people.”
All in all, it’s good news for paddlesports, especially specialty dealers who pay attention to their product mix and steer clear of the basement prices found in chain stores. Bush adds that low-end boats sold here and there, mostly in pairs or trios to families, but overall the price point of the hot boats migrated up. “I think customers realize that the difference between a $399-dollar kayak and an $899-dollar kayak is a significant upgrade in quality, comfort, and weight.”
Does this early success mean a season of smooth-sailing and business-as-usual for specialty paddlesports? Hardly, says Bush.
“We might be recession-resistant, but we’re certainly not recession-proof, and neither are our manufacturers,” he says. “The recent Old Town debacle in the northeast shows that there is excess product and capacity out there. Big box stores are over-inventoried and they will continue to dump product at low margins to generate cash flow as their sales decline. There will be no shortage of canoes or kayaks out there, and if we don’t find a way to distinguish ourselves from the Pez dispensers, we’ll be forced to deal with big boxes on their terms via a price war, where everyone loses.
“On the other hand,” he adds, “if we add value as we should and stick to our values as specialty dealers, we should have no problem weathering this recession, and we should come out on the backside even stronger.”
What manufacturers had to say:
“We were very pleased. Overall, Canoecopia was a really good show for us. We were busy the whole time and we sold more dry suits this year over last year.”
–Michael Duffy, Director of Sales and Marketing for Kokatat
“There was a lot of activity around the Easky 13’ and 15’ touring boats and the Fusion our new hybrid river running/touring boat. It was a really good show, I am feeling solid going into the season.”
— Jim Hagar, Sales Director of P&H
“Perhaps it is the mid-west, but people really responded to the fact that Werner Paddles are manufactured in the US and that we are giving back by partnering with non-profits through our Healthy Waters initiative. We did not have any problem moving people up from our recreational product to our Premium and Performance Core lines.”
– Jim Miller, Marketing Manager, Werner Paddles