The sports industry is hoping that a summer recreation boom carries into the colder months and leads to blockbuster sales, while avoiding rampant product shortages of the early pandemic.
Executives have ample reason to expect a repeat performance. Coronavirus cases are back on the rise, indoor activities are heavily restricted and cross-border travel is largely off the table. Moreover, thousands of snowbirds are grounded this winter, adding to potential customers.
In anticipation, some retailers are trying to ramp up their orders of snowshoes, cross-country skis and skates, and manufacturers are planning to raise production if inventory sells out. That’s a distinct possibility: Already, many stores are reporting higher-than-normal sales of winter gear.
“I think because of what people experienced in the spring – that there was some shortage of things, especially bikes – people are getting out and shopping early for their winter sports needs,” said Brad Hause, president of Source For Sports, which has more than 150 locations across Canada. Consumers are trying “to make sure they get what they want.”
To date, outdoor activities – and the multibillion-dollar industries connected to them – have capitalized on the intricacies of COVID-19 and public-health protocols. The need for physical distancing, combined with fewer spending options for consumers, inspired Canadians to flee to the outdoors this summer and purchase all the bicycles, canoes and tents they could get their hands on.
Sporting goods, book and hobby stores sold about $1.1-billion of merchandise in July, an increase of 11.4 per cent from a year earlier, according to Statistics Canada. For the retail industry as a whole, sales were up 2.7 per cent over the same time frame.
“It was quite dramatic,” said Mr. Hause. “I literally mean it’s been 20 years since we’ve seen that kind of sales levels.”
For Valcourt, Que.-based BRP Inc., the summer brought a flood of sales for its Sea-Doo watercraft, sending inventory to record lows. Forty-one per cent of its customers in the second quarter, ending July 31, were new to power sports; it’s typically one-third of that.
“It was a roller coaster,” chief executive José Boisjoli said. “We were surprised by how fast the rebound at retail happened.”
BRP is now heading into crucial months for snowmobile sales. Roughly 70 per cent of its Ski-Doos are sold between November and January. Mr. Boisjoli is optimistic: “We believe what happened in summer products a few months ago will happen with snowmobiles.”
To that end, the company is prepared to extend its production schedule into January to boost output, if needed.
“We are, right now, more agile than ever before,” Mr. Boisjoli said. “All the momentum we had pre-COVID, it’s even stronger post-COVID, because we had that surge of new customers that we never dreamed of” before the crisis.
In the ski industry, equipment orders for the coming season were made in March, just as the health crisis hit. Despite factory shutdowns this year in Europe, where much of the industry is located, those orders are being fulfilled – even if there are some delays in shipping.
“The Northern Atlantic [Ocean] is probably looking like the 401 highway [in Toronto] on a Friday night,” said Mario Guertin, territory manager in Ontario for France-based Skis Rossignol SA.
In speaking with retailers, Mr. Guertin said sales are “way over last year” for both Nordic and alpine skis. If necessary, stores can order more equipment, but “that’s going to be a bit more of a challenge” to fulfill, he said. It’s too early to say if the industry will see widespread product shortages, he added, and the focus is on supplying long-standing customers.
“I’ve had to turn down a major retailer” that wanted cross-country skis, Mr. Guertin said.
The travel industry has been slammed by the coronavirus, with hotel occupancy down sharply. But outside city centres, activity is often robust – and ski resorts expect the same.
Vail Resorts Inc., which owns Whistler Blackcomb, said that season-pass sales through Sept. 18 were up 18 per cent in units, relative to last year. In dollars, however, sales were down 4 per cent – the result of redeemed credits from the previous ski season being cut short by the virus.
“We do expect stronger visitation from local and drive-through guests this season than guests who traditionally fly to our resorts,” said chief financial officer Michael Barkin on a recent earnings call. He noted that cross-border travel restrictions will have a “particularly challenging impact” at Whistler, where about half the visitors come from outside Canada.
Resorts of the Canadian Rockies Inc., which owns six ski resorts, largely in Western Canada, are “getting close” to sold out for lodging at Christmas and provincial 2021 Family Day holidays, senior vice-president Matt Mosteller said. That’s ahead of schedule.
In addition, bookings are higher than usual for midweek and January accommodations, which Mr. Mosteller credits in part to flexible remote work arrangements.
On the downside, ski resorts are finding that other sources of revenue – such as stores, dining and spas – will be curtailed by health protocols. “The other ancillary revenues do take a hit, there’s no doubt about it,” Mr. Mosteller said.
Two hours north of Toronto, the town of Collingwood has had a flock of visitors and home buyers during the pandemic. That’s helped move product at Squire John’s, a bike and ski store, which was quick to sell out of bicycles and patio furniture this summer. As the focus turns to skis and snowboards, president and partner John Murray says he hopes sales keep humming.
The population influx has “certainly put a lot of strain on local businesses,” he said. “But if you want to make some money and you’re up for it, it’s going to come.”
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