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Boats in January, skis in July: effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the outdoor retail industry

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In March 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic had essentially shut our province down. We had closed our doors and laid off most of our staff and nobody knew what to expect. Just over a year since then it's been a rollercoaster ride for our store navigating product demand, supply issues, staffing, and planning for the future.

As a small ski and paddle shop we were one of the lucky businesses in this pandemic. Individual outdoor activities boomed as programs and venues shut down and to top it off we got the best snow we've had in years. There was unprecedented demand for cross country skis and snowshoes which had us scrambling to keep up since the end of August.

lineup of skis to be serviced at Eb's

Because many people were aware of product shortages they started buying earlier. We've seen this continue through to spring and sold two thirds of the canoes and kayaks we booked for the season before the ice was off the river. The buying cycle has shifted 4-6 months forward and we are placing orders almost a year and a half in advance now as we try to get in the queue to guarantee product.

This shift has also affected staffing. We normally have a slower period in October when a lot of "housekeeping" gets done but this was unexpectedly one of our busiest times this year and we were therefore short on staff. 

For many consumers there are more funds available than usual with fewer travel opportunities and more program cancellations. Organizations such as schools and clubs are looking for ways to get their members active and involved and many have an opportunity to upgrade their equipment, creating increasing demand for large orders that need to be coordinated with our suppliers. 

office staff working at Eb's

Things have been affected all the way back through the supply chains. Items manufactured with many components (such as bicycles) are most susceptible to delays. It was frustrating this past winter to be flush with boots and bindings but no skis - or vice versa - as we tried to coordinate the building of ski packages for our customers.

Some factories have endured temporary shut-downs and/or reduced worker capacity which has delayed production, and shipping remains a big issue. Most of the larger carrier companies retracted their timeline guarantees and due to many factors some products are hugely delayed. Items such as kayaks manufactured in Canada ship more quickly than similar ones made overseas, many of which are currently experiencing delays of 60 days or more. Some of the products we purchase from overseas have components made in Canada which means a lot of travel back and forth. The farther something has to go, the more it is potentially affected by delays. 

Raw materials have gone up in price and there are some shortages. Fiberglass cloth is one material that is getting more difficult to source. Used for everything from boats to hot tubs this will have far-reaching ramifications, the least of which being higher prices on the floor.

Many small retailers had to reduce staff numbers when the pandemic hit. We were lucky to have a dedicated buyer which was essential to our ability to acquire product this year, some of which was only up for purchase a few hours before being snapped up. A large number of our cross country ski packages were acquired this way and without our buyer watching for these opportunities  they would have been lost to us. Luckily this meant more customers on skis!

Speaking of our customers, many told us getting outside to ski or snowshoe was what helped them most through the pandemic restrictions. It was good for physical and mental health and enabled people to socialize in a safer way. Even as things move more towards "normal" we anticipate outdoor activities to remain important to people and demand to be high. 

It is very difficult in these times to predict and plan for the future. What will the pandemic climate be like a year from now?  Two years? Our business decisions are based on data trends but as these have gone through the window we can only gamble.

These effects will be felt for years. So let's continue to plan ahead, stay safe, and keep getting out there in the great outdoors. 

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