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Outdoor retailers have to keep an eye on economic weather

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 20 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

South Salt Lake-based Kuru Footwear will be displaying its shoes at show. Photo provided by Kuru Footware

Kuru Footware

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The troubled economy will be on the minds of thousands of store owners, manufacturers and service providers of outdoor recreation equipment who are travelling to Salt Lake City for the 2009 Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, which runs Thursday through Sunday.

The square footage of exhibitor space sold for the event at the Salt Palace Convention Center is about the same as last year, just under 333,000 square feet. Historically, about 19,000 people have traveled to Utah for the event, said Frank Hugelmeyer, president and CEO of the Outdoor Industry Association, which represents most of the exhibitors. The attendance for this year's event won't be known until after this weekend. Members of the general public cannot attend.

Sales of outdoor recreation equipment slowed towards the end of 2008. During the first three quarters of last year, sales of outdoor recreation equipment increased 9 percent. But during the fourth quarter, during the all-important holiday season, preliminary figures suggest sales only increased an extra 1 percent.

Hugelmeyer advises members of the trade association to refocus on the basics of good business: Closely examine all costs, foster more Web site sales and reconsider specialization. "Don't just focus on skiing," he said. "When somebody is active in the outdoors, they are active in a wide variety of activities. Eight out of 10 people who participate in an outdoor sport want to try another one."

The industry hasn't been hurt as severely as other retailers, Hugelmeyer said, because hiking and camping are much cheaper than a family trip to Disneyland. Last summer, Americans were introduced to the concept of the "staycation," the idea that small, cheap trips close to home may be more ideal than expensive and elaborate family vacations. And the latest Outdoor Recreation Participation Report, released by the Outdoor Foundation, which looked at outdoor activities in 2006 and 2007, suggests that cheaper activities are on the rise for Americans age 6 and older, with hiking, kayaking and bird-watching on the rise.

"We are seeing the public wanting to get away from the stressful environments of their everyday life and the economic news," Hugelmeyer said. "They need the mental and physical well-being, the ability to still have fun and recreate. And the outdoors is a great solution for that."

If that proves to be true, it will be good news for Bret Rasmussen, president of South Salt Lake-based Kuru Footwear, who will be displaying his shoes at the Outdoor Retailers market this week. The lifestyle shoes were launched in stores in October, after the economy took a nosedive. But investors were on board, orders have been made to a factory in China and stores were expecting the Scandanavian-inspired shoes. "We were committed by then, there wasn't an option to not launch at that point anymore," he said.

Rasmussen is focusing on factors he can control, such as marketing his shoes' orthopedic advantages. The shoes have patent-pending layers of support for the arches. They are currently available online at www.kurufootwear.com for between $89.95 and $115.

"In today's economy, customers are looking for a high-value product," Rasmussen said. "It's not so much about the name brand, but what kind of bang for my buck I'm getting."

E-mail: lhancock@desnews.com

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