It’s not just snowshoe and backcountry brands that are having a good season. We talked to Mike West and Jono Zacharias about adjustments 686 made after the pandemic struck, how sell through is going this snow season, and how pre-book orders for next season are shaping up.
By Tiffany Montgomery | Published February 1, 2021
It’s not just snowshoe and backcountry brands that are having a good season. Some outerwear brands are also benefitting from the surge in people heading outdoors.
We talked to 686 Founder Mike West and SVP of Sales Jono Zacharias about adjustments the company made after the pandemic struck, how sell through is going this snow season, and how prebook orders for next season are shaping up.
When the pandemic first hit, one of the first things the company did was ramp up communication with its sales force and retailers. Every two weeks, Jono met with sales reps to go over new talking points to discuss with wholesale accounts.
The overarching goal was to communicate the company’s go forward plan, listen to retailers’ plans, discuss how they thought the season would play out, and keep orders stable.
Luckily, they were able to keep most of their wholesale orders intact.
“I talked a lot of retailers, a lot of reps, and a lot of friends off the ledge,” Jono said.
The production team was able to get product into the market on time, which helped the brand take advantage of strong demand.
“Even though the snow was spotty, it did hit at the right time,” Jono said. “Plus, the consumer has a lot of disposable income right now. They aren’t taking big vacations, they aren’t putting gas in their car, they aren’t going to Starbucks every day.”
From what they are hearing from retailers and judging by the strong at once business they are seeing, sell through is going well. 686 also believes it is benefitting from competitors in the larger outerwear and snow apparel market cutting production orders when the pandemic first hit and are now low on inventory. Other companies had supply chain issues and couldn’t get product to market on time.
“We definitely saw some of our sell through assisted by other brands’ execution this year,” Jono said.
In addition to its dominant category of outerwear, 686 is seeing unusually high demand in areas such as gloves and mid-layer as retailers scramble for more inventory.
While NPD has reported some grim outerwear numbers for the snow industry, 686 executives believes some of those industry declines may be due to a lack of inventory in the market.
“A lot of our larger retail customers who do a good job tracking numbers believe they could have easily beat comps over last year but don’t have the inventory to do it,” Jono said.
All of those factors – communication with retailers, internal execution, lack of inventory in the market, a surge in people embracing the outdoors, a rise in disposable income for some – has helped 686 weather the pandemic storm.
The company revised its outlook when the pandemic first hit – they created a worst case scenario and a best case scenario, and for the most part, the numbers have turned out better than the best case.
Pre-books for next season are also going well.
“It’s still early, but we are receiving more early pre-books than ever before,” Mike said.
“Thirty days ago we did our final forecast for next year, and we did not expect what was going to happen in the next 30 days and how much consumerism would happen,” Jono said.
Some of the prebook numbers are so strong, Mike said, he occasionally asks Jono, “Are these numbers real?”
While the company has logged strong double digit revenue growth the last four years, Mike stressed the company’s overriding goal is always to keep the bottom line healthy.
“That’s what matters,” Mike said. “And it’s about, do we have good relationships with retailers? With employees? With customers?”
Of course, there are still rough spots in the business, particularly the international business. 686 has pulled out of some countries that weren’t profitable, and Europe has been particularly challenged this season because of resort closures and strict lockdowns. However, the Asia business is holding up better than expected considering the environment.
The biggest question in Jono’s mind has been: are the strong sales they are seeing pull forward sales or will the snow and outdoor industry maintain momentum for a few years going forward?
“A lot of the retailers I talk to, especially the healthy ones, think it’s going to be sustained,” he said. “So many people are getting outdoors who are first timers, and then others who weren’t able to go this year are going to want to do a snow trip as soon as they can.”
While business is turning out better than expected, both Mike and Jono know anything can happen at any time and are still being cautious.
“It’s still a long road ahead, who knows what might happen next?” Jono said.
The past year has definitely been a wild ride in terms of managing sales – increasing communication with retailers and reps, working to keep orders as intact as possible, getting retailers and reps used to viewing lines digitally, managing at once orders and pre-books in such an unusual season.
“I definitely think I got my doctorate in sales this year,” Jono said.
Jono sang the whole company’s praises for working together through the challenges and was especially thankful with how quickly marketing provided lots of digital assets for both retailers and reps to help drive sell through this season and sell-in for next season.
“Marketing backed the sales force hard,” Jono said. “Really our whole company rose to the challenge – from the person answering the phone to every single department.”
The company, which received a PPP loan, was one of the few who did not furlough or layoff any employees during the crisis, which helped with the execution.
“We didn’t furlough, we didn’t do layoffs, we didn’t cancel a lot of orders,” Mike said. “We knew the pitfalls of doing those things. You can end up strangling yourself.”
Overall, considering how some sectors of the economy are really struggling right now, the 686 team feels thankful to be operating in this industry.
“We are all blessed that we work in the snow and outdoor industry because this is the sweet spot of the sporting goods business outside of fitness,” Jono said.
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