Swirling high water on the New River in Fayetteville, West Virginia got me pumped for the summer paddling season. Though heavy concentrations of silt churned the rapids a shade of brown like chocolate milk, a daytrip on a dozen miles of fast whitewater was all it took and I was hooked. I just wanted to paddle! My own enthusiasm for the sport was mirrored by an up-tick in sales of paddling equipment and accessories at the local shop in town Ace Adventure Gear.
“We’re up remarkably from last year,” said assistant manager Brad Scott. “Some of it might be the economic downturn coming around. People might just want to recreate at something that doesn’t cost so much. It might even be because of the oil spill and people don’t want to go to the coast. Mainly I think it’s people who want to come in to learn a new sport.”
Much of the energy around paddle sports retailers say is in the recreation category. Flat-water boats, sit-on-top kayaks, stand-up paddle boards and multiple-use boats, flat water/whitewater crossovers, seem to be leading the charge. Consumers are gravitating toward products that offer as many options as possible to spend more time on the water so they can paddle. And for 2011 specialty shop buyers will likely keep an eye out for more of the same at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market.
Jackson Kayak is introducing a re-vamped “more esthetically pleasing” version of last season’s All-Water now called the Rogue. A whitewater/touring hybrid the 9 and 10-foot kayak blends both the rolling and maneuverability characteristics of a river boat with the stability and tracking ability of a lake boat. A retractable skeg and waterproof gear storage make the Rogue a good choice for paddlers in transition. MSRP: $899.
The Traverse from Emotion Kayaks is a stand up paddle board with a lot of options for multiple-use. Shorter than most at 9’10” at a low price point (MSRP: $399), it offers a few unusual options for paddling flat water as well as surfing small waves. An upturned nose rocker and a deep recess for feet with high sidewalls give this board more of a boat profile. A large cam hatch makes a bit of room to store gear as well as a water bottle. The removable fin allows for easy storage or for paddling without.
But not everyone is riding the popularity wave of paddle sports. Bubba Sloan, owner of High Country Outfitters in Atlanta says low cost options in all boat categories come with equally thin margins.
“It’s tough to make a living on products where people are looking for the least expensive thing they can find,” Sloan said. “The cheapest ones sell first and maybe they’ll come back for something more specialized.”
Fortunately many specialty products give customers more choices in how they use them. Boats and boards in particular that crossover for multiple uses will likely offer a bit more value to consumers only just beginning to loosen their purse strings.
Bringing together the best of open deck and touring kayaks Necky introduces the Vector 13. A sit-on-top, this boat (MSRP $899) offers attributes of a surf ski with the added benefit of a stable, highly maneuverable design. A waterline longer than most kayaks of its type allows for a smooth glide and good tracking. But a handy rudder system offers added control in rough conditions. Both dry and mesh storage options make the Vector 13 suitable for single day use and overnight touring.
Stand-up paddleboards from C-4 Waterman are making their way onto mountain streams. The new inflatable 12-6 iSUP (MSRP $1500) is designed as a race/touring model, suited for both fast whitewater and paddling long distances on flat water. Now with gear rings this longer board will transport dry bags or a cargo box. Like a blow-up river raft, boards in the iSUP family bounce of rocks with ease. Made of incredibly durable materials they’ll maintain air pressure and rigidity with fail.
Growing in demand SUP will continue to be a popular choice among consumers. Easy to transport and simple to use, stand-up paddleboards are a good introductory product to get new customers into paddle sports or to entice existing enthusiasts into their next purchase. With universal appeal SUP boards can be sold wherever people want to paddle from mountain regions with fast running streams, to the Great Lakes with vast tracts of open flat water, to the coastal areas of the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. As sales in this category continue paddle sports remain front of mind. And this trend that has yet to peak will allow the market as a whole to finally stabilize from the ill effects of the recent recession.
“We’re back to where we’re supposed to be,” said Darren Bush owner of Rutabaga in Madison, Wisconsin. “Right now we’re close to where we were in 2007. We won’t see the huge growth we had back in the 90’s. That was pretty unsustainable. But now things are pretty stable.”
Business as usual means providing customers with products they can use to facilitate their time on the water. New introductions for 2011 will likely be limited to those items that meet current demand. In paddle sports as well as in other outdoor categories new products will be getting back to the basics rather than revealing innovative advances in technology. Even clothing and accessories will keep a relatively low profile while providing consumers with features and benefits that satisfy clearly defined needs.
New paddling footwear from KEEN offers protection and comfort with the advent of the Gorge Boot (MRSP $70). With solid construction the neoprene upper features an Aegis microbe shield treated lining to prevent the infection of mold and mildew. A multi-point adjustable strap system secures the boot snugly with a wide toe box and an EVA molded footbed for a cozy fit. A wrap-around outsole sporting multi-directional lugs provides great traction on slippery surfaces.
Kokatat offers a cool new functional fashion option in the Trinity Shorty Dry Top. With a broad comfort range this limited edition short-sleeve waterproof-breathable paddling pullover features an Evolution 3.21 nylon 3-layer Gore-Tex body. Superstretch neoprene combines with latex neck and bicep gaskets for self-draining cuffs and collar. And a dual adjustable neoprene outer waistband seals up nicely with the spray skirt to keep water from getting inside the boat.(MSRP TBA)
Typically a maker of insulation systems for skiing Klymit breaks into paddle sports this season with the Kinetic Amphibian vest (MSRP $199). Worn under a paddle jacket and PDF this lightweight garment adds warmth and wind resistance with baffles charged with compressed argon gas. Waterproof and less bulky than other insulating fabrics Klymit NobleTek inflates in seconds and retains its loft for weeks at a time.
On the whole the paddle sports business continues to regain strength. As the economy slowly recovers retailers find that they are impacted less by market forces and more by changes in the weather and varying heights of water levels around the country. “We’re up from last year, but up and down through the season so far,” said Jon Kahn of Confluence Kayaks in Denver. “We had a great April. But in May there was cold weather on the weekends. Boats were flat, but we we’re solid in accessories. People seem to want to spend money.”
Adding value to each purchase will likely prompt more spending. Those products that can be used for both whitewater and flat, recreational day use and overnight touring could make the difference in the minds of many consumers. Innovative breakthroughs in technology may not be the answer in 2011. Instead look for those products that simple make customers want to paddle.
This story originally appeared in the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market new product preview issue of Sporting Goods Business Magazine
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